‘Moneyball’: The Value of Reason

Brad Pitt’s new movie, Moneyball, may be about baseball but it also raises larger questions about the importance of applying facts and rationality to achieve a successful outcome, a lesson that the American people might apply to their political judgments, writes Lisa Pease.

By Lisa Pease

Even if you don’t care for baseball, you’re going to love the new film Moneyball. It’s an intelligent, well-written, well-acted, and well-directed film. In fact, the less you know about baseball, the better, as the few moments that are actually about the game will be a surprise.

On the surface, the story is about Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), a former Major Leaguer himself turned manager of the Oakland Athletics (A’s), and his quest to bring his team a World Series championship, a quest that has already cost him his wife and that challenges his relationship with his daughter.

But the more important story is the one about the battle between letting logic and facts and the lessons of history guide one’s choices vs. going by opinions and gut instinct.

The film opens with the Oakland A’s successful but incomplete 2001 season. The team had made it to the American League playoffs but lost to the New York Yankees. In addition, the team had just lost three of its best players to richer teams.

And, the A’s had one of the lowest budgets in Major League Baseball. The central conflict is timely: how can a little guy successfully compete when the game is rigged toward the rich?

Beane realizes that for one of the poorest teams in baseball to compete with the richer teams, he has to come up not with new players so much as a new approach to the game, something that has never been done before.

In the film, Beane turns to a young man named Peter Brand (played by Jonah Hill) who has taken the statistical calculations of another man named Bill James and turned them into a computer program. Stats from every player are filtered through the program.

The process, removed of all human bias, highlights the value of some overlooked players and downgrades some overhyped players.

Beane decides to bet on the math and to hire the people the computer program has suggested. This upsets the traditionalists, especially the longtime scouts who can’t understand why Beane would trust a computer over their longtime experience.

Beane hires unwanted and broken-down players and has-beens to create a team that, to the surprise of nearly everyone, starts to play very well.

The film’s most suspenseful moments may be lost on longtime A’s fans and baseball experts, so the less you know about the A’s 2002 season, the better. But even if you know or suspect the outcome, the story will retain surprises. This is not a film written to satisfy a given Hollywood formula.

This is a film written to tell a true story, albeit with some liberties. For example, Jeremy Giambi was not hired in part to replace his brother. Jeremy was already a member of the team before the 2002 season began. Miguel Tejada is barely mentioned in the film but was a key part of the A’s wins that season.

But this isn’t a movie about history. This is a movie about ideas, and how sometimes, the little guy can still compete if he can come up with some new idea the big guys haven’t thought of or implemented.

It’s a movie that says hey, facts matter more than opinions, a notion the public at large would do well to embrace.  (Witness the ever more ridiculous debate over whether man-made pollution affects climate on a global scale.)

That said, as the movie also shows, facts cannot predict human actions completely, and we can’t entirely discount instinct.

It’s also a movie about a man struggling to find meaning in his life. What does this or that victory mean if you don’t win the ultimate prize? What does it mean if you do? Is making a lot of money a validation worth seeking? Or are there things more important than money?

Pitt, like the character he plays, leaves no doubt who is in charge in every scene. When he’s onscreen, your eyes follow him, and not just because of his looks. He is simply a commanding presence, and you can practically see his thoughts flow through that face.

Pitt delivers an intelligent, thoughtful performance. Jonah Hill does a subtly comic, wonderful job as his young data- and baseball-obsessed sidekick.

The film is based on the book Moneyball by Michael Lewis. The screenplay was written by Stephen Zaillian (who also wrote Schindler’s List, Mission Impossible and All the King’s Men, among many others) and modified by Aaron Sorkin, the prolific screenwriter famous for his TV series The West Wing as well as last year’s Academy Award winner for Best Film, The Social Network.

I hope this picture gets a nod from the Academy for Best Picture. It’s only the second film this year that really engaged me on both a mental and emotional basis (the first being an interesting little indie feature called Another Earth that poses the question of whether there are other versions of ourselves out there and what we might do should we have a chance to meet them).

Watching the film and its central argument — that facts matter more than opinion — brought to mind the many reviews of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink that missed an important point Gladwell made: While first impressions are often correct, we all have biases that can cause us to make mistakes.

For example, one orchestra found, to its surprise, that when it auditioned players behind a screen, with no idea whether they were male or female, the process led to the hiring of its first female trumpet player.

Similarly, a talk by Dan Airley at TED.com demonstrates vividly how, even when we consciously know the facts to be otherwise, we still get some things wrong.

I hope that this film changes the way people approach far more than sports. Do employers undervalue or overvalue employees and potential hires in a similar fashion? Study after study shows people exhibit a pronounced bias, whether conscious or unconscious, toward better-looking people.

CEOs tend to be taller than average men, begging the question of whether tall men have a natural advantage of self-confidence or whether shorter people instinctively feel more comfort or even a need to look up to a physically taller figure.

With so many quality people out of work (in part due to the arrogance of swaggering CEOs) perhaps Moneyball will launch a trend where competence trumps swagger.

I’m convinced if people could get past the label of “Obamacare” and actually review the provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (the legislation’s actual name) they would find much they could support.

Who would be against preventing insurance companies from denying care to people with preexisting conditions? Who would oppose forcing insurance companies to pay out at least 80 percent in actual medical coverage (as opposed to in bonuses or salaries, as they could without the bill)?

Who wouldn’t want health care providers to be made more accountable for actual results?

Imagine a world where facts, not emotions, determine reality. Imagine a political system where policy was determined by what works as opposed to ideology. Wouldn’t that be something?

If people were to approach the world from a more factual basis as a result of seeing this film, Billy Beane will have won far more than any World Series could ever give him.

Lisa Pease is a writer who has examined issues ranging from the Kennedy assassination to voting irregularities in recent U.S. elections.

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6 comments on “‘Moneyball’: The Value of Reason

  1. Great article but one correction, the Social Network won for Best Screenplay not Best Picture last year.

  2. Lisa Pease on said:

    You are so right, and I stand corrected. I’m sorry to have taken that from The King’s Speech, which was also excellent (and the Best Picture winner).

  3. Just to add, the value of reason is also something that started the study of what is known as Behavioural Economics.

    It turns out there’s somewhat of a difference between what people think is financial investment in their own selfish best interest at the time they do it, and what they realize afterwards sometimes wasn’t such a good idea.

    So profit is not the only motive; there’s also the motive to feel the thrill of winning.

  4. art guerrilla on said:

    1. generally agree with most of your writings, etc (since w-a-y back when hanging out at jfkassass newsgruppe), but have to differ on your closing analogy:
    ‘obamacare’ was/is a smelly pile of poop which has a couple semi-precious stones stuck in it, but we didn’t have to get a smelly pile of poop to get those gems…
    2. to that end, obamacare entrenches THE number one cause of waste, fraud, and abuse in the healthcare system: insurance parasites… all the rest is not only minor, it is likely to be worked around (as it already is!) by the very profits-before-people rapacious korporations who now run the whole show…
    i have just about zero faith in the various ‘guarantees’ and other small advances being touted as being eventually implemented to benefit us li’l peeps significantly…
    just sayin’…
    art guerrilla
    aka ann archy
    artguerrilla@windstream.net
    eof

  5. John Cole on said:

    As a retired scout who played the role of Roger Jongewaard in the signing scene of Billy Beane, let me say that mathematical analysis is very valuable when you can compare apples and apples. Still it is about what you have done and not necessarily what you will do in the future. Good health and opportunity are critical to the area success in the area of baseball and sports in general. When he tried this with the draft, it was much less successful as an approach because you were not comparing apples and apples. College and high school leagues and players vary tremendously and it is hard to find comparable environments and very difficult to tell how an 18 yr old will perform at 23 (Billy Beane is a great example). Now you start to transfer that idea from baseball or any other sport to a different environment (politics) and you have to be very careful. It may be apples and apples you are comparing but you are trying to predict the future from what your interpretation of the past may have produced. Add the human element of politicians and it is a real crap shoot.

    • Lisa Pease on said:

      Hi, Art. Longtime no see. I don’t have time now to debate the pros and cons of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act or you know I would. ;-)

      Re John Cole’s comment, I agree that, as those stock disclaimers always say, “past performance is no guarantee of future results.” But I also believe it’s good to weight past performance MORE than gut instinct, someone’s looks, and the various other subjective criteria we consciously and unconsciously bring to the table. Yep. No one can predict the future. But there are lessons to be learned from the past, when we really examine it.