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I finally finished my review of the Moneyball movie, along with my thoughts on how it will impact the industry. (Fair warning: it's four pages.)

I had the tremendous fortune to see the Moneyball movie a full month before it hit theaters this past weekend. Along with a theater full of ESPN employees, BIS Owner John Dewan, and BIS President Steve Moyer, I got an early peek at the movie based on possibly baseball’s most influential book, ever. (Ball Four started a new genre of tell-all biographies, and Juiced inspired a full Congressional Committee, but Moneyball takes the cake for inspiring a Brad Pitt movie.)

(We were asked not to comment publicly on the movie in the meantime, or I might have written something sooner. It’s probably best that I waited, however, as I’ve had more time to develop my thoughts on the movie and its pending impact on the industry. All thoughts below are my own, based on my particular perceptions of the book and the industry as a whole. I know several more qualified people have already provided their take, including Daryl Morey/Sam Hinkie and Joe Posnanski.)

Let me first back up and talk about the book, or even further and talk about the author. Michael Lewis began his career on Wall Street before he realized he could write pretty well too. Naturally, many of his books are focused on the concept of “value” and those organizations and individuals who excel at finding it (or not finding it, as the case may be). Moneyball, as evidenced in the book’s subtitle (The Art of Winning an Unfair Game), isn’t really about the merits of on-base percentage or the limits of a scout’s subjective view. Lewis’s main focus is how Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s were able to uncover and exploit market inefficiencies, helping them keep up with teams with much fatter wallets.

One of the most ironic things about Moneyball was not that it greatly affected the baseball industry, but how it affected it. The book generated a lot of controversy in the industry due to its portrayal of baseball scouts as largely ignorant, out-of-shape old geezers. Scouts were naturally defensive and grew antagonistic towards the book and anything or anyone associated with it. The book certainly encouraged the idea of the ideological “Stats vs. Scouts” debate, pitting basement-dwelling computer nerds against tobacco-chewing old men. With the Old Guard in charge, baseball or any other industry would be slow to adapt, even for the better. Michael Lewis came along, however, and popularized sabermetric ideas, not only to baseball fans but also to Wall Street executives and businessmen of all sorts who read the bestselling book.

Of course the baseball analysis industry existed, even thrived, long before Moneyball. Heck, John Dewan jumpstarted STATS, Inc., developed the company into a major force in the sports industry, sold the company, then co-founded a new company (Baseball Info Solutions), all before the 2002 A’s took the field. However, Lewis’s book did popularize the movement and inspired an unprecedented trend in sports, introducing an entire generation of impressionable baseball fanatics to the General Manager’s point of view, and a freshly objective one at that.

Many Moneyball readers were opening their eyes to a new world, an Oz or Disneyland where their lack of playing ability was irrelevant and their analytical talents were in demand. And to top it all off, sabermetrics was still a fledgling industry where outsiders could dive right in and have an impact. The book helped to popularize websites like Baseball Prospectus, The Hardball Times, and Fangraphs, along with the collective work of Bill James, Tom Tango, and other recognized analysts. This new community has developed into a farm system for Major League teams seeking analytical manpower to give them an edge.

The combination of new owners familiar with Bill James and the ideas presented in Moneyball, a pool of intelligent analysts with original insights and publishing them online, and a smarter fan base provided an external push for change. In all likelihood, baseball would have adopted many sabermetric tenets eventually. However, the book created the impression that teams unfamiliar with the latest analytics would wind up hoodwinked by Billy Beane or another numbers-savvy GM. While public perception isn’t always reality, team owners are usually very plugged in to the collective voice of the fans and the media. As Henry Abbot says of the NBA:

"This is where this cool movie -- as opposed to the dorkier book -- might really matter. One of the reasons to buy an NBA team is to look cool. (Without the Mavericks, what's Mark Cuban's Q-rating?) And now here's a popular Brad Pitt movie suggesting that doing things the way they have generally been done, trusting the old-school thinkers, is in and of itself to make you look villainous or stupid."

As Abbot later says, “It's no longer a league where 30 teams are playing hunches, and … it's no longer fair to expect fans to want it that way.” While basketball is a few years behind baseball in the analytical movement, the same forces may be even stronger in MLB. This external pressure in the form of the simple desire to avoid looking foolish has certainly accelerated the process of integrating sabermetrics into front offices. And if that pressure isn’t enough, there’s always the monetary incentive that comes along with running a profitable franchise.

Rather than getting caught up in the distracting and irrelevant stats vs. scouts debate, teams began to blend sabermetrics and scouting, using the best of both worlds to guide roster decisions and in-game strategy. The Red Sox, who captured two World Series titles in four years after the book’s release, were often cited as one of the leaders in blending the two approaches and are seen as a model organization. A number of GM Theo Epstein’s former deputies have moved on to head other organizations, including Josh Byrnes and Jed Hoyer. This progress healed some of the bitterness between scouts and sabermetrics which Moneyball exacerbated. It shouldn’t be “Stats vs. Scouts”, teams realized, but “Stats Plus Scouts”. And that’s largely where we stand today.

It’s important to keep in mind that a book isn’t always the same as Hollywood’s interpretation of it. Lewis’s previous book-turned-movie is a great example. Anyone who saw The Blind Side in theaters would think that the book was about Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw adopting a kid from the other side of town and putting him on track for a better life and an NFL career. But again Lewis’s subtitle Evolution of a Game professes his main thesis, which dealt with the changing perception of the left tackle position. Good left tackles were like high on-base percentage hitters: undervalued. It just so happens that Michael Lewis found this great Michael Oher story which tied right in (and worked really well as a movie).

In making a movie version of Moneyball, there’s no clear-cut Hollywood storyline to latch onto, as there was in Blind Side. Aaron Sorkin and the other writers developed a more abstract drama by creating an internal struggle for A’s GM Billy Beane. In the movie, Beane finds religion (figuratively) and turns to sabermetrics out of desperation, trying to keep the team in contention despite losing three big name free agents. Of course the real Billy Beane inherited sabermetric ideals from his predecessor Sandy Alderson long before the 2002 season, and the book certainly doesn’t give any indication that Beane’s job was ever in jeopardy. The movie takes full advantage of having Brad Pitt in the role, and who would blame them? With the storyline focused on Beane, Pitt is on screen almost nonstop, and it works (in my amateur opinion).

The plot is somewhat unconventional in that you’re not quite sure what the characters are building towards, but maybe that’s an artistic way to get the point across. The closest thing to a climax was the team’s 20th consecutive win, and you’re left wondering if the movie will continue on for a third hour to detail the team’s playoff exploits. Instead, the A’s playoff loss is quickly narrated by broadcasters, and Beane is left to philosophically consider the offer to take over the Red Sox in the movie’s final minutes.

Despite Jonah Hill’s presence, the movie isn’t a comedy, but it’s subtly humorous nonetheless. The developing relationship between Hill’s Peter Brand and Pitt’s Beane is entertaining, as Brand spends half of the movie tagging along in Beane’s shadow. There’s one scene with Brand telling Carlos Pena he’s been traded, and you’re half expecting Pena to suddenly snap and beat Jonah Hill into a bloody pulp. The scenes of Beane and Brand with several A’s scouts in the war room are hilarious. When the discussions trail off on brief tangents, make sure you catch the background chatter.

Savvy baseball fans will appreciate much of the film’s authenticity. With the exception of Paul DePodesta/Peter Brand, the baseball names and roles are spot on. Carlos Pena, Jeremy Giambi, Miguel Tejada (played by former shortstop Royce Clayton), Eric Chavez, Scott Hatteburg, and Chad Bradford all make it into the movie, as do Mike Sweeney and Kit Pellow (!) from the opposing Royals. Grady Fuson has several tense conversations with Beane, and fellow A’s scout Eric Kubota also has a quick line (which the real Kubota may never live down).

There are naturally parts of the book which the movie leaves out, and there are parts of the A’s season which both the movie and book overlook. The book’s critics often pointed to the role Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito played in the A’s success, which the book largely overlooks. The movie additionally omits the middle of the order duo of Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez, who were certainly bigger factors in the teams’ success than Scott Hatteburg and Chad Bradford but have very minor roles in the film. Baseball-ignorant movie goers will walk away thinking the 2002 A’s won because of Hatteburg, Bradford, and David Justice. This will certainly annoy hard core fans and baseball scouts who deserve their due.

But as with the book, the public response to the movie will be more important than how baseball people react. As any high school English student will attest, a movie is much easier to absorb than a book and takes just a fraction of the time, so it naturally draws a wider audience. Add in Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, and you have a movie that draws diverse crowds and grosses $20 million in the opening weekend. The public reaction to the movie could potentially be far stronger and wider than from the book, and its indirect long-term impact on the industry could dwarf that of the book. Movies have a way of shaping public perception over time. “Moneyball” and “sabermetrics” will creep into common vocabulary. “Bill James” may not become a household name, but when a Brad Pitt character stops just short of worshiping at your feet, people will take notice. Coaches and players from Little League through the college ranks will be more familiar with sabermetric concepts and use them to their advantage. These ideas will become a part of the game, like platooning and the hit-and-run, and live on forever.

For better or worse, the movie will reopen the Stats vs. Scouts arguments to some degree. Though most industry scouts and analysts know better, some of the debate will spill into front offices, and there will be unnecessary casualties. Teams with recent or pending ownership changes (the Cubs, Astros, and Dodgers come to mind) could be caught in the crossfire but would be wise to avoid it. The most successful teams going forward will be those who have both the best scouting information and ahead-of-the-curve analysis. A little luck, and money, wouldn’t hurt either.

As with the book, the movie ends on a bittersweet note. Beane of course declines the Red Sox offer and stays in Oakland, so he can stay close to his daughter and face the challenge of winning it all in a small market. The movie’s closing credits remind everyone that the Red Sox, without Beane but with Bill James and sabermetrics, finally won a World Series. Since then, even the large market teams have gotten smarter, effectively leveling the analytical playing field. Without the same analytical edge, Oakland and other small market teams face a tougher challenge than a decade ago, which posing some interesting competitive balance questions.

Overall, it’s a enjoyable movie for every most moviegoers, not just baseball fans. In my amateur opinion, Pitt does a convincing job as Beane, and the script works well. The movie explains enough of the math that the casual fan understands what’s going on without getting bored or confused. I’m ambivalent towards Jonah Hill’s role in the movie, but I’m willing to accept that it might work better for a casual fan who doesn’t know who Paul DePodesta is. Critics seemingly love the movie, in a Benjamin Button/Social Network kind of way. Roger Ebert handed out four stars, a rarity. Critical acclaim will certainly boost the movie’s reach, which will in turn reinvigorate the sabermetric movement and indirectly impact the baseball industry long-term.

If you haven’t already, go see the movie; you won’t be sorry.
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