Moneyball movie: The numbers are good, but the story is still bunk.

The stadium scene.
Sept. 21 2011 1:01 PM

More Moneyball, Same Problems

The numbers are good, but the story is still bunk.

(Continued from Page 1)

None of this invalidates Lewis' fundamental arguments about rational methods and market inefficiency. Nor does it change the fact that all major league teams now rely to varying degrees on the sort of analysis championed in Moneyball. Some of them, as the movie points out in its last act, have combined those principles with big bucks to build perennial contenders. (The movie ends with Billy Beane choosing not to join the Boston Red Sox. A title card reveals that the Sox won the World Series two years later using Oakland's principles.)

But the book's elisions do help explain why Moneyball continues to be "misunderstood." Sure, some of its critics simply haven't read it. But others can see the exaggerations and omissions in Lewis' careful crafting of a Little Engine That Could storyline. Lewis did some terrific reporting for the book and gathered great material about how, as he says, "an unscientific culture responds, or fails to respond, to the scientific method." Then he decided to present that reporting in the gripping tale of a triumphant underdog. But the triumph of this particular underdog had less to do with the scientific method than with such unremarkable things as luck, patience, and good scouting. (Beane himself has apparently granted as much.)

Advertisement

One could even argue that Lewis, having fallen in love with one story, missed a second, possibly more interesting one, in which the Little Engine That Could grows wings and flies too close to the sun (or something). Having grabbed the reins of his team, Beane mostly ignored his scouts in the 2002 draft and took a bunch of hitters based on their numbers alone. Moneyball ends with a short, dramatic chapter about Beane's most outlandish pick from that year, a short, overweight catcher named Jeremy Brown. The book's final image is Jeremy Brown hitting a home run. In the years after Moneyball was published, Brown got a few disappointing cups of coffee in the majors, then retired in 2008. At least he made the majors: Of the seven other hitters in that draft who, according to Beane's righthand man Paul DePodesta (renamed Peter Brand, he's played by Jonah Hill in the movie) shared "certain qualities" with Brown, six never have. The other (John Baker) is a serviceable, 30-year-old catcher for the Florida Marlins. (Of course, the draft is always a bit of a crapshoot.)

Jeremy Brown's home run appears at the end of Hollywood's version, too. Hudson, Zito, and Mulder, on the other hand, make no significant appearances—and though Chavez and Tejada do (unlike the three aces) show up on the IMDB page, they barely register as characters. Scott Hatteberg, on the other hand, is played by Chris Pratt, from Parks and Recreation. Mrs. Hatteberg is played by Tammy Blanchard.

If the movie fails to win over the remaining skeptics, I won't be surprised. Statistically minded sports fans like to point out that the sports world's great narratives are almost always a bit dubious. There's a battle between clear-eyed observation and narrative cliché in sportswriting, and Moneyball has a foot in both camps. It provides ammunition for the former side with its intelligent insights about how rational outsiders can sometimes see things more clearly than well-trained insiders. As a gripping read, however, the book largely operates according to the other side's rules. It's no wonder, then, that sports fans who prefer narratives to numbers can see that Moneyball got its overarching storyline—how did Oakland succeed where many teams failed?—wrong. That, I suspect, is why many of them still don't see that it got an even bigger story—the steady rise of smart statistical analysis—right.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Cheez-Its. Ritz. Triscuits.

Why all cracker names sound alike.

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

The Afghan Town With a Legitimately Good Tourism Pitch

A Futurama Writer on How the Vietnam War Shaped the Series

  News & Politics
Photography
Sept. 21 2014 11:34 PM People’s Climate March in Photos Hundreds of thousands of marchers took to the streets of NYC in the largest climate rally in history.
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 21 2014 1:15 PM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 5  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Time Heist."
  Arts
Television
Sept. 21 2014 9:00 PM Attractive People Being Funny While Doing Amusing and Sometimes Romantic Things Don’t dismiss it. Friends was a truly great show.
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 21 2014 11:38 PM “Welcome to the War of Tomorrow” How Futurama’s writers depicted asymmetrical warfare.
  Health & Science
The Good Word
Sept. 21 2014 11:44 PM Does This Name Make Me Sound High-Fat? Why it just seems so right to call a cracker “Cheez-It.”
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.