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Books-Into-Movies: “Moneyball” (based on the book MONEYBALL) June 14, 2012

Posted by rwf1954 in baseball, Billy Beane, books, books compared to movies, books into movies, Brad Pitt, Michael Lewis, Moneyball, movie commentary, movies, movies based on books, Oakland A's.
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(Richard Warren Field wrote the award-winning novel,
The Swords of Faith. Read why this book will make a great movie.)

This Books-Into-Movies post admittedly departs from my previous posts, which usually pertain to historically-based movies. But, as I’ve written in the past, on my blog, I get to write about what interests me. Not evident in my prior posts is that I am a sports fan. And as someone who grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, I have been rooting for the Oakland A’s (and the San Francisco Giants—I grew up equally distant from both) since they got to Oakland. I read Moneyball by Michael Lewis (also the author of Blind Side) when it first came out and loved it. So naturally, I caught the movie.

Brad Pitt as Billy Beane? I had my doubts. But I absolutely loved the movie. And Brad Pitt was great. My recollection of the book, from reading it nearly a decade ago, was that it would be tough to turn into a story—I did not recall the book as a linear story with the requisite conflicts, protagonist, antagonists; the kinds of things that go into a successful commercial movie. The filmmakers did a fine job of pulling a compelling, fun, David-and-Goliath story out of Moneyball. The antagonists are crystallized as old baseball attitudes in the persons of established baseball people fighting to keep the new ideas from being implemented. The antagonists are also the rich teams, but not really directly. But how much of the film is true to the facts elaborated in the book? I reread Moneyball to find out.

The basic spirit of the book is there, and some wonderful phrases and events appear directly from the book. But there are many departures from the book to build this fun story. I’ll offer a detailed comparison. Please keep in mind, as with all my Books-Into-Movies posts, that I’m comparing the book and the movie. If the filmmakers acquired information not in the book for the movie, it is not part of my discussion here.

So, here is a chapter-by-chapter discussion:

Chapter One – The Curse of Talent

  • If anything, the movie actually understates how impressive Billy Beane was as a raw talent. In workouts for scouts, he twice outraces another prospect who has a track scholarship as a sprinter. Billy Beane is 6-4 with freakish abilities. (Much bigger and more imposing than Brad Pitt, but Brad Pitt does such a great job in this movie that we can let his lack of Beane’s size go!)
  • There are hints of Billy Beane’s inability to cope with a hint of failure, his inability to accept anything but total success. There is a drop-off in his stats in his senior year in high school, and volcanic tantrums his coach has trouble knowing what to do with.
  • The Mets top scout wants to choose Billy Beane with their first pick, but because Beane has indicated he will go to Stanford to play baseball (and football, to succeed John Elway as a quarterback even though he has not played quarterback in high school since his sophomore year), he is passed up by other teams, and the Mets get him with one of their three first-round picks, 23rd overall.
  • Billy Beane looks like he will not sign until the Mets bring him to the Mets visitor’s clubhouse in his hometown of San Diego and introduce him to three players. He commits to signing, but before actually completing his signature, changes his mind again. His father tells him how he has already committed, and Beane signs for $125,000.

 Chapter 2 – How to Find a Ballplayer

  • Billy Beane’s interaction with his scouting department is more nuanced and complex than is depicted in the movie. (There isn’t time in the film to go into this in the depth covered by the book.) This chapter deals with the upcoming amateur draft of unsigned high school and college players, not an evaluation of available major leaguers. The movie captures the new concepts Billy Beane brings to the scouts, but simplifies the scouts’ reactions and implies a unity among scouts in opposition to his ideas. The book lets us know this was not such a simple division.
  • The guy with the laptop, Peter Brand in the movie, is Paul DePodesta, a graduate from Harvard (not Yale) in economics, but interested in “the uneasy border between psychology and economics.” There is no scene in the book with Beane stumbling onto him as an employee of the Cleveland Indians in this chapter. Billy Beane is committed to “moneyball.” He brings in DePodesta in the late 90s to help him carry it out.
  • In the book, we have a scene with Beane throwing a chair into a wall when his head scout, Grady Fuson, picks a raw pitcher who throws 94 mile per hour fastballs, straight out of high school. This is not the way Billy Beane wants to build talent for the A’s.
  • KevinYoukilis, and his description as “the Greek god of walks” is straight from the book, but refers to his stats as a college player and potential as a draft choice.
  • On base percentage and the ability to get walks are heavily prized by Beane and DePodesta, as in the book. But a further reason is that though the ability to draw walks and get on base are prized, this ability is also a measure of a hitter’s ability to control the strike zone. This factor helps talent evaluators determine hitting success in the major leagues. Power hitting, they know from analysis, can be learned. Controlling the strike zone may be a talent more difficult to develop; it  may be an inherent talent such as throwing ability and speed. And this inherent talent can lead to hitting prowess, not just a higher on base percentage and more walks.

Chapter 3 – The Enlightenment

  • The book has time to chronicle Billy Beane’s failed Major League baseball career as a player, captured accurately in the movie, but due to the time constraints, offered with much less detail. Lewis offers great stories in the book about the success of Billy Beane’s roomate Lenny Dykstra, a 13th round pick in the draft, contrasted with Billy Beane’s lack of success. As in the movie, the failure appears to be mental, a lack of the mindset needed to be a successful player despite prodigious talent.
  • Completely missing from the movie is any reference to 1990’s Oakland A’s general manager Sandy Alderson. He starts Beane on the concept that would become “moneyball,” giving him a Bill James influenced pamphlet. Alderson also starts the A’s, in the minor leagues at least, toward valuing walks and on base percentage. It is Alderson who first embraces the concept that on base percentage—and slugging percentage—correlate more with runs scored than batting average, and that fielding is “5 percent of the game.” The movie implies these ideas started after the A’s lost Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon and Jason Isringhausen. The book informs us Beane’s “moneyball” ideas were in place before Billy Beane became a general manager.
  • There is a brief mention of Beane’s divorce, and his commuting from Oakland to San Diego on his minimal scout’s pay to stay in his daughter’s life. (For me, the stuff about Billy Beane’s daughter is the weakest part of the movie, and could have been left out. I have speed-searched through these sections during my rewatches, though the young actress was charming, and would be fun to watch in something else.)

 Chapter 4 – Field of Ignorance

  • In the movie, Bill James, the maverick writer about baseball, baseball statistics, and new perspectives on their analysis and what he perceived as wrong emphases in conventional baseball thought, is mentioned briefly (and glowingly). This chapter explains in detail what Bill James brought to this story.
  • In the course of the discussion on Bill James, Lewis mentions two early baseball proponents of “moneyball” type ideas: 1) Branch Rickey (with the help of baseball statistician Alan Roth), who in 1954 expressed the idea that on base and slugging percentages were more important than other statistics, and 2) Earl Weaver, Hall of Fame Baltimore Orioles manager who made a career of playing for the three-run homer, disdaining sacrifices.

 Chapter 5 – Jeremy Brown Blue Plate Special

  • Dramatized in the book, not addressed directly in the movie, is the roller coaster ride (for Billy Beane) of the June 2002 amateur baseball draft. Lewis shows us how the “moneyball” principles are utilized as the A’s draft their players. We again see Billy Beane is clearly totally invested in these principles, and we also see his intensity as it looks like he will lose his choices, with fortunes twisting and turning as the draft takes place.

 Chapter 6 – The Science of Winning an Unfair Game

  • This chapter details the inequities in baseball between the rich and poor teams. Again we learned that the A’s already seemed to be exceeding the expectations of a poor team with “moneyball” ideas before 2002. The filmmakers telescope events to build more drama into the story and sharpen the issues for clarity and effect.
  • But the movie is correct to emphasize 2002 season, with the A’s losing Giambi, Damon and Isringhausen, as the nightmare scenario for poor teams, the extreme of extremes in inequity, as the book points out.
  • This chapter also fills in more details about the three players the A’s were losing. We discover losing Isringhausen was not even surprising or unwelcome, as “closers” can be created then overvalued because of a silly measure of performance called a “save.” Closers can be cut loose and re-created. Damon is also seen as overvalued, as discussed by the Peter Brand character in the book. But Giambi, because of his incredible run-creation abilities, is the real loss for the A’s.

 Chapter 7 – Giambi’s Hole

  • Lewis quotes Billy Beane: “The important thing is not to re-create the individual. The important thing is to re-create the aggregate.” That is taken straight into the movie, right along with the attempts to do this by replacing Giambi’s on base percentage.
  • Lewis states that while players were encouraged to take more pitches, swing at better pitches, and work for more walks, they were not told specifically they had been acquired for their on base percentages. Jeremy Giambi, David Justice and Scott Hatteberg are signed and put out on the field without knowing they are “lab rats” in an “experiment,” as Lewis calls them.
  • Billy Beane not watching games, in the weight room—straight from the book. It seems he becomes too worked up if things don’t go well, and is not pleasant to be with. He “breaks things.”
  • But, not in the book is this idea of Art Howe defying Billy Beane. Lewis explains in the book that it is common knowledge Beane “ran the team from the weight room.” The idea that Art Howe kept playing Carlos Pena instead of Scott Hatteberg in defiance of Billy Beane’s wishes is not consistent with the book. The only hints of this is that apparently Howe did like to platoon Hatteberg and Pena depending upon whether they were facing a left-handed or right-handed pitcher. This approach was not preferred by Billy Beane. But Beane appears to have been in control. There is a story of a player who executed a sacrifice bunt, a no-no on a “moneyball”/Billy Beane team. Art Howe makes sure the player is clear he did this on his own, not on a signal from his manager—so Billy Beane’s wrath could be directed appropriately.

 Chapter 8 – Scott Hatteberg, Picking Machine

  • Moving a catcher who can’t throw over to first base to get his on base abilities into the lineup is straight from the book. Hatteberg’s initial awkwardness at the position is also straight from the book. But we learn from Lewis that Hatteberg improves to become a decent, “above-average” first baseman as the season progresses. He works hard to pick up the position—he has his wife hitting grounders to him off a batting tee before he comes to camp.
  • The wholesale midseason purge of players, including Jeremy Giambi’s trade to the Philadelphia Phillies, is in the book, though some of the details are different. The motivation in the book seems to be that the A’s are losing and Beane is upset. There is nothing even implied about forcing Art Howe to set the lineup the way Billy Beane wants. As discussed earlier, Billy Beane already controlled the team more than “Moneyball” the movie implies.

 Chapter 9 – The Trading Desk

  • The movie captures the frenzied tone of Billy Beane’s dealings, though the exact details are different in the book, including the maneuvers to trade with the Indians for reliever Ricardo Rincon. Rincon does indeed change uniforms the day of the trade as depicted in the movie.
  • We do learn Jeremy Giambi was traded because Billy Beane suspected him of “having too much fun on a losing team.”
  • Not in the movie, we get the story of how A’s general manager Billy Beane tries to put himself in a deal between the Montreal Expos and the Boston Red Sox so the A’s can acquire Kevin Youkilis, the “Greek god of walks,” a player he has wanted for the A’s for a long time. He is not successful.

 Chapter 10 – Anatomy of an Undervalued Pitcher

  • In this chapter, we learn the Chad Bradford biography. The movie cannot give us all of this quirky story because of time constraints. (The story could almost be a movie of its own.) But the movie captures the essence of the Chad Bradford situation—a pitcher completely unrespected by Major League baseball because he looks so strange delivering the ball. He keeps getting batters out, particularly at a AAA location known for being hard on pitchers, so continues to rise through the ranks of the minor leagues toward the major leagues despite the weirdness of his pitching form.
  • In the book, we get details on the “moneyball” analysis that brings Bradford to the attention of Paul DePodesta and the A’s, a stat pioneered by an obscure paralegal who astounds even an initially skeptical Bill James by combining strikeouts, walks allowed, and home runs allowed to develop a stat that only the pitcher controls. Bradford’s stats bring to the A’s attention; Bradford’s delivery drops down more and more as his career develops, and as he pushes himself harder to get hitters out with limited physical talent.
  • We also learn that Chad Bradford has been on the Oakland A’s before the start of the 2002 season. The movie implies that his acquisition takes place after the A’s have lost Giambi, Damon, and Isringhausen.

Chapter 11 – The Human Element

  • This chapter focuses on the game the A’s win to set the record for consecutive wins in the American League. From the book—yes, the A’s blow a twelve run lead (with Chad Bradford giving up a significant number of runs as he loses confidence at the same time the rest of baseball seems to be finding confidence in him). Yes, Scott Hatteberg pinch- hits the game-winning home run in the bottom of the ninth, with some charming details of just how unprepared he was for the moment.
  • Billy Beane does plan to go toVisalia that day to look in on the A’s minor league team, to check on some of his recent draft picks. But it is not his daughter who calls him and asks him to turn around early in the game. The A’s front office convinces him he needs to stay. In fact, Billy Beane becomes trapped in Art Howe’s office with the author, Michael Lewis. Lewis gets the opportunity to watch firsthand how Beane starts to do descend into rage as the A’s lead diminishes further and further. Billy Beane’s daughter? It is Billy Beane who calls her early in the game—and finds out she is watching American idol.

 Chapter 12 – The Speed of an Idea

  • As in the movie, the book goes into Billy Beane’s hostility toward sacrifices and stealing bases as a waste of outs. In the movie, there’s a brief scene where a player says to Billy Beane that he’s been hired to steal bases, and Billy Beane says no, he had hired that player to get to first, not get thrown out at second. That appears to refer to Ray Durham, whose story is expanded in the book.
  • The A’s do lose to the Twins in the playoffs. But as in the movie, Billy Beane seems less distressed about losing because the playoffs involve luck—the small number of games is too small a “sample size.” The “moneyball” system Billy Beane has adopted is designed to work for a large number of games, a 162 game season. In a short series, five games or seven games, luck plays a great deal more of a role.
  • Billy Beane “trades” Art Howe to the New York Mets where Howe gets the generous long-term contract he believes he deserves. In the movie there is a direct confrontation between Beane and Howe before the 2002 season. In the book, this unhappiness manifests only as late-season grousing in the media.
  • Billy Beane actually commits to signing with the Red Sox as general manager, and his mind is already there, contemplating the moves he will make. But before actually signing, he has a change of heart, saying publicly what he says in the movie: “I made one decision based on money in my life—when I signed with the Mets rather than go to Stanford—and I promised I’d never do it again.” So in essence, Billy Beane goes through the same process that he went through right before signing with the Mets, but this time does not go through with his commitment.

 Epilogue: The Badger

  • The story of Jeremy Brown, the misshapen catcher who stumbles while rounding first base, scrambles back to the bag, only to find out he has hit a home run, is straight from the book. We learn that Jeremy Brown goes from ridicule as the seemingly silly and misguided pick of the A’s in the first round of the amateur draft, to a player who is excelling in the minor leagues, moving up the ranks, because of his already acquired ability to control the strike zone by taking pitches and earning walks.

 *******

If you liked the baseball elements of the movie “Moneyball” (there are two very short mentions of Billy Beane’s personal life in the book—as indicated earlier, in my opinion the weakest part of the movie), you must read the Michael Lewis book. It is one of those books I hated to see end. With the deviations I’ve mentioned, the movie is faithful to the basic ideas of the book. The book just has so much more detail, rich detail written in an engaging style that will have you wishing for more, and wishing for a sequel!

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Comments»

1. Tyra Chesnutt - June 22, 2012

Loving the information on this website, you have done great job on the blog posts.


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