Movies aren’t as much fun when you know the people being portrayed — at least not for me, which I recently learned watching “Moneyball,” the film adaptation of Michael Lewis’s best-selling book, “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.”
Published eight years ago, “Moneyball” chronicled the cash-strapped Oakland Athletics’ pioneering use of sabermetrics in their attempt to compete with Major League Baseball’s wealthiest ballclubs, and the movie, starring Brad Pitt as Oakland General Manager Billy Beane, explains the player-evaluation process that every team, to some degree, now uses in roster construction. At the time of its release, the book had a polarizing effect, angering many veteran baseball people who surmised Lewis — and Beane — suggested stats could replace scouts.
The movie, and to a lesser extent the book, amplifies this debate, portraying Beane as Luke Skywalker and scouts as stormtroopers. That may make for higher drama, but it doesn’t really convey the truth and does something of a disservice to the real people involved.
Beane and Paul DePodesta, Beane’s top assistant during the time Lewis reported the book, weren’t focused on building a better mouse trap. They were simply trying to construct an affordable one. For them, it was never about man vs. machine, because “there are a lot of human emotions . . . that go into the decisions we make,” DePodesta said in a phone interview Monday. “There are human elements that go into the development of players.
“It’s probably a little dangerous if we just disregard that. On the other hand, there’s no question in my mind that the data is important. Virtually everybody in the industry at this point would agree.”
DePodesta wisely chose not to have his name attached to the movie, in which the character based on him is a shy and socially awkward geek. He’s someone who has no place in the sports world — except for what his big brain can offer the cool guys. Actor Jonah Hill did a fine job with the fictional character named Peter Brand, supposedly a composite of several Athletics assistants under Beane. In actuality, he’s DePodesta. Except he really isn’t — not the guy I know, anyway.
DePodesta, who grew up in Alexandria and attended St. Stephen’s and Episcopal High, joined the Athletics after scouting for the Cleveland Indians. The Harvard-educated DePodesta was a key figure in the book, a numbers-crunching whiz kid who provided the blueprint for Beane’s then-revolutionary approach. Utilizing sabermetrics, he helped Beane acquire players who helped Oakland reach the playoffs five times in an eight-year span that ended in 2006. In that period, the Athletics had winning records every year. Other teams with similar financial limitations struggled to finish .500.
When I was a young baseball beat writer in Los Angeles in 2004, DePodesta was a fast-rising baseball executive. After the Dodgers’ new owners failed to lure Beane from Oakland, they took his recommendation, hiring his top lieutenant. Then 31 years old, DePodesta became one of the youngest general managers in baseball history. Dealing with DePodesta on a daily basis, I quickly learned he was as smart as advertised.
Some folks believe they’re always the smartest people in the room; DePodesta often truly is. He just doesn’t act like it. Unlike the character in the film, DePodesta articulates his position well whether speaking with old-school scouts or economists. And he definitely doesn’t require help navigating athletic fields, having played baseball and football at Harvard.
DePodesta didn’t advocate scrapping baseball’s traditional evaluation system. Beane instructed him to think outside of the box, and “we always felt as though what we were doing was unique to Oakland,” DePodesta, now vice president of player development and scouting for the New York Mets, said.
Baseball executives are “constantly trying to predict the future performance of human beings. We’re trying to get our arms around that uncertainty. Scouts really help you deal with that uncertainty. On the other hand, we looked at it and said, ‘How can we further decrease that uncertainty?’ And being able to use data was one of the ways we could do that. It wasn’t to replace anything else. It was only to further augment what we were already doing and get a better grasp of the unpredictability.”
My biggest gripe with both the book and movie is that Lewis and the filmmakers essentially ignore the contributions of players who don’t support their underdog narrative. Any discussion of those Athletics teams should start with their outstanding starting rotation, led by Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito. They’re hardly mentioned or seen on screen.
Lewis’s supporters argue he was doing what writers do: using only the facts that support his premise. There’s no doubt he wrote a compelling book that’s now a critically acclaimed movie and a box office hit.
But it’s intellectually dishonest to attribute the Athletics’ success during that era solely to calculator work while ignoring the contributions of players such as Hudson, Mulder and Zito. That’s like having an in-depth discussion about Joe Gibbs’s three Super Bowl victories without mentioning the Hogs.
“No doubt,” said DePodesta, still the smartest person in the room. “I agree with that.”