At the end of the 2001 season Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the General Manager of the Oakland A’s, has a big problem. He has the smallest budget of any Major League team and he is losing his three best players to the free agent market. His only hope is to outsmart his rivals by identifying and recruiting high-quality players whom the market undervalues, thus building a superior team without spending much money.
Then he meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) a nerdy overweight baseball fanatic and statistics wizard. Brand is a devotee of Bill James, the creator of a controversial theory that a player’s value to the team can be determined by objective numerical measures, and that these prove that the current generation of baseball managers often grossly misjudge a player’s worth.
Naturally the movie skims lightly over the technical details, focusing on the human interest side of the story. Only one technical point is even briefly covered: James’s idea that a player’s offensive ability should be measured using a statistic called “on-base percentage” instead of by the traditional batting average. (Batting averages don’t count walks and errors, ignoring the fact that power hitters are often deliberately walked and an apparent error may be due to a batter’s ability to “hit ’em where they ain’t.”)
Baseball’s traditional approach is summed up by an early scene in which a room full of scouts predict the future performance of players based on gut feelings and such unscientific criteria as how good the players look and how hot their girlfriends are. (“An ugly girlfriend shows a lack of self-confidence!”)
Clearly Beane and Brand have their work cut out for them. Much of the drama centers around the conflict between Beane and the A’s crusty tradition-minded Manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
The movie takes some liberties with the truth. Before anyone else points it out I should mention that “Peter Brand” is a pseudonym used because Paul DePodesta, the A’s real Assistant GM, objected to the nerdy way he was being portrayed. Other critics object that Michael Lewis in his original book chose his facts selectively to make a better story. (See David Haglund’s spoiler-laden critique in Slate.)
Nevertheless the movie is thoughtful, insightful and free from unnecessary embellishment.