The Long Ball Tactic

What the hell is Moneyball?

Posted in Uncategorized by mike on November 10, 2010

“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.

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7 Responses

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  1. iain said, on November 11, 2010 at 1:38 pm

    a few minor things: moneyball was a book and as such presented a particular slant – good players tend to fill up the stat sheet and many of the much vaunted ‘obp’ players ended up as nothing…also the A’s success was built around mulder, hudson and zito. they’ve not been quite so successful without them, but he did understand that specific ‘positions’ such as closer were overvalued by other teams and Beane has ruthlessly exploited this. The red sox have applied smarts to big budgets but it is pitching which wins in baseball and that is where the strength was in 04 and 07.

    moving on, I was talking with a liverpool fan who is also a baseball fan (as am I) and we were talking about whether they would try to use big name assets to acquire young talent from teams as opposed to cash – trading as opposed to buying – if you consider the assets young and talented they could prise from say barca for torres – it’s half a team…any thoughts they might apply that sort of logic and mindset to take advantage of the market inefficiencies?

  2. longballtactic said, on November 11, 2010 at 1:57 pm

    Yeah, I simplified it a bit by just referring to OBP. I think there’s other advanced metrics that people like J.P. Ricciardi and DePodesta looked at to do with fielding and the value of a win that have currency. Like DePo said, “there are new frontiers”. I think Swisher is one example of an ‘OBP guy’ that was undervalued by other teams (esp the Mets, bloody Steve Phillips!) and has been successful. But then I guess you have guys like Jeremy Brown who really didn’t pan out.
    Would not argue that pitching is a massive factor, particularly when you look at the Giants side that won the World Series this year (although, ironically, not Barry Zito!).

    Going onto your second point, I really think that there might be scope for an American-style trading system in football. The main sticking point I could see is that owners would probably prefer to take money for a player which could be invested into other areas of the club (particularly those clubs in debt) than swap one set of wages for another. I thought it was quite interesting that Barca and Inter effectively traded Zlatan for Eto’o (albeit with the inclusion of a few million euros on top).

    Thanks for reading!

  3. Sam Wanjere said, on November 11, 2010 at 2:07 pm

    Moneyball, the book and the ideas it captures, is just a concept. It is akin to many such predictive systems, including the statistics generated by the Chicago Bulls Jerry Krause, which landed him his later job as GM.

    I don’t think anyone’s said the ideas will be the panacea to Liverpool’s problems. They will still make for some interesting implementation. I have enjoyed the read, very educative indeed, and full of interesting challenges even for the fan.

    The key thing I feel the system seeks to establish is efficiency, how factors like age, player stats and both individual triumphs and failures interact to build a composite profile of any athlete. It’s all about value for money, so the theory is right up there will all value-related predictive systems.

    It’s a good read, and a good article too. Kudos.

    • longballtactic said, on November 11, 2010 at 2:33 pm

      Thanks very much.
      Like you say, it’s about efficiency and I think that’s what Liverpool fans can be excited about. Even if he does nothing else, Henry won’t just be throwing money around wantonly, he’ll be making informed decisions and I think that’s something to be valued when it comes to running a Premier League team.
      Moneyball definitely is a concept. It’s one that’s also surprisingly hard to define. It seems to me, particularly when you read baseball blogs where the debate turns to stats, that it can means lots of things to lots of different people! (not all of them nice) I like DePodesta’s definition the best but that’s maybe just because it’s quite wide-ranging.

  4. Justin B said, on November 11, 2010 at 4:55 pm

    Very nice article. I’m curious if it would be possible to develop a type of ‘moneyball’ analysis for football players. IMO it is probably something much more difficult to decide because how certain players perform has a lot to do with the type of players around them. From what I understand, NESV is looking to make schrewd investment in the squad by acquiring promising, younger players, and the occasioned veteran if the price is right (i.e. contract running out, probably summer transfers). I’d imagine there are a few stats that could prove interesting to analyze in terms of player quality, let me know your thoughts because I’m thinking a little outside the box here: 1. obviously the goals/assists ratings are important, but as I said before these stats are largely affected by the supporting cast of most players, 2. successful pass ratings, 3. time on the ball (how long certain players have the ball at their feet can give you an indicator of how well they hold up the ball and control the game—I’d imagine a player like Xavi or Iniesta has a high stat number here), 3. successful tackles/dispossessions, 4. first touch rating (how often the player retains the ball after receiving a pass). I’m sure there are many more you can think of, but if you really start to apply a statistical analysis to this kind of thing you could probably produce some players with very desirable qualities that are relatively unknown.

    Also, regarding the Eto’o/Ibra trade, Eto’o went to Inter with an additional 40 million euros.

    • longballtactic said, on November 11, 2010 at 5:28 pm

      Thank you. I think it’s a really, really tricky thing to develop in football. The brilliant thing about baseball stats is that they are primarily derived from a one-on-one situation – pitcher vs hitter – which can be, if necessary, weighted against other things around them (ballpark dimensions, infield and outfield defence, etc.). Things happen in a sequence – pitcher throws ball, hitter either swings or doesn’t and then there’s an outcome. Whereas football, of course, is a group of 22 players interacting with each other in a non-sequential way for an hour and a half.
      Even things that you suggest like time on the ball are dependent on a number of variable factors – what the score is (presumably a team losing with the clock ticking down would want to move the ball around quicker?), whether the opposition play a pressing game or are content to concede possession (like Mourinho’s Inter did last year) or whether you play in a team managed by someone who prefers playing long balls over holding possession in the midfield. Having said this, I think these sort of stats would still be of some worth and I’m quite surprised that there’s not a website somewhere where you can view them (I know Opta keep stats like this but I’m not sure how readily available they are for your average web-punter?).
      I think, at the moment, the football analysis of the most worth is brilliant people like Jonathan Wilson and Zonal Marking (where I imagine you all came from) who do a stupendous job of analysing tactics.
      That’s not to say, of course, that you’re not onto some really good ideas, I’d love to see that sort of thing developed more and I’m sure, as you say, they may well show there are virtually unknown players with very desirable qualities.

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