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Moneyball – a sport and a movie – 2012

Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt.  Based on the book by Michael Lewis.

Ratings – baseball fans *****,   Brad Pitt fans ****,   Wellington movie critics ***

When I was a kid growing up in small town America I played all sorts of ball games, including baseball.  I didn’t keep up with the best in high school so didn’t play much, but I discovered some then new table games which attempted to realistically capture the play of major league baseball (and other professional sports).  These were always actioned by a chance factor, usually dice or a spinner.

The baseball game worked really well and I realized after a while that baseball over a long season was more a game of averages, like those produced by rolling dice, than other pro sports like gridiron or basketball.  What makes it so?

Most at-bats result in outs, 27 for each team in a 3-4 hour game.   Each inning is measured by outs – three outs for each team/inning.   Even the best batters (30% hits) usually go out; even the weakest at that level (20% hits) sometimes avoid outs.    182 games over 6 months; the best have slumps, the worst will have their day.  It’s a matter of percentages over a long term.

And it is a matter of split seconds and fractional inches with each pitch.   Three strikes and you’re OUT; four balls and you get first base, and you’re NOT out.  The pitcher is trying to fool the batter into swinging at a bad pitch.  The batter has less than a second to judge a pitch.  He must swing at only the pitches he is likely to hit, which at the same time will increase his chances of getting a walk, thus not only getting on base, but more importantly, not going out.  It takes a special ability and personality to judge a pitch well; the best otherwise talented athletes are not necessarily the best at this.

So how does the story of Billy Bean come out of this?   Billy Bean was one of those kids who had the athleticism, the speed, the arm, the ability to hit a ball a long way which would catch the eye of major league baseball scouts.  But he didn’t have the discipline to wait for the good pitch.  As he moved up in competition this became evident, even to himself.  His temper tantrums after strike outs became legendary.  Eventually he gave up trying to become a star, but became General Manager of his team, the Oakland Athletics.  He thought he might be able to beat the money game by helping his team, which didn’t have the money that other teams like the New York Yankees had available, find players who had that discipline, but who were not able to demand the top salaries because they were under the radar, often because scouts didn’t see them as top prospects physically.

From Brad Pitt’s portrayal in the movie, Billy Bean the General Manager hadn’t changed his personality much since his playing days, but he had come to understand the importance of that split second discipline required of batters.  The premise of Moneyball, then, is that from the array of detail stats available about players as hitters, you can find players who have that discipline.  On-base percentage.  On-base+slugging.  The players who have this don’t always look like the perfect athlete, so the A’s might get them for less cash.

The book does a wonderful job of portraying this and the movie is based on the book – it is a baseball movie, not just a vehicle for Brad Pitt.  Wellington movie reviewers didn’t get that; they probably don’t get baseball; they don’t like Brad Pitt’s portrayal of Billy Bean probably because Pitt came close to the man Bean as portrayed in the book.

If you saw the movie and didn’t get it, maybe you could have another look at baseball and then see the movie again; you might get it second time around.

Thanks,

Richard Keller

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