a review on moneyball

A redesigned poster for the movie

A CINDERELLA STORY

All of us grew up loving fairy tales. My favorite is that of Cinderella — the protagonist having a terrible start, whose fortunes change after meeting the Fairy Godmother. Michael Lewis’ 2003 book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game and Bennett Miller’s 2011 Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, talks about the same. It chronicles the underdog story of Oakland Athletics’ GM Billy Beane and his 2002 American League team.

The A’s ended their previous campaign with a devastating loss against the Yankees. Billy tries to reinvent his team, but is cash-strapped and trapped between the aging scouts and the orthodox coach, Art Howe. On his scouting tour, he meets Peter Brand (a fictional representation of Paul DePodesta), a Yale graduate in Economics and a baseball enthusiast. He falls head over heels for Peter’s cost-effective approach of using numbers to identify the talents. The duo tries their best to convert theory into action, facing opposition from the staunch critics of conventional knowledge. At first, we think that the plan is sure to be doomed. But it is the opposite that happens — Athletics’ went on to have a 20-match winning streak in that season and Billy Beane was just a sip away (as referenced in one of the last scenes) from being the highest-paid GM in the world (though he turned down the offer from Red Sox).

Billy Beane and Peter Brand threw 200+ years of collective wisdom and expertise of scouts out of the window in favor of spreadsheets and formulas — thereby changing Baseball’s history forever. How did they do it? The answer is: Sabermetrics

LightSABR

Sabermetrics is a statistical-economical-scientific analytics used in Baseball created by Bill James. It gets its name from Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). They use On-Base Percentages (OBP), Slugging Percentages, instead of Batting Averages and runs or hits scored.

These measurements allow the management to choose the team, after considering various variables and turning the game in their favor.

Peter Brand believed that the true potential of the players is hidden in numbers and not in terms of their muscles and how sexy their girlfriends look. The duo used the numbers to find undervalued and underutilized players to compete with the rich teams.

Billy chooses his lineup based on their hits and numbers associated, leading one of his officials to remark that they are the worst fielding teams in the league.

Whatever the advantages of using these measures are, these numbers never tend to look beyond the quantitative aspects of the game. Qualitative aspects like charisma, leadership qualities, ability to predict the contingencies too affect the play. Since these numbers are used to forecast the future using the past, they are, to some extent, biased.

The problem with Moneyball is that the author and the director seem obsessed with OBP — it is probably the only formula used in the movie. They also blissfully ignore the contributions made by the scouted pitchers (especially Tejada). The other changes (especially the timings of the transfers and confrontations) could be forgiven because they wanted it to be a movie and not a documentary.

Billy Beane used the numbers to create history, but it is the Boston Red Sox who used it to their advantage, as they won their first World Series in many years, with the help of the master — Bill James. Billy and Paul ended up being a small cog in this competitive world.

PICTURE ABHI BAAKI HAI, MERE DOST

The movie had witnessed a turbulent production. Budget constraints, creative differences, frequent cast and crew changes, scripting issues– a recipe for disaster. Not many to do come out from this pitt (ahem, ahem) and go to the top of the hill (ahem, ahem) — just like the OA’s did a decade back.

Bennett’s approach to the story (thanks to the firepower of Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian) is rewarding. It appeases both the hardcore baseball fans and the general audience who do not know the ABC of sports. He makes sure that his audience doesn’t get bored due to the terminologies and numbers used — a stark contrast from what would have been Steven Soderbergh’s Moneyball.

Wally Pfister, a Nolan regular and fresh off his success of Inception, does a tremendous job at capturing the visuals. My favorite instances are when Beane is driving his car — it shows us his conflicted self and the lighting keeps him in the dark (pun intended). Grey is predominantly used throughout the film, showing us the blandness of the front-office space.

Moneyball didn’t win any of the major movie awards — which is unsurprising, considering its contenders — Drive, Hugo, The Artist, Midnight In Paris and Pitt’s own Tree Of Life.

The legacy of this is that even if you Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V this approach in any walk of life (be it the stock market or medical field), you will get a quantitative and cost-effective approach to derive the best result out of the given situation. This, indeed, is the reason behind the growing acceptance of Business Analytics and Computer Applications.

Despite the early objections to Sabermetrics and statistical analysis in general, it is now the very backbone of sports. Now numbers govern sports — how much impact does one player have in the game, what are the chances that a team would win this match. Statistics (and visual storytelling) increases the fun of the game (I look forward to seeing wagon-wheel in IPL and the tables in newspapers showing Lewis Hamilton’s performance on various tracks).

One could only wonder what would have happened if Billy Beane had used sabermetrics in his own life — first when he was approached by the scouts early in his career and when he could have been the highest-paid GM in the world. One can’t help but laugh when his daughter sings Lenka’s The Show (which is an anachronism, because the song was released only in 2008, a good 6 years from the events of the movie) ♪You’re a loser, dad, you’re such a loser, dad♪ just when the screen cuts to black and reveals that he turns down the $12500000 offer!

This movie would go down in history as one of the best Sports dramas ever made, just like Lewis’ book(s) would be the finest example of how to write non-fiction.

Telling terrible stories is my superpower. Safety Not Guaranteed.