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.

Six of seven players decline $17.9 million qualifying offers

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Dodgers pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu was the only one of seven eligible players to accept his $17.9 million qualifying offer. Bryce Harper, A.J. Pollock, Craig Kimbrel, Patrick Corbin, Yasmani Grandal, and Dallas Keuchel each rejected his, officially making them free agents. Teams that had their QO’s rejected will recoup a draft pick once the player signs elsewhere.

That Harper rejected his QO comes as no surprise, as he is expected to strike perhaps the largest free agent contract in baseball history. Though the free agent market has been less lucrative lately than in previous years, the combination of Harper’s elite talent and his age — he’s only 26 years old — makes him a primary target for more than a handful of teams. Harper reportedly turned down a 10-year, $300 million contract extension offer from the Nationals, so that would seem to be a baseline.

It is also not surprising that Kimbrel, 30, turned down his QO from the Red Sox. Despite a so-so showing during a championship run, Kimbrel is still young and talented enough to land another lucrative contract on the free agent market.

Keuchel bet on himself in turning down the Astros’ QO. He’s been solid since winning the AL Cy Young Award in 2015, owning a 3.77 ERA across 83 starts over the last three seasons. However, he turns 31 years old at the beginning of 2019, and his already mediocre strikeout rate declined even further this past season, so there may be some skepticism about his ability to perform over the course of a multi-year deal. Keuchel will still get one eventually, but his market may be slower to develop.

Pollock, soon 31 as well, will be the outfielder most coveted once Harper is off the market. When he’s healthy, he’s a dynamic five-tool player. However, Pollock hasn’t played in more than 113 games in a season since 2015, so that may be a red flag. Pollock ended 2018 batting .257/.316/.484 with 21 home runs, 65 RBI, 61 runs scored, and 13 stolen bases in 460 plate appearances while playing above-average defense according to various defensive metrics.

Grandal, 30, could’ve gone either way with his QO, but ultimately chose to decline. He had a disappointing postseason, both offensively and defensively. Given how humans are prone to recency bias, it stood to reason that his October performance could have hurt his market. The catching position, however, is rather weak and Grandal stands out in a market that is otherwise focused on Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto. Grandal did swat 24 home runs with an .815 OPS in 140 games for the Dodgers this past season.

Corbin, 29, was the most obvious QO decline after Harper. The lefty is coming off of a career year, finishing with a 3.15 ERA and a 246/48 K/BB ratio in exactly 200 innings. Corbin is the best free agent pitcher on the market this offseason. The Yankees have been seriously linked with Corbin even before the season ended.

Ryu likely chose to accept his QO because of his age and injury history. It would have been a gamble to pursue a multi-year deal. He did, however, make 15 starts during the regular season to the tune of a 1.97 ERA with 89 strikeouts and 15 walks in 82 1/3 innings. Those are great numbers. And most clubs would have been smart enough to look beyond his 5.21 ERA in the postseason, which has more to do with a leaky bullpen than his own personal failings. Still, it’s hard to fault Ryu for playing it safe and taking the guaranteed $17.9 million for one year.