how legit was moneyball - mlb fact or fiction

If you’re into baseball or you’re a big Brad Pitt fan, you’ve probably seen Moneyball. It’s based on the true story of the Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane and how he used statistics to scout talent, choose players, and turn a losing team around. Based on the book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis, we wondered how legit the movie was and what Hollywood got wrong or just plain left out. Here’s what we learned…

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For the Most Part, They Got the Overall Story Right

In 2002, the A’s had one of the smallest budgets in the MLB and they struggled to outbid other teams for great players. Their GM Billy Beane – played by Brad Pitt – hit up Harvard grad and statistics guy Paul DePodesta, who was kinda played by Jonah Hill, except that DePodesta didn’t want his name in the movie. Together they went through decades of individual player data to settle on a strategy for finding good (or at least solid) players to create a winning team. As it turns out, the numbers could show very valuable stuff – like how many runs a player was good for. Scouts in those days, however, had been largely ignoring them.

Beane went forward with his new stat-backed recruiting strategy – known as sabermetrics – despite a bunch of naysayers, and the A’s won 20 consecutive games. They were the first team in over 100 years of baseball to do that, even against teams with much bigger budgets. In the years to follow and to this day, the MLB has incorporated statistics into everything, especially things like player evaluation. Billy Beane became famous, beat the system, and revolutionized sports. Okay, so that’s the jist anyway. So what did Hollywood get wrong?

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DePodesta Wasn’t a Big Nerd

Okay sure, a Harvard-educated stats whiz sounds like he’d be the awkward, number-crunching geek in the background who pops in to help out the real sports guys. But that’s not David DePodesta, Jonah Hill’s character. In fact, he was a big-time major league scout, general manager, and baseball executive, very similar to Beane. He was also a pretty confident former college athlete, Cleveland Indians employee, and all-around smartest guy in the room (who never acted like it).

DePodesta said he didn’t want his name associated with the film, so the writers re-imagined him as Jonah Hill’s character, Paul Brand. And he was, of course, the nervous, less-sporty type with an economics degree from Yale (instead of Harvard, whoa). While the film guys said he was more of a composite of several A’s associates at the time, but we know the truth.

The David Justice Vending Machine Scene Didn’t Happen

There’s a scene in the movie where new-to-the-team David Justice gets annoyed over having to pay for a soda in the clubhouse. Miguel Tejada walks by the vending machine, tells him he’s gotta put money in it to make it work, and says, “Welcome to Oakland.”

Justice laughed while watching the film anyway. “Never happened,” he said. “That’s Hollywood.”

Oakland Manager Art Howe Was Not Actually a Bad Dude

Supposedly the movie guys interviewed A’s manager Art Howe before casting Philip Seymour Hoffman to play him as a sloppy, overweight, self-righteous jerk. In fact, Howe was slim, athletic, and kinda the opposite. But every movie needs a bad guy, right?

Howe, quite understandably, did not take kindly to this portrayal. For instance, he remarked on how Brad Pitt’s character let player Mike Magnante go when he was just a few weeks away from getting his full pension. Howe chimed in that, no, in fact, it was he who was given that awful task. Howe said he even asked the team to leave Magnante on the roster for just a few more weeks so he could get his days in. The manager says he spent years building up a good reputation in the major leagues only to have this movie unfairly trash it in under two hours. Hey, now at least you know the truth!

They also didn’t trade Carlos Pena because of struggles with Howe. It was more because Pena wasn’t hitting well that season and the A’s needed the players and cash they could get for him. And Howe never had any arguments with Beane over his contract – that was just totally made up.

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It wasn’t really all about stats

According to DePodesta, there were still a lot of human emotions going into their recruiting decisions. He never actually advocated getting rid of the traditional system, as the movie would have you believe.  It wasn’t DePodesta and Beane fighting tooth and nail with the scouts to buck the system. They were just trying to use data to decrease the uncertainty of baseball and the players they acquired. He says they weren’t trying to erase the old system, just make it better.

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They left out some (very) important players.

And another big factor in the A’s turnarounds and win percentage? Much of their starting rotation were players who weren’t acquired using sabermetrics but rather scouted and drafted. And they made a huge contribution to the team. Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, and Mark Mulder were dominant pitchers who barely got a mention in the movie.

Oh, and you rarely hear anything about great hitters like Miguel Tejada or Eric Chavez. Tejada was known in the book as “Mr. Swing-At-Everything,” but mainly because he didn’t get on base the way Beane preferred: walking.

Billy Beane is Pretty Handsome

Hollywood got this one right. Excellent casting.

How’d you feel about Moneyball? Love it or hate it?