In this series, I am pulling together little fragments of the movie, Moneyball, to form themes that I noticed and liked. Or maybe I just invented them. This one has to do with Peter Brand. Peter is supposed to be the rock on which Billy Beane, the general manager, rebuilds the Oakland A’s. And he is. For a while.
Billy meets Pete in Cleveland where Pete has just ended Billy’s attempt to trade for Garcia, an outfielder. Pete is willing to tell Billy that he ruined the trade because he “likes Garcia.” But he won’t tell Billy, in a public setting, just why he likes Garcia. The reason turns out to be that Pete likes Garcia because of the value Garcia can be shown to have using the mathematical analysis Pete knows how to use. Except that he isn’t allowed to use it in Cleveland. It scares the baseball people in Cleveland and they shun him.
Pete is relying on an analysis of baseball that in the movie, Moneyball, is represented by Bill James and that, in the book, Moneyball, has a long and distinguished heritage. The scene where Pete tells Billy the truth about baseball looks for all the world like the Deep Throat scenes from All the President’s Men. Probably, it is supposed to. Managers misevaluate and misuse their players, says Pete, because they don’t know any better, but “Bill James and mathematics cuts through all that.”
“Cutting through all that” sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? I hope it does, because that’s as good as it gets in this movie.
In the scene that caught my attention most recently, Pete is in the unfamiliar position of doing something with what he knows. Keep “Bill James and mathematics cuts through all that” in the center of your attention. Now, while you are holding on to that, add the caution, “but if it doesn’t go the way we want…” Do those fit?
Here’s the context. Billy can’t get Art Howe, the field manager, to play the people Billy and Pete have chosen. Billy’s solution to that difficulty is to trade all the people Art is actually playing so he will have to play the new guys. That means that Carlos Peña has to go and Scott Hatteberg will stay and play first. Pete has projected that Hatteberg will be better at first. He gets on base 20% more than Peña does. That 20% is a reflection of the old “Bill James and mathematics” standard. It is what Pete ought to be most confident about.
But the prospect of action and—to be fair, Pete’s friendship for Billy—have shaken Pete’s confidence. That’s why he says that if Billy trades Peña and “things don’t go the way we want…” Pete really shouldn’t be contrasting “the way we hope things will go” with “the way things will actually go.” Pete has enemies everywhere and his math—not his hopes– is all he has to go on.
So Billy tries again. “Do you project we’ll win more games with Peña or with Hatteberg at first?” You’d think that would be the only question worth asking, wouldn’t you? It is the only question Pete thought was worth asking until this scene. “It’s close,” Pete says, “but theoretically, Hatteberg.” Notice Pete groping again for somewhere to escape. Theoretically? Excuse me? Pete, “theoretically” is all you have to go on. It is what you sold Billy and it is the current approach of the Oakland A’s. Theoretically rather than what? Is there another way to go?
Of course there is. The “other way to go” is what the scouts have been urging on Billy. The scouts with their experienced eye and their intuition can tell what young player has the stuff to be an Oakland A. That is the approach Billy destroyed in his early meeting with the scouts by pointing out that if a player had that much promise, the A’s wouldn’t be able to afford to sign him. So Pete and “theoretically” are the alternative.
So Pete doesn’t stumble at every question. When Billy asks him point blank, “Do you believe in this or not?” Pete says, “I do.” It does seem odd, now that I think of it, that Pete because of his friendship with Billy and because of his wariness of abrupt action could be brought to let go of the one thing that is keeping them all afloat—“Bill James and mathematics.” But he does.
Just one more thing. I wrote this post in my head when I was running on the trail in Portland’s Forest Park. I’m an endorphin runner and when I get high on the kind of painkillers the body produces in those circumstances, I think some odd things. Mostly I forget them. Or if not, I have the sense not to publish them. But this one has continued to please me, so here it is.
In this scene, Peter denies Billy thrice. Doesn’t that sound familiar?