You look at Johnny Damon and you see a player worth $7.5 million. I look at Johnny Damon and I see a good defensive player, a decent leadoff hitter, but the Red Sox are going to pay him $8 million and he’s not worth that.
–approximate quote by “Peter Brand” from Moneyball
Over the weekend, I went to see Moneyball with the venerable and impossibly young Jack Moore, of FanGraphs, NotGraphs, Disciples of Uecker and other things. I had read the reviews saying that it was horrifically ill-structured and a crime against God and nature. And I’d read the reviews saying it was “a smart, intense and moving film that isn’t so much about sports as about the war between intuition and statistics,” even though those reviews contained numerous factual errors. I was hoping, at least, to be entertained for two hours. And I was.
The film, strangely, spends a great deal of time talking about the relative value of Johnny Damon. Who is Johnny Damon? What’s he worth? What does he contribute? Can the A’s replace him? It’s more than a little ironic that Johnny Damon, even though he doesn’t appear in the film except in clips of game footage, is even more of a character than AL Cy Young Award winner Barry Zito or AL MVP Miguel Tejada. Don’t get me wrong, Johnny Damon has been a fine ballplayer for a lot of years. He’s closing in on 3,000 hits and he has won two World Series. And he’s almost never been a drag on his teams. But Johnny Damon’s fame has long eclipsed his usefulness as a player. Consider the reaction when he left Boston after 2005 to join the Yankees:
“‘I can’t believe he’s leaving,” said Cheryl Tello, 43, of Everett, Mass., who was shopping for a pink Red Sox outfit for a friend’s baby daughter. “It stings so much more because he’s going to the Yankees.’
To many here, Damon was the face of the 2004 championship team, his toothy grin and long locks inspiring elementary school boys to grow shoulder-length hair while vendors hawked ‘What Would Johnny Damon Do?’ T-shirts bearing an inky image of the ballplayer.
‘You think of the Red Sox and you think of Johnny Damon these days,’ said Scott Nguyen, 26, a retail clerk from Boston.”
He’s made more than $100 million in his career, he’s played on high profile clubs in Boston and New York, and women seem to find him relatively handsome. But in reality, he’s averaged 2.8 Wins Above Replacement per full season in the Majors. He’s been consistently a good, but not excellent player, who has not been a bargain over the second half of his career for the teams on which he’s played.
But neither should he be dismissed by statheads. Joe Posnanski wrote, “I don’t think he will get even close to the Hall of Fame. Why not? Well: He’s not a Hall of Fame Player…. Nobody – from the person driven by gut reactions to the people driven by advanced stats – thinks Johnny Damon belongs in the Baseball Hall of Fame.” Joe’s right, Damon’s not a Hall of Fame quality player, but he’s still a noteworthy player. A guy we should pay attention to. Someone who has been uniquely entwined in baseball history and who has left a significant stamp on the game. He deserves to be discussed, feted, and appreciated for all that he is, was, and means to baseball, even if he never gets enshrined in Cooperstown.
Similarly, Moneyball is a movie that every one of you should see. It’s a movie that deserves to be discussed, to be debated, and to be appreciated. It’s a remarkable accomplishment to make a movie in which even a dispiriting loss (as the A’s suffered in 2002 to the Minnesota Twins) can feel like an uplifting win. It also manages to make math fairly intriguing, which I wish I had still understood before I chose my college majors thirteen years ago. And as I pointed out earlier today on my own site, Moneyball is also pretty damn funny.
It takes a lot of effort and talent to make a film about a core idea and revolution in statistical analysis and to make that film smart, but also compelling and interesting to a general audience. Aaron Sorkin, Steven Zaillian, Bennett Miller, Jonah Hill, and Brad Pitt manage to do that.
That said, for all the praise that Roger Ebert, Hipsters (many of whom I assume are actually Carson Cistulli in disguise), and Rotten Tomatoes can heap on it, it doesn’t change the fact that there are significant problems with the film. The first, for fans of the book and of baseball, is that much of what happens in the film is severely fictionalized for narrative convenience or is ludicrous on its face. Why does Billy Beane have to travel to Cleveland to talk about acquiring Ricardo Rincon? Why do Billy Beane and Ron Washington feel the need to court free agent Scott Hatteberg at his house, even though Hatteberg has no other teams pursuing him? Why are guys like Zito, Tejada, Eric Chavez, Tim Hudson, and Mark Mulder essentially invisible?
Fans of the book and the concept of sabermetrics may also have a huge problem with the way that the film picks sides in the stats vs. scouts, and defense debates. After all, advanced statistical analysis has matured significantly over nine years, recognizing the value inherent in scouting and defense. But the movie, for narrative purposes, does turn a room full of scouts into doddering and angry old men.
Finally, and I thank Jack Moore for his insight into this last point, one of the problems of Moneyball is that it does a lot of telling, but not a lot of showing. Beane decides to pursue Jeremy Giambi, Hatteberg, and David Justice, but we don’t really see how he goes about getting them. Nor, with the exception of Hatteberg, do we see anything to suggest how they affect the performance of the team. It’s as though we are left to trust that the philosophy of Beane and “Peter Brand” worked, without seeing how or why. Likewise, we don’t see how Carlos Pena’s struggles as the everyday first baseman lead to him being traded; we only see Beane frustrated that Art Howe won’t play Hatteberg. There’s a power struggle going on, but we don’t see the ramifications of that struggle on the field, only the occasional chair thrown in frustration.
But don’t let that keep you from seeing the film. It’s quite literally a different kind of movie from anything you’ve seen before. And it’s to it’s credit that, after a couple of days to digest it, I still want to mull it, talk about it, and fight over it. It’s neither as bad as you’ve heard, nor as good, but definitely as thought-provoking.