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.)

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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.