Moneyball, the long-delayed film adaptation of Michael Lewis's book about Paul DePodesta's TI-89 and Jeremy Brown's love handles, hits theaters next week. It's a big thing for baseball folks, because Moneyball helped bring a statistically inclined subculture to the mainstream. You'll notice this in writing—Bill James and Baseball Prospectus got big—and in front offices, where the Red Sox, Dodgers, and Blue Jays adopted versions of Oakland's strategies.
But ESPN's Keith Law, who rode the stats wave from Baseball Prospectus to a front-office job with the Blue Jays, wrote Wednesday that the movie sucks, after he saw a preview screening. (Craggs, who has also seen it, said it wasn't nearly as bad as he expected, although he reassured us that Jonah Hill sucked.) And the ensuing debate, over why the film sucks, reignites the debate over Moneyball. Except the debate's changed.
Here's an excerpt of what Law wrote:
The baseball stuff is not good. For starters, the lampooning of scouts, which draws from the book, isn't any more welcome on screen (where some of the scouts are played by actual scouts) than it was on the page; they are set up as dim-witted bowling pins for Beane and Brand to knock down with their spreadsheets. It's cheap writing, and unfair to the real people being depicted. Current Oakland scouting director Eric Kubota also gets murdered in a drive-by line that depicts him as a clueless intern given the head scouting role after Beane fires Grady Fuson in April after a clubhouse argument (that never really happened).
Then there's current Mets vice president Paul DePodesta's objection to the film, chronicled in today's Wall Street Journal:
Unlike Beane, the longtime Oakland general manager who is played by Brad Pitt, DePodesta isn't named in the movie. His character, played by Jonah Hill, was given the fictional name of Peter Brand-at DePodesta's request.
"I just could never get comfortable with the idea of somebody else portraying me to the rest of the world," DePodesta said. "It's very unnerving, and it was something that wasn't going to go away. That was always in my mind."
What makes DePodesta uncomfortable is the idea of being typecast as a laptop-toting, Ivy League nerd who eschews traditional scouting and relies only on statistics in making decisions.
These two objections sound awfully similar. (Law later went further and said Lewis made some stuff up about him.) And they're important to examine for a couple of reasons. Law and DePodesta are both successful baseball men, and they're both smart. So we should take what they say about the sport seriously. But more importantly, both are popularly associated with the rise of statistical analysis in baseball—Law as an O.G. at Baseball Prospectus, and DePodesta as an O.G. of trading away Paul Lo Duca—and both say Lewis unfairly reduces scouts to a punchline.
So Lewis responded to Law on Moviefone:
I don't understand why he goes from being — when I interviewed Keith Law, and I did, at length — he was so nasty about scouts and scouting culture and the stupidity of baseball insiders. He was the reductio ad absurdum of the person who was the smarty pants who had been brought into the game and was smarter than everybody else. He alienated people.
Law explains, as transcribed by Drunk Jays Fans (and, really, you should read the entirety of what he said there, especially if you don't like JP Ricciardi):
One of the reasons I left [Toronto] in 2006 was the recognition that this approach—this so-called "new school" or "Moneyball" approach—was not going to work. Was never going to work. And they ended up scrapping it after I left.
But while I was there I worked with many scouts—some of whom have gone on to success with other clubs, many of whom are friends of mine now, and I have to say, many of whom tried to open my mind in 2002, 2003, when I was not open-minded, when I was 28, 29, and walked in the door and was told, "You're here, you're gonna replace ten scouts with the work you do." And I believed it, which was a terrible mistake on my part.
This is the salient reflection on Moneyball, eight years later, even though it's not really about the book. Moneyball, because of Lewis's characters' charisma and force, convinced readers that scouts were a scourge, and that a revolution was on the horizon. (That crackling charisma is why Moneyball, and not, say, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, became a movie with Brad Pitt as its lead.) Lewis took a struggle within a few MLB front offices and amped up the contrast, then his readers blew that battle up to one thousand times its original resolution. It went from an argument about emphasis between factions of moderates to a battle between Joe Morgan and the Fangraphs writing staff. That's how Moneyball shaped a generation of popular baseball scholarship, even though its immediate approach—drafting college players with great stats—proved, as Law explains, too costly for implementation in Toronto and other markets once it became popular, and even though its broader approach—chasing undervalued assets—should be fairly obvious to any executive at a successful corporation.
Moneyball isn't dead, no, but it became distorted and washed out and extruded at several points along the line (some pre-publication, and some during production of the movie), to the point where the book signified much more than it actually said. (And Law and DePodesta maintain it said more than was true.)
If you want to understand how baseball works, it matters that two early sabermetric soldiers in MLB front offices say that the Moneyball infotainment complex should rein it in. The question is not whether Moneyball is right or wrong. As the Athletics' record could tell you, it's neither.
Do the Great Minds that "Moneyball" Is About Hate the Movie "Moneyball"? [Yahoo Projector]
Layin' Down The Law: Keith Law on Scouts, Ricciardi and his Departure [Drunk Jays Fans]
Moneyball. [Keith Law]
The Man Not Named in 'Moneyball' [WSJ]