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People as Numbers in "Moneyball"

As much as we may enjoy an underdog tale of smart and scrappy upstarts taking on the rich kids, the sad lesson of Moneyball is that the rich kids may beat the smart kids anyway, and then copy all of the smart kids’ best ideas. The wonder of Moneyball is that it delivers on all of the human drama of a typical sports movie - even giving you a nail-biting game-winning walk-off home run - while actually telling a story mostly about the unfeeling market forces chugging away underneath that drama. Moneyball is both a fairly bleak film about the unsettling dynamics of a world where people are reduced numbers and numbers are king, and it is also one where the stories of the people living in that world are still affecting despite that fact.

Micheal Lewis’s 2003 book, "Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game," was written about the 2002 season of the major league baseball team, the Oakland A’s. Lewis didn’t know how the season was going to turn out when he started the book but was drawn to the topic because of the anomalous track record of the team in prior seasons. Just the year before, in 2001, the team had the second-lowest payroll in the game, less than a third that of the team with the highest payroll, while also managing to win the second-most games. It seemed like the team had found some secret that other teams hadn’t picked up on yet, and Lewis wanted a front-row seat to their follow-up to see if he could find out what they were doing differently.

Lewis was, in some ways, an ideal person to take on this project. First, because he wasn’t a baseball writer or someone otherwise connected to the game. Coming from a background working on Wall Street, and later a second career as a journalist writing on business, finance, and economics, Lewis didn’t approach baseball with any more prejudice or preconceptions than the average fan. What Lewis would discover was that a growing organizing principle of the Oakland A’s was to challenge the existing orthodoxies inside baseball in order to take advantage of the market inefficiencies they found - something Lewis was highly qualified to understand and explain to others. Second, a hallmark of Lewis’s work is that, no matter how technical the subject he is trying to convey, he has a peerless ability to ground that information in the stories of the people personally involved.

The film centers on the General Manager of the A’s: Billy Beane. The book expands the world a bit beyond that, but Beane is largely the central figure there as well. Beane, played in the film by Brad Pitt, personifies the tension at play in the story. Before becoming the GM of the A’s, he had a disappointing career as a major league ballplayer. His career was particularly disappointing because, coming out of high school, the consensus view of the team scouts that saw him play was that he was something like the most promising young player in the country - a can’t-miss prospect that would go on to miss. In the book, Lewis takes more time than the movie does to outline that what killed Billy Beane’s career is that he could never make peace with the unavoidable struggle and failure involved in developing into a professional player. What the scouts saw in Billy was a strong, fast, tall, graceful, handsome, athlete, in the very mold of what a baseball player should look like. What Billy discovered too late was that his anger and fear of failure, fueled by his struggles on the field, stopped him from getting out of his own way enough to turn his ability in to results. What it turns out makes Beane the perfect person to challenge baseball’s conventional wisdom was how wrong that wisdom ended up being about him.

What’s driving Beane is a desire not just for his team to win games, but to win the World Series, and to do that in spite of the comparatively meager resources available to his team. And it’s not just that he’s driven to win, but specifically, to win with the cards he’s been dealt. In the 2002 season, the newest challenge for him to contend with was that three of his best players were leaving for more lucrative contracts with richer teams and that they would need to be replaced. Beane can’t buy the best players the way other teams can, so if he is going to field a winning team, he’s going to need to find value where no one else is looking.

Peter Brand, played by Jonah Hill, is a renamed version of the actual A’s Assistant GM, Paul DePodesta. Brand is an economics major from Yale who is fluent in the different approaches to player evaluation that Beane needs. Instead of leaning into traditional scouting - that is subjectively evaluating the players by watching them play - Brand was part of a growing movement that leaned heavily into primarily evaluating players by analyzing the numbers - hits, walks, strikeouts, etc. - that they’ve produced in games. As informative as traditional scouting might be, trying to evaluate a player’s abilities by sight is unavoidably susceptible to bias. By eliminating everything about the player that can’t be reduced to a measurable number, Brand and Beane are able to identify the players that other teams haven’t noticed yet, making it possible to sign those players to contracts for less than what they should actually be worth.

For the story, this is where things start to get really interesting. On one hand, this is the tale of a numbers-based approach to running a baseball team that’s exclusively looking to maximize runs as a means to win games. On the other hand, this is also the human story of an intense, recently divorced GM, in Beane, who is driven to win because of how much he hates losing and failure; an Assistant GM in Brand who feels like an outsider trying to prove that his way is better than the old ways; and a team of somewhat misfit toys being given opportunities to prove themselves that no other teams would be willing to offer.

The analytic approach that Beane and Brand are espousing doesn’t treat individual events on a baseball field, individual games, or even individual players as especially important in the long run of a season. What matters is the total number of runs the team scores over what their opponents score, and how that impacts their total number of wins at year's end. Beane can’t actually embody that principle, though. He still cares so much about the moment-to-moment successes, or even more about not failing, that he can’t even bring himself to watch his team’s games. However numbers-oriented the approach, the numbers will always need to be interpreted by people, to make decisions about people.

The misfit toys that Beane and Brand find are Scott Hatteberg, David Justice, and Jeremy Giambi. Jeremy Giambi is the younger brother of the best player the A’s lost, Jason Giambi, who is largely overlooked by other teams because he is a very slow runner, a poor fielder, and has a reputation for partying. David Justice is a former great player, now overlooked by other teams largely for the sin of reaching the advanced age of 36. Scott Hatteberg was a catcher who suffered nerve damage in his throwing arm that prevented him from playing that position anymore. Where other teams saw a catcher that couldn’t play anymore, Brand and Beane saw a great hitter they could try to hide on the field at first base, where he hopefully wouldn’t be called upon to throw enough to hurt the team. These three players almost feel like caricatures of the kinds of players you would invent for a sports movie. That’s part of what helps ground this as a feel-good story. You genuinely feel good about watching these overlooked and undervalued players succeed.

But, those good feelings aren’t quite everything they seem. These are the three players we’re following at the outset, but Jeremy Giambi gets traded to another team early in the season because he isn’t gelling with the team plan. Narratively, you expect him to finish the year with the team, and it feels abrupt that he was introduced into the story only to be unceremoniously traded, but he helps represent the point that the players are largely just widgets to plug in or dispose of as circumstances demand. With David Justice, we see a conversation between him and Beane where Beane bluntly lays out for him that what Beane wants to do is squeeze out every last bit of value out of the end of Justice’s career, and in exchange for that what Justice gets is to keep being paid to play a little bit longer. In the film, it plays as a scene where Justice is mature enough to understand that as the deal. In the book, though, that conversation happens, but it doesn’t include Justice at all. It’s something that DePodesta says to Lewis, bluntly laying out how the team sees its players, but also saying how you could never actually tell the players that.

Hatteberg in some ways makes for a more traditional hero for the story, in that we get to see him as the inverse of Beane: presented with challenges that really should end his career, he is able to overcome that adversity to find success anyway. He learns to make himself into a capable first baseman against long odds and his own fear of failure. And he plays the key role in the seemingly feel-good sports movie happy ending, except that winds up not being the end of the story at all.

The third act of the film is about the team’s history-making twenty-game winning streak, focused on the nail-biting twentieth game. The team goes up by 11 runs early. We watch Beane start to let his guard down and actually enjoy what is looking to be a historic moment. We watch him struggle to keep it together as the opposing team comes back and ties the game up. We watch Scott Hatteberg come to the plate and hit a game-winning walk-off home run. We’re elated. But, as soon as it’s over, Beane says to Brand: it’s just another game. And it is. It’s a storybook moment, but it’s the season that counts, proof that their methods work. And, in the end, the Oakland A’s do go on to make the playoffs but get knocked out by another team in the first round. Only one team gets to win the last game of the season, and once again, it won’t be them.

After the season, Beane takes a meeting with the owner of the Boston Red Sox, where he is offered more money than any GM in baseball history to come to work his magic on their team, to lead a team front office that is already being built to employ those methods whether he comes over or not. Interestingly, Beane turned down the money, opting to remain in Oakland, so he could stay close to his teenage daughter. This doesn’t come up in Michal Lewis’s book. The interactions between Billy, his ex-wife, and daughter feel like the sort of truth-bending for the sake of a good story that Aaron Sorkin might have added to his draft of the screenplay, but it’s true. Beane has said in interviews since that he stayed in Oakland for his daughter and has never regretted it since. The Red Sox, on the other hand, using Oakland’s methods, and combining them with the league’s second-highest payroll, would go on without him to win the first of three World Series titles in 2007.

Part of what makes Moneyball interesting to me is that it feels strange, yet right, that the ending is as upbeat as it is. Yes, Beane’s team loses in the playoffs. They don’t even make it to the World Series and they still haven’t in all the years since. Beane turns down the big contract that would have given him his best shot to build a team that could win the World Series. But, we don’t really care because he seems happy, driving along listening to the song his daughter recorded for him. He’s happy where he is, trying to win with what he has, and getting to watch his daughter grow up. The baseball in this film winds up just being the setting for a different and more personal story being told; one where, despite it all, the important things about life can’t be reduced down to mere numbers.


Damian Masterson

Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th & 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.




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