Aaron at the movies: “Moneyball” review

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Last night I attended an advance screening of the “Moneyball” movie, which is set for a wide release on September 23.

I’ve read Michael Lewis’ book twice and consider it some of the best, most important baseball writing of all time, but I was never quite sure how exactly it could be turned into a compelling narrative film. And I’m still not sure, but I do know that it was definitely an enjoyable two hours.

As a hardcore baseball fan who paid close attention to Billy Beane and the A’s during the period portrayed in the film there were a lot of specifics that stood out as questionable, particularly in terms of the movie’s time lines and exaggerated portrayals of certain characters (although the book is guilty of the latter as well).

However, what the movie lacked in historical accuracy it made up for in witty dialogue, likable characters, and a surprising amount of humor. I saw the movie in a packed theater and there were at least 8-10 moments where the entire audience laughed out loud, which certainly isn’t what I expected.

Brad Pitt is charming as A’s general manager Billy Beane and an effort was clearly made to portray him as far less cocky and far more vulnerable than he appeared in the book. There’s still an inherent cockiness to the character, but by making his 12-year-old daughter a substantial character and giving Pitt plenty of chances to contemplatively stare off into the distance while rubbing his stubble the main character is less brash general manager and more flawed human with a high-pressure job.

Jonah Hill is the movie’s second lead and plays the A’s assistant general manager, which is a position that Paul DePodesta actually held at the time of the Moneyball book. DePodesta reportedly refused to let the movie use his name and it’s easy to see why, as the “Peter Brand” character out-weighs him by about 150 pounds and is essentially the stereotypical stat-head, whereas DePodesta played both baseball and football at Harvard and had a completely different and less cliched backstory.

Which isn’t to say Hill’s fictional character isn’t likable, because he carried much of the movie and provided most of the comic relief as the chubby numbers guy thrust into a prominent job that’s way out of his element initially. Pitt and Hill work very well off each other and Parks and Recreation co-star Chris Pratt has some good moments as Scott Hatteberg, although the portrayal of the 14-year big-league veteran veered too close to Rudy Ruettiger territory at times.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays manager Art Howe and is given by far the most thankless role of the movie, essentially serving as the villain to Beane’s hero. Howe’s relationship with Beane was far from ideal and he left the A’s following back-to-back 100-win seasons, but it’s hard to imagine the actual Howe being as stubborn and difficult as Hoffman’s version. Beane’s character needed roadblocks and frequent conflict, and Howe did little beyond serving that role.

While creative license was taken with plenty of time lines and specifics, the film also does an excellent job of staying true to the most minute details. They mention dozens of actual players, mostly in situations that actually existed, and all of the recreations of games featured the players who were truly involved. When you see the A’s playing the Royals and Luis Ordaz is on second base, you know they combed through the boxscores in order to get every little thing correct.

Parts of the movie dragged on and there were predictable struggles to show rather than tell when the action was lacking, but director Bennett Miller was able to squeeze more drama out of the book than I anticipated. I came into the movie with low expectations and was bothered by some of the poetic license taken in telling a tale I’m very familiar with, but the underdog story is compelling, the individual performances are mostly very good, the Aaron Sorkin-penned dialogue is funny and charming, and “Moneyball” is absolutely worth seeing.

For a lot more “Moneyball” talk, check out the podcast I recorded immediately after seeing the movie.

MLB Network airs segment listing “good” and “bad” $100 million-plus contracts

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On Wednesday evening, Charlie Marlow of KTVI FOX 2 News St. Louis posted a couple of screencaps from a segment MLB Network aired about $100 million-plus contracts that have been signed. The list of “bad” contracts, unsurprisingly, is lengthier than the list of “good” contracts.

As Mike Gianella of Baseball Prospectus pointed out, it is problematic for a network owned by Major League Baseball to air a segment criticizing its employees for making too much seemingly unearned money. There’s a very clear conflict of interest, so one is certainly not getting a fair view of the situation. MLB, of course, can do what it wants with its network, but it can also be criticized. MLB Network would never air a similar segment in which it listed baseball’s “good” and “bad” owners and how much money they’ve undeservedly taken. Nor would MLB Network ever run a segment naming the hundreds of players who are not yet eligible for arbitration whose salaries are decided for them by their teams, often making the major league minimum ($545,000) or just above it. Similarly, MLB Network would also never think of airing a segment in which the pay of minor league players, many of whom make under $10,000 annually, is highlighted.

We’re now past the halfway point in January and many free agents still remain unsigned. It’s unprecedented. A few weeks ago, I looked just at the last handful of years and found that, typically, six or seven of the top 10 free agents signed by the new year. We’re still at two of 10 — same as a few weeks ago — and that’s only if you consider Carlos Santana a top-10 free agent, which is debatable. It’s a complex issue, but part of it certainly is the ubiquity of analytics in front offices, creating homogeneity in thinking. A consequence of that is everyone now being aware that big free agent contracts haven’t panned out well; it’s a topic of conversation that everyone can have and understand now. Back in 2010, I upset a lot of people by suggesting that Ryan Howard’s five-year, $125 million contract with the Phillies wouldn’t pan out well. Those people mostly cited home runs and RBI and got mad when I cited WAR and wOBA and defensive metrics. Now, many of those same people are wary of signing free agent first baseman Eric Hosmer and they now cite WAR, wOBA, and the various defensive metrics.

The public’s hyper-sensitivity to the viability of long-term free agent contracts — thanks in part to segments like the aforementioned — is a really bad trend if you’re a player, agent, or just care about labor in general. The tables have become very much tilted in favor of ownership over labor over the last decade and a half. Nathaniel Grow of FanGraphs pointed out in March 2015 that the players’ share of total league revenues peaked in 2002 at 56 percent, but declined all the way to 38 percent in 2014. The current trend of teams signing their talented players to long-term contract extensions before or during their years of arbitration eligibility — before they have real leverage — as well as teams abstaining from signing free agents will only serve to send that percentage further down.

Craig has written at great length about the rather serious problem the MLBPA has on its hands. Solving this problem won’t be easy and may require the threat of a strike, or actually striking. As Craig mentioned, that would mean getting the players all on the same page on this issue, which would require some work. MLB hasn’t dealt with a strike since 1994 and it’s believed that it caused a serious decline in interest among fans, so it’s certainly something that would get the owners’ attention. The MLBPA may also need to consider replacing union head Tony Clark with someone with a serious labor background. Among the issues the union could focus on during negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement: abolishing the draft and getting rid of the arbitration system. One thing is for sure: the players are not in a good spot now, especially when the league has its own network on which it propagandizes against them.