Not many things are more painful than enduring a baseball game. The activity is glacial process, like waiting for my banzai tree to grow. Fastball, slider or change up, what is the difference? Regardless, the score is only going to change three times during the entire game. The only thing I like about it is I can take a nap while watching a game and not worry about missing anything.
In the same way that Billy Beane “hates losing more than he loves winning,” I like Bennett Miller’s Moneyball more than I dislike baseball. In playing the role of Billy Beane, Brad Pitt was particularly noteworthy. “If you don’t know Billy, you get a good idea of what drives him and who he is,” says Craig Breslow, a relief pitcher for the Oakland Athletics. “From the mannerisms and conversations to temper and intonations, it was all there.”
Billy Beane possessed no shortage of eccentricities. In the opening scene, Beane sits alone in the Oakland Athletics stadium while the team is on the road. As he listens to the game on a hand held radio, veins protrude from his right hand while he obsessively flips the dial back and forth. “On” and “off.” Beane, whose failed attempt as a baseball player explains his inability to accept losing, never allows himself a moment of satisfaction. “I don’t watch games,” he mocks, surprised the thought would cross his partner’s mind.
When Beane is not obsessing over exercise, he is negotiating trades, recruiting players, throwing chairs and, as Derik Barton of the Oakland Athletics admits, “eating a lot.” Beane has a daughter, although his consumption with baseball leaves little time for her. Similar to the relationship between Becca and Hank Moody in Californication, the father often buys her a guitar instead of watching her play it.
Jonah Hill plays the role of Peter Brand, (based on the real life Paul DePodesta), in his first big drama. Despite having a background in comedic improv, his performance came with the ease of Federer’s cross-court backhand. “They both contain real people,” he says in an interview comparing the differences in thematic style. “The process is similar, it just depends on what story you’re telling.” Admittedly, I didn’t get Hill enough credit, but one does not imagine Kanye West becoming a sensational country music star.
The “moneyball” concept, formally known as sabermetrics, uses statistics to determine the value of a particular player. Bill James, who coined the term in 1994, describes sabermetrics as “the search for objective knowledge about baseball.” It attempts to answer not only who hit the most home runs but more specific questions such as: which player(s) contribute the most to the offense? As Brand confesses to Beane, “your goal shouldn’t be to buy players, your goal should be to buy wins.”
The Athletics’s board of advisors, comprised of a group of borderline seniles, are not exactly what you call objective. “I like Perez,” one particular advisor remarks. “But he doesn’t have a girlfriend,” argues another. “No girlfriend means no confidence.” When Beane questions their prehistoric thought, they dismiss his mathematical approach as nonsensical. As Breslow said: “baseball is very much an old timers game and this is a radical change.” For Howe and the board, they make their decisions based on emotion and they value those decisions based on the results. It is tantamount to the poker fish who says, “I feel lucky this hand,” in defense of drawing to a gut shot, and “it was a good play” because he got there.
The movie sheds light on an even more absurd notion: how a billion dollar industry could show disdain for the assistance of mathematics? Moneyball, like 21, is a notable story about inefficiency. As an economics graduate from Yale, Peter Brand’s understanding of economics was the catalyst to change an entire industry. Beane’s trade negotiation with Cleveland are rejected, mainly because of Brand’s advice. When he interrogates Peter about his identity, expecting him to reveal a secret, Brand looks confused and says, “I’m just Peter Brand.” Perhaps the reason for casting Jonah Hill to portray an affable Peter Brand was merely to make him appear trivial.
When the movie ended, I held the exit for an elderly couple. While the man pushed his wife through the door, she remarked: “it was good honey.” He shook his head solemnly: “if only that baloney were true.” Art and the board never did come to terms with the fact that the game had changed. As the Red Sox manager expressed to Beane: “Whenever you try to flip the switch on the people holding the reigns, they go insane. It’s threatening the way they do things.” “We are card counters at the Blackjack table – Beane tells the board – and we’re going to turn the odds against the house.” What Beane and Brand set out to prove, is that sometimes, even the house can lose.
In an interview with Craig Breslow, we discussed some of the inefficiencies in baseball. Hadn’t I known better, I could have been listening to a professional poker player. Misconceptions about poker and baseball were easily translatable, particularly that there is a huge difference between the way people think things are done, and the way they actually are. Breslow put it best: “Any sport like baseball that one can attempt to quantify, should be making a move towards a strategy that completely removes intuition or hunch and statistically put yourself in a favorable position to win.”
The idea behind sabermetrics does not only pertain to baseball, but to every facet of our society. Companies like Ticketmaster, a ticket sales provider with millions in annual revenue, exists only because of the inefficiency in the primary market. A Taylor Swift ticket retails at $89.00. Thirty seconds later, when the show sells out, tickets are immediately purchased on Ebay for $400, a mark up of 500%. Just like the fans who want to see home runs in baseball and fights in hockey, the agents focus on immediate sell outs and hype instead of maximizing returns. To make a call from California to Italy costs $1.69 per minute with Verizon. Skype, which recently sold for $8,500,000,000 to Microsoft, made their fortune by cutting this rate down to 2 cents per minute, a decrease of 8,450%.
Sabermetrics changed my view of baseball. An experience that once seemed painful became a challenge to find flaws in a teams strategy. As Breslow stated: “teams are only running at 50-70% of their maximum potential.”
Like baseball, poker was once an inefficient game. However, with the implementation of statistical programs such as holdem manager and pokerstove, it has become saturated with information. Fortunately for us, billions of dollars are bleeding away by a society that is what Annie Duke refers to as, “scared of math.” Our job is to find it. ♠