You know that statistics have made irreversible inroads into baseball when their proponents can be portrayed in pop culture like the bad-guy banker/land developer in a dopey ‘80s movie. That’s not really the main trouble with “Trouble with the Curve,” but it is telling, especially as the Oakland A’s of “Moneyball” fame return to prominence and, very likely, the postseason crapshoot.
I wanted so much to like this movie, and part of me did, just because -- finally -- here’s a story about a father-daughter relationship told through and around baseball, to go with the thousand father-son stories that get sent down the production line every year. And I love Clint Eastwood, pretending “J. Edgar” and certain other recent performances never happened; he’s still Harry Callahan and "The Man With No Name" and Will Munny, and he still can growl -- literally growl -- better than pretty much anyone.
So I was ready to go along for a while, even while the movie’s ridiculously cartoonish stat-head character -- plucked not from “Moneyball,” but from Joe Morgan’s conception of “Moneyball” -- set my teeth on edge, as expected, with lines such as, “I don't need to see him play! I've got it right here on my computer.” It’s not the primary focus of the movie, but how on earth are we still having this argument? It’s not even an argument anymore, just fighting back against things that caricatures of the other side might have said in your imagination.
What’s so frustrating is that the “Moneyball” debate of stats vs. scouts is not a debate. The answer to stats vs. scouts is incredibly obvious: Baseball needs both. The sport and its players are hard as hell to predict with any accuracy, and if it’s your job to do so, you should use every shred of information you can get your hands on. So you listen to your scouts, and you also listen to your analysts, and you make the best choice you can. This is not hard to grasp, and in fact it’s exactly what the vast majority of major league teams are currently doing. And yet, here we are, pitting an old scout against an analyst who relies on the “interwebs.”
That anti-scout character is played by Matthew Lillard -- last seen, by me, getting murdered in “Scream,” a plot twist that would have greatly improved this movie. He is decidedly un-geeky here; he uses his newfangled computing machine and disregards Eastwood’s eyewitness experience, but he carries himself like one of the villains from "Animal House," not like the treasured stat-haters’ stereotype of the nerd in his mother’s basement. It’s an illustration of how mainstream and dominant statistics have become.
Having Clint Eastwood rant about computers makes sense; his character is supposed to be desperately unwilling to change, and that’s not supposed to be a good thing. The film itself has no real thought-out anti-stat agenda. Its screenplay just seems to thinks that anyone with goals that oppose our heroes’ has to be a hateful creep, and so the lawyer competing with Amy Adams’ character for partnership is a slimy backstabber, and the player Eastwood doesn’t want to draft is arrogant and sneering, and Lillard as the front-office stats guy competing for the GM’s ear is callous, undermining, hostile and soulless. It doesn’t come from any particular disdain for the numbers, just lazy writing.
I can’t quite decide which movie’s ending is less realistic: “Trouble with the Curve” or “The Scout,” in which Brendan Fraser’s troubled pitcher makes his major league debut for the Yankees in the World Series AND throws a perfect game AND does it by striking out all 27 Cardinals players he faces BY MEANS OF throwing 81 consecutive strikes.
OK, maybe “The Scout” is less realistic.
Still, the end of “Trouble with the Curve” gives it a run for its money, wherein, to provide only moderate spoilers, a just-drafted high school player is finally and completely evaluated by the Atlanta Braves’ front office after 10 swings in batting practice.
(I understand why they did this, because evaluating a scout’s choices actually takes years, and is not always clear even then, hardly conducive to a cinematic climax. This scene is so ludicrous, though, that few serious baseball fans will be able to get past it. Having an alien spaceship arrive at Turner Field would have done less harm to my suspension of disbelief.)
Hollywood ending aside, rather than an attack on sabermetrics that needs to be fought off, this movie ends up being a testament to its dominance. The Oakland A’s are winning again and no one is even talking about their reliance on advanced statistics this year, because while they were early adopters, virtually every team uses those numbers to at least some extent. If you want to portray stat nerds as the bad guys, you now have to move them from their mothers' basements and make them besuited scumbags in the front office. I guess that’s some sort of progress.