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.

Angels rewarded for playing it straight with Mike Trout

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Tuesday’s big news featured Angels outfielder Mike Trout, who inked a 12-year, $426.5 million contract extension. As the deal replaced the two years and $66.5 million remaining on his previous contract, it is effectively a 10-year, $360 million contract. As Craig argued earlier, Trout’s contract for over one-third of a billion dollars is actually quite a bargain for a player of his caliber in an industry seeing more than $10 billion in revenues.

The Angels got such a bargain and the privilege of retaining one of the greatest baseball players of all time because they played it straight with Trout since they drafted him in 2009. Trout was selected 25th overall in the first round. His talent was immediately obvious, as he hit .360/.418/.506 in 39 games at rookie ball preceding a late-season promotion to Single-A Cedar Rapids. Trout earned a promotion to High-A Rancho Cucamonga the next summer. In 2011, Trout started the season with Double-A Arkansas before earning a call-up to the majors in early July. In roughly two years, Trout went from drafted out of high school to playing in the majors.

The Angels did not try to manipulate Trout’s service time, something that has become increasingly common among teams holding the game’s top prospects. The Cubs held Kris Bryant down in the minors longer than necessary in 2015 in order to gain an extra year of contractual control. The Braves did the same with Ronald Acuña Jr. last year. Despite an injury, the Blue Jays were going to keep No. 1 prospect Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. in the minors to start the 2019 season anyway, at least until they gained their extra year of contractual control.

Trout, though? The Angels called him up to debut on July 8, 2011 against the Mariners, replacing the injured Peter Bourjos in center field. At the time, the Angels were just one game out of first place behind the Rangers. Trout hit an abysmal .163/.213/.279 in 14 games. The Angels, understandably, sent him back to Double-A once Bourjos came off the disabled list. Trout was called back up in mid-August, sharing the outfield corners with Torii Hunter and an underperforming Vernon Wells. Trout put up a healthier .768 OPS the rest of the way.

Of course, we all know what Trout would become from that point on. Trout won the AL Rookie of the Year in 2012, also finishing second in AL MVP Award balloting. He likely would have won the award if Miguel Cabrera hadn’t won the Triple Crown. In 2013, Trout again finished second in AL MVP voting (again, to Cabrera, who did not win the Triple Crown this time). Though the Angels could have renewed Trout’s salary for not much more than the $510,000 he earned in 2013, the club chose to pay him $1 million for the 2014 season, a record one-year salary for a pre-arbitration player. One month later, the club inked him to a six-year, $144.5 million contract, covering the 2015-20 seasons — Trout’s age 23-28 seasons. Trout accrued a ridiculous 36.6 Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball Reference. The only other players in that neighborhood over that same span of time are Mookie Betts (32.9), José Altuve (26.0), and Nolan Arenado (25.3).

Prior to Tuesday’s extension news, many were already looking towards the free agent market after the 2020 season, when Trout would have become a free agent. Bryce Harper, who signed a 13-year, $330 million contract with the Phillies earlier this month, openly talked about recruiting Trout to the Phillies. Trout is from Millville, New Jersey, which is roughly an hour away from Philadelphia. Trout grew up a Phillies fan and is commonly seen at Eagles games during the baseball offseason. It made sense to think Trout would test free agency and come back home. The Angels have made the playoffs once during Trout’s career: 2014, when they were swept out of the ALDS in three games by the Royals. The club has averaged an 84-78 record during Trout’s career. The Phillies are on the come-up. Why would Trout want to hang around the Angels, mired in mediocrity?

Trout, however, has been deeply invested in the Angels’ future. The New York Post’s Joel Sherman tweeted, “Something that stood out to me while in #Angels camp: how invested Trout was in LAA’s improving farm system. Eppler told me Trout would sometimes call and ask if he had noticed something in a minor league boxscore. To me a sign he was in with LAA’s future.” What are the chances that Bryant and Acuña, for example, share a similar feeling of devotion to their respective teams after having their service time shamelessly manipulated?

One benefit of not treating players as disposable labor is loyalty, a feeling of “we’re in this together.” The Angels didn’t jerk Trout around like teams have done with so many other top prospects. They willingly gave a pre-arb Trout a raise when they could have nickel-and-dimed him to save $450,000 in 2014. They invested nearly $150 million in him as a 22-year-old. That paid dividends down the road, as Trout is now so invested in the Angels’ success that he has foregone a chance at free agency, when he possibly could have become baseball’s first half-billion-dollar man. Having Trout secured at a relative bargain through the 2030 season, and currently holding players like Shohei Ohtani and top prospects like Jo Adell, makes the Angels an attractive landing spot for free agents, international and domestic alike. Current players will want to stay in Anaheim. Angels fans will get to see one of the best baseball players of all time in an Angels uniform until his late-30’s. He will go into the Hall of Fame wearing an Angels cap. The Angels will have another decade of Trout drawing fans to TV broadcasts as well as Angels Stadium where they’ll spend money on concessions, t-shirts, and jerseys. Trout is a once-in-a-lifetime player, but other teams should take note: treating your players with dignity and respect may cost a few extra bucks up front, but the long-term gains can be bountiful.