Oakland A's GM Billy Beane is handicapped with the lowest salary constraint in baseball. If he ever wants to win the World Series, Billy must find a competitive advantage. Billy is about to turn baseball on its ear when he uses statistical data to analyze and place value on the players he picks for the team.
In 2001, General Manager Billy Beane's Oakland A's lose to the Yankees in the playoffs then lose three stars to free agency. How can Beane field a competitive team when the A's player salaries total less than a third of the rich teams'? To the consternation of his scouts, Beane hires and listens to Peter Brand, a recent Yale grad who evaluates players using Bill James' statistical approach. Beane assembles a team of no names who, on paper, can get on base and score runs. Then, Beane's manager, Art Howe, won't use the players as Beane wants. Can Beane circumvent Howe, win games, make it to the 2002 Series, and stand baseball's hidebound conventions on their heads?
The Oakland A's end their 2001 season with a loss in the AL fifth game of a best of five elimination series, still an admirable accomplishment seeing as the A's are considered a poor team with a payroll one-third of that of a rich team like the New York Yankees. During the off season, they lose three of their star players through free agency, most problematic being first baseman Jason Giambi. Without more money which he doesn't get from owner Stephen Schott, the A's GM, Billy Beane, knows that they will never win the World Series as richer teams will always be able to pilfer their best players - ones they have been able to nurture - with more lucrative contracts. Billy knows they have to think differently about how to replace the three, looking at what they require in combination rather than looking at the three as individuals, which is different than the way scouts have looked at players over the sport's history. In a meeting with Cleveland Indians management about players, Billy meets Peter Brand, a quiet Yale Economics graduate, who works for the Indians doing player analysis. Upon questioning Peter later in private, Billy realizes that purely academic Peter has much the same thought process as he does. Billy hires him as the A's Assistant GM after receiving what he considers the correct answer to Billy's question on his own checkered past as a first round 1979 draft pick which led to notoriety as a failure as a player. But once on the payroll, Peter convinces Billy to look at the entire dugout, and acquire undervalued players for what they can do in order for the team to win. As an example, they acquire former catcher Scott Hatteberg, whose career is seen as being over by all other teams due to an elbow injury that doesn't allow him to throw. Although not a hitter, they acquire him for his ability to "get on base" in whatever way required (usually by walks), and plan to teach him how to play first base, a generally non-throwing position. These moves don't sit well with the A's scouting team and sports analysts. Problematic is that the A's Manager, Art Howe, who also doesn't agree with or understand the strategy, refuses to listen to Billy about how best to manage the team as assembled. Billy knows that his and Peter's jobs are on the line if they don't produce, which he realizes means nothing less than winning the World Series. But more important to Billy is to show the world of baseball that his way is the right way.
Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane's successful attempt to assemble a baseball team on a lean budget by employing computer-generated analysis to acquire new players.
- Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) is upset by his team's loss to the New York Yankees in the 2001 postseason. With the impending departure of star players Johnny Damon (Johnny Damon), Jason Giambi (Jason Giambi), and Jason Isringhausen to free agency, Beane attempts to devise a strategy for assembling a competitive team for 2002 but struggles to overcome Oakland's limited player payroll. During a visit to the Cleveland Indians, Beane meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a young Yale economics graduate with radical ideas about how to assess players' value. Beane tests Brand's theory by asking whether he would have drafted him, Beane having been a Major League player before becoming general manager. Though scouts considered Beane a phenomenal player, his career in the Major Leagues was disappointing. After some prodding, Brand admits that he would not have drafted him until the ninth round and that Beane would probably have gone to college instead. Sensing opportunity, Beane hires Brand as the Athletics' assistant general manager.
The team's scouts are first dismissive of and then hostile towards Brand's non-traditional sabermetric approach to scouting players. Rather than relying on the scouts' experience and intuition, Brand selects players based almost exclusively on their on base percentage (OBP). By finding players with a high OBP but characteristics that lead scouts to dismiss them, Brand assembles a team of undervalued players with far more potential than the A's hamstrung finances would otherwise allow. Despite vehement objections from the scouts, Beane supports Brand's theory and hires the players he selected, such as unorthodox submarine pitcher Chad Bradford (Casey Bond). Following the free agent signings, Beane finds that he also faces opposition from Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the Athletics' manager. With tensions already high between them because of a contract dispute, Howe disregards Beane and Brand's strategy and plays the team in a traditional style despite their unsuitability. Beane is eventually forced to trade away the lone traditional star player, Carlos Peña (Gerard Celasco), to force Howe to use the new recruits.
Early in the season, the Athletics fare poorly, leading critics within and outside the team to dismiss the new method as a dismal failure. Beane convinces the owner to stay the course, and eventually the team's record begins to improve. Ultimately, the Athletics win an unprecedented 20 consecutive games, setting the American League record. Their streak is capped with a victory over the Kansas City Royals. Like many baseball players, Beane is superstitious and avoids attending or sometimes even following games as they are in progress. His family convinces him to go to the A's game against the Royals, as Oakland is already leading 11 to 0 after the third inning and appears set to continue their winning streak. Beane arrives, only to watch the team go to pieces and allow the Royals to even the score. Finally, the A's do clinch the victory with a walk-off home run by one of Brand's picks, Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt). Despite all their success, the A's lose in the first round of the postseason, this time to the Minnesota Twins. Beane is disappointed, but satisfied at having demonstrated the value of his and Brand's methods.
In closing, the film notes that Beane passed up the opportunity to become the general manager of the Boston Red Sox, despite an offer of $12.5 million a year salary, which would have made him the highest paid GM in baseball history. Also noted is Boston's World Series victory soon after in 2004, based on the theories that Beane pioneered.