Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Moneyball was never a good idea for a movie

It's popular to bash risk-averse movie studios. But when Sony Pictures canceled production on "Moneyball" just days before shooting, wasting $10 million in development and putting Brad Pitt on unemployment, it was a great decision.

As an A's fan, I would have seen it mostly to see people like Scott Hatteberg, one of the most knowledgeable wine aficionados in the game, and Art Howe playing themselves. But there aren't enough A's fans to reliably fill the Coliseum, much less movie theatres across the world. And as a story, "Moneyball" just doesn't seem film-worthy.

"Moneyball" was the most talked-about baseball book in more than 30 years; it's still referred to by TV analysts all the time. However, most of them clearly haven't read it, giving the book an outsized reputation that may have gotten it unwisely greenlit.

The story is about the Oakland A's and their front office outsmarting the rest of baseball in 2002. The problem is, the summer of 2002 was the last time the A's looked smart.

The A's didn't make the World Series in 2002 and haven't since. The players around whom the book is based largely turned out to be failures.

So what's the movie supposed to show? A pretty decent baseball team losing in the first round of the playoffs? Where's the excitement in that?

When the mainstream sports media mocks the book "Moneyball," they focus on ideas they don't understand, like why teams shouldn't bunt or hit-and-run much. They miss the main point, which is that the A's were trying to find values in the player market, like a hedge fund trader -- another reason this movie was poorly conceived. Who likes hedge fund traders these days?

The idea of arbitraging MLB players is a good one. Unfortunately, the A's suck at it.

Here are some of the alleged "values" the A's scored in "Moneyball."

1) Scott Hatteberg may be a nice guy who even opponents go to for wine information -- he's noted for seeking balance, whereas many ballplayers with money to burn just go for the big Cabs. But Hatteberg was a below-average hitter at first base, and now the A's are overpaying the guy they decided not to overpay seven years ago, Jason Giambi. And that's not working either.

2) Much of the book centers around the A's strategy for the 2002 draft -- picking college players with great statistics, and ignoring what scouts said about them. The A's abandoned this strategy within two years because it just didn't work.

3) Jeremy Brown became the poster child for the book as a catcher with a "bad body"; Billy Beane famously said to his naysaying scouts, "We're not selling blue jeans here." Brown did make the major leagues, but played only 5 games before retiring.

4) Nick Swisher and Joe Blanton, the two college players the A's nabbed with their first picks in 2002, are decent ballplayers. But the book makes a big deal of how savvy the A's were for avoiding high-school pitchers in the draft, as they are supposed to be riskier. So who was picked immediately after Swisher and Blanton? Two high school pitchers -- Cole Hamels and Matt Cain -- who are now stars. And the A's great current trio of pitching prospects (Cahill, Mazzarro and Anderson) were all drafted out of high school, the first two by Oakland.

5) The book mocks White Sox GM Kenny Williams for trading away relief pitcher Chad Bradford. Bradford was a useful bullpen part, but the guy the A's gave up for him, catcher Miguel Olivo, is also still in the major leagues. Hardly the robbery that the book makes it seem.

6) In fact, since the book was published Billy Beane has failed in almost every one of his trades, with the large exception of trading Mark Mulder to the Cardinals for Dan Haren and two other players. His major blunders include giving away Tim Hudson for nobody worthwhile, signing Eric Chavez to a huge contract while letting Miguel Tejada walk (Tejada played at MVP level while Chavez is finished), giving away Ted Lilly, giving away Marco Scutaro, giving up on John Baker, trading Huston Street at his lowest value for overrated Matt Holliday, signing Esteban Loaiza to a big contract ... and there isn't really much good to balance this.

Just look at the A's record today, after more than a decade under Beane. Moreover, while they have some nice young pitching, the A's have no offense in the majors, no major hitting prospects at AAA and only a couple of OK hitting prospects at AA. This does not look like an intelligently assembled team.

Brad Pitt was going to play Billy Beane. I can see that, because Beane's impetuous failures remind me of the cop Pitt played in "Seven." That movie had more action and meaning than "Moneyball," but the projects do have one thing in common: a depressing ending. Now if only we can get Morgan Freeman to lead Billy Beane away.


Anonymous said...

Well written and right on point. Beane has gotten a lot of mileage out of his "savvy" deals, yet as you point out, the deals haven't accomplished anything. In the same time frame, with no fanfare, look at what Larry Beinfest has done in South Florida with the lowest payroll in baseball. At least he has a world series ring! That's the real moneyball story.

Jack Everitt said...
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