In case you live under a rock — which I have been accused of many times in the past — the new “Moneyball” movie comes out in theaters next Friday. Many baseball writers have already seen the movie in private screenings, and reviews are starting to trickle out. From what I’ve seen, the movie is drawing mixed reviews — some people like it and some hate it, but overall it sounds like a fun movie that won’t be terrible. And you know, that’s better than I had originally expected.
But one review has currently caused a bit of a skuttlebutt. Keith Law wrote a fair-handed takedown of the “Moneyball” movie on his person blog a few days ago, and his review drew enough attention that Michael Lewis himself responded. Law’s criticism touched on both the movie and baseball aspects of the film, and in general, he felt that both were lacking. Some of the comments seemed nitpicky to me — inaccuracies I wouldn’t necessarily have noticed, even as a pretty big baseball and “Moneyball” fan — but one of his comment has really stuck with me:
…[T]he lampooning of scouts, which draws from the book, isn’t any more welcome on screen (where some of the scouts are played by actual scouts) than it was on the page; they are set up as dim-witted bowling pins for Beane and Brand to knock down with their spreadsheets. It’s cheap writing, and unfair to the real people being depicted.
Man, how far we’ve come since “Moneyball” first came out. It makes me wonder if this movie is going to end up being a bad thing for the public perception of sabermetrics.
You know, it wasn’t all that long ago when it seemed funny and hip to make fun of scouts and baseball “traditionalists”. When “Moneyball” first came out, there were darts being flung back and forth from both sides of the aisle. Saberists weren’t afraid to criticize old-school baseball thinkers for being close-minded and stuck in their ways, and the old-school certainly wasn’t afraid to give right back at them. The baseball world was changing at a rapid pace, and it scared some people while invigorating others.
But these days? While there is still some lingering animosity, I think we can firmly stamp out the notion that saberists think scouts are useless. Even the most experienced and knowledgeable statheads acknowledge the importance of scouts, and the value in accruing as much knowledge and information as possible. Sabermetrics isn’t about stats; as Tango loves to say, it’s the search for objective truth about baseball.
The more and more we discover about baseball, the more we realize the truth is somewhere in-between. Pitchers do have some control over their balls in play…just not nearly as much as traditionally thought. Lumbering sluggers with high walk rates are valuable….just not as valuable as saberists used to think, due to their poor defense. As our knowledge has become more nuanced, I’ve started to realize that whoops, maybe we were a bit too harsh on non-saberists back in the day.
Many of the statistics tracked here on FanGraphs have their roots in scouting data — velocity readings, Pitch F/x charts, plate discipline rates, batted ball profiles, etc. — and scouting is a vital part of any organization. But when this “Moneyball” movie comes out, are saberists going to be depicted as know-it-all, holier-than-thou elitists? Because if so, dammit. That’s the image we’ve been trying to tear down for the last few years, and now it’s just going to be reinforced.
I’m excited to see the “Moneyball” movie, as I was a big fan of the book at the time. But I can’t help but ask myself: is “Moneyball” slightly dated already? Yes, Billy Beane’s general principles of statistical analysis and market inefficiencies still hold true today — and both have swept the baseball world — but will this movie only widen the divide between those that appreciate stats and those that don’t?
Only time will tell. I wish I could say I was optimistic.