Originally a 2003 book by financial journalist Michael Lewis, the 2011 film with Brad Pitt tells the story of the Oakland Athletics’ 2002 season. Struggling with fewer resources than his competitors and lacking the resources to replace star players who have been poached, general manager Billy Breane embraces data analytics to assemble “an island of misfit toys”: unpopular players flawed in specific ways whose superficial idiosyncrasies obscure an underlying solidity as players which registers empirically for those willing to look at the data. Even if you have no interest in baseball, the encounters between the orthodoxy of baseball management and the new world of data analytics are wonderfully engaging.
Breane grows ever more frustrated as a room full of ageing coaches and scouts earnestly recount their intuitions and heuristics to him in lieu of evidence-based argument, encompassing such certainties as that a player whose girlfriend is unattractive obviously lacking confidence and thus cannot be depended upon on the field. Having turned down a full scholarship to an Ivy League university as a young man because scouts cut from this same cloth hailed him as a future superstar, he has long nurtured a scepticism towards their intuitions as his own career failed to live up to expectations.
Breane’s chance encounter with an economist furtively working with a rival team, withholding much of his analysis lest he upset his established colleagues, provides him with a way out of this impasse. The embrace of data analytics promises a way of gaining competitive advantage over the better resourced teams in the league, ultimately paying off with a hugely successful campaign regarded as amongst the most notable in the history of the sport.
What’s notable about the film is the heroism it lends to a narrowly instrumental exercise, as what might once have seemed to be a dehumanising approach to the team’s players instead represents a brave struggle against incumbent irrationality. Breane is supported in this struggle by Peter Brand, whose numeracy carries an almost inhuman connotation, with the grizzled coaches and scouts struggling to recreate the maths as Breane’s human computer spits out arithmetic on command.
It’s an entertaining film which is sociologically interesting for the way in which it prefigures a poetics of data analytics which has only grown in subsequent years. It introduces elements which we can see elsewhere (the inhumanity of epistemic bias, the relationship between intuition and incumbency, the bravery needed to call orthodoxy into question) into the familiar form of a sports narrative, producing something new in the process: the embrace of data as a mode of bravery.