“You have to remember that there wasn’t any evidence that any of this shit worked.” Sandy Alderson, former Oakland A’s general manager.
“I thought if I proved X was a stupid thing to do that people would stop doing X. I was wrong” Bill James, writer.
I’ve seen many reference to ‘Moneyball’ since John W. Henry prised Liverpool F.C. from the cold, obnoxious palms of Tom Hicks and George Gillette last month, but what does it mean? And, given that it’s a baseball thing, can it be applied to football?
If you’re a baseball fan I’d argue ‘Moneyball’ by Michael Lewis is bloody essential reading. It is, in one sense, a narrative of how a man – Billy Beane – came to run a baseball team – the Oakland Athletics – very effectively and successfully despite having one of the smallest budgets in the game. A gripping underdog story populated by interesting characters it’s easy to root for.
In another sense – and perhaps this is where it’s longevity lies – it tells of how baseball strategy has evolved using statistics to view players in a different way. Due to the fact that Billy Beane and his mentor Sandy Alderson were two of the first baseball execs to use these advanced metrics as a way of evaluating players they found that there was a gap in the market that they could exploit. Players who had previously been overlooked by bigger teams were signed by Oakland and the team was able to compete with the likes of the Yankees with a fraction of their payroll. Put simply, Oakland found a successful way of doing things before any other team in Major League Baseball were able to redress the balance.
Where does John Henry come into this? Well, after Oakland’s success other baseball teams cottoned onto this new way of evaluating players and one of the first teams to appoint purely ‘stats guys’ was the Boston Red Sox, owned by Henry. Henry had been canny enough in making his fortune on the stock market to know that a market inefficiency must be exploited, especially if it can give you a significant advantage against your opponents and so Oakland’s way of placing importance on on-base percentage over batting average (if you’re at all into baseball you’ll hopefully know what these mean) was adopted by Boston who went onto win their first World Series in 84 years.
I would argue that the main difference between ‘Moneyball’, as in the method used by Oakland and portrayed by Michael Lewis in his book, and what John Henry did at Boston is an economic one. As soon as other teams employed the same way of thinking as Oakland then the gulf in player evaluation was shortening and, as bigger teams were able to outbid each other for ‘Moneyball’-type players, Oakland were, in effect, priced out of their own market. Henry’s Red Sox , in some ways, took up the mantle from Billy Beane thanks to the fact they were a rich franchise who could pay almost any amount of money for a player. In essence, ‘Moneyball’ was no longer by definition a cheap system to operate and, in the world of baseball’s big spenders, Boston spent their money a lot more effectively than others and accrued the just rewards.
The economic factor is, I think, the big one in some misconceptions that arise about John Henry and ‘Moneyball’. I heard Sean Ingle on the Guardian’s excellent Football Weekly podcast remark recently that the large amount of money Liverpool’s new Director of Football Strategy, Damien Comoli, had spent at previous teams was ‘not very Moneyball’. Whilst Ingle’s sentiments are true in the Billy Beane sense, John Henry’s version of ‘Moneyball’ has never especially been about doing things on the cheap. Henry has had the luxury of having a lot of money to put into the Red Sox and his World Series winning teams have had one of the highest payrolls in baseball.
Liverpool fans will hope that the same is true of their team and, purely from my opinion after seeing how Henry runs a sports team, I imagine he will put money into the club. How ‘Moneyball’ affects this benevolence will be that I imagine Henry will want to ensure that the money is spent correctly and effectively. Maybe he’ll employ people who find some marvelous new way of scouting players and Liverpool will become the footballing force they were in the 1980s. More likely is that, rather than throw obscene amounts of money at the best footballers in the world and hope for an immediate return, Henry and Comoli will be more thoughtful in their processes, more systematic and empirical in their thinking – ‘more geeky’ is how some of Moneyball’s stateside detractors would put it.
If you’re someone who’s team doesn’t play in the Premier League team you can hope that John Henry is an antidote to the wild, free spending that goes on at Chelsea and Manchester City. Personally, I hope he brings success to Liverpool and claims a victory for common sense and intellect over the distasteful convention that seems to be developing that the best team is the one who spends the most money, not the one who spends it the wisest.
Although this is purely conjecture, it’s a fair bet that John Henry will be good for Liverpool. If their approaches to running a baseball team are anything to go by then he is the polar opposite of Tom Hicks. Hicks ran his franchise – the Texas Rangers – seemingly on attracting big names to get people through the gates and sell replica shirts. Henry’s philosophy seems to be that the best way to make money with a sports team is to make sure that they are organised and well run in order to make sure that they win.
So, what exactly is Moneyball? In baseball it can be a by-word for statistics, running a team cheaply or even, derisively, just a book championed by nerds who want to take the fun out of the game. Obviously none of that applies to football specifically so is it irrelevant? I think the definition that should be used in the context of John Henry and could be applied best to football is the following, given by newly appointed New York Mets Vice President of Player Development and Scouting, Paul DePodesta (one of the main protagonists in Lewis’ book):
“It’s a constant investigation of stagnant systems, to see if you can find value where it isn’t readily apparent. It can be anything. At the time, it happened to be using statistics to make better decisions. That’s not always the case. There are new frontiers we need to conquer.”
The question of whether that can be done in football to a degree that puts Liverpool ahead of their rivals remains to be answered. Liverpool fans can be confident, however, that their club is, at the very least, in good hands.