The Steroid Era in major league baseball changed the game in many ways. Majestic home runs and high powered offenses became prevalent. Power was glamorous and glorious and commonplace. Salaries skyrocketed along with the pitchers’ ERA’s. In the midst of all this run scoring, something horrible happened. Once proud, successful small markets teams were priced out of the market for the muscle bound big boppers that suddenly ruled the game. Organizations such as Kansas City, Pittsburg, Cincinnati, San Diego, Oakland, and Minnesota were on the outside looking in as the fat cats threw money at slugging free agents year after year. Teams had to change their business model to even hope to compete. Success had to be built from within each organization through the draft and be selective with the leftover free agents. There was very little room for error and teams that missed on their top picks soon became buried in the standings.
The movie Moneyball is really the story of Billy Beane, a former first round draft pick of the New York Mets. More so than the book by the same name, the film tells the story of Beane’s struggle to think outside of the box. As the general manager for the small market Oakland A’s, he had to watch a successful team from the 2001 playoffs be dismantled. Free agent star players from that team were plucked away by teams with deep pockets like the Yankees and Red Sox, frustrating Beane to no end. A chance meeting with a Yale graduate named Peter Brand led Beane and the A’s to embrace a form of player evaluation based on mathematics and algebraic formulas rather the excepted commonplace evaluations used for decades.
The movie follows Beane’s travails trying to convince his own scouting and coaching staffs of the relevance and possibilities of trying something new, as well as following Beane’s own career through flashbacks. Beane and Brand searched for players who had the skill set of getting on base but for whatever reason were undervalued by the market. The film chronicles the 2002 season for the A’s as the team struggles to produce the results Beane and Brand expect and what happens when those expectations finally came to fruition. The book devotes a great deal of space to the drafting process and philosophies and that part is completely ignored in the movie.
Moneyball is not just a film for baseball lovers and stat nerds, although it probably helps. The movie is dramatic and exciting and does a good job at explaining the process for non baseball fans. Brad Pitt portrays Beane with just the right amount of charisma and quirkiness. Jonah Hill is Brand and seems woefully uncomfortable through most of the movie. Philip Seymour Hoffman is pretty good as Manager Art Howe, who according to the movie, fights Beane tooth and nail on Beane’s new vision but accepts the accolades when success is attained.
The fact is Moneyball the book, and the success of the 2002 A’s had a huge impact on baseball, especially now, as baseball recovers from the Steroid Era. Not only have small market teams embraced sabermetrics (the term for the algebraic application to baseball) but big market teams have as well. If you have every watched and game between the Yankees and Red Sox, you will know how long and drawn out each contest can become. One of the philosophies of sabermetrics is to work pitch counts and get on base as often as possible, really embracing base on balls. This has caused games to drag on at times. Some teams have been slow to embrace the new method. The Kansas City Royals for instance, a very cash poor team, was very slow to embrace sabermetrics. Other teams, such as the Twins, Yankees, and Red Sox have all had a lot of success. In the case of the Yankees and Red Sox, money and sabermetrics have lead to championships. Now, all teams pay attention to the mathematics of baseball and not just the raw results. As the power and glamour of the Steroid Era fades and statistics return to the levels known before the game was ruled by cheaters, sabermetrics is now becoming more and more accepted throughout the game and once again the small market teams are forced to look for success outside of the box again. That is for another day.
Moneyball is a baseball movie but I don’t believe you have to be a baseball fan to enjoy it. It’s a good story and it plays out well on the big screen. Pitt and Hoffman give good performances and director Bennett Miller seemed intent on not bogging the movie down with the math itself or on discussing the draft process, which would bore non baseball fans. If you are a fan of sports movies or films high on drama, give Moneyball a chance.
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