Is the art of advanced metrics the new horizon for football or is it the work of the devil?
Something wound me up the other day. The Daily Telegraph’s Football Correspondent, Henry Winter, sent the following tweet:
"Bellamy exceptional. Didn’t stop running, even on those creaky knees. Forget ‘moneyball’ stats; they can never rate hunger like Bellamy’s"
Moneyball, is a book written by Michael Lewis about the baseball team the Oakland A’s and their general manager Billy Beane. It focuses on Beane’s use of advanced metrics to assemble a team on a tight, shoe-string budget, and compete against teams such as the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. So outstanding was Oakland’s achievement that a movie was made of the book last year with Brad Pitt starring as Billy Beane.
So what is it that got me so wound up? People use Moneyball as a stick to beat Liverpool’s owners with. John W Henry is a big fan of using advanced metrics to assemble a team. In fact, Henry tried to sign Beane as his General Manager after the success of the 2002 season. Beane politely declined preferring to continue doing what he was doing with the A’s. Therefore every signing Henry makes is stuck through the wringer of popular opinion, by the likes of Winter, about whether this is a good ‘moneyball’ signing.
Lets get one thing straight right from the offset. Liverpool Football Club, just like the Boston Red Sox are not short of money. If you put them a list of big spending teams in the league they would probably arrive around the same point, not at the top but pretty close to it. The need for clubs such as Liverpool and Boston to apply ‘moneyball’ stats, is not in an effort to get a side on the cheap. We could probably have done with it under our previous American owners, but I imagine neither of those clowns would have a clue. Hicks nearly destroyed the baseball team he owned.
I digress, back to the football. Andy Carroll cost Liverpool £35m. This was the hugely over-inflated price demanded by Newcastle on deadline day as Liverpool were left with the possibility of facing the second half of last season with only one recognised striker (the fact that Carroll spent a lot of that season injured leaving us with just one recognised striker is a moot point, it didn’t change the thinking at the time).
The big question is this: was Andy Carroll a ‘moneyball’ signing?
The answer is we’ll never know, because we don’t know what method LFC used to decide to sign Andy Carroll, but I believe he probably was. People use Carroll’s goals and assists, both on the low side, along with his price to determine him as a bad ‘moneyball’ signing. What people have failed to realise is that the advanced metric approach of scouting a player would not look at Carroll’s goals and assists, they would look deeper into his effect on the team by his all-round play. Things like aerial-duals won, key passes, even something as obscure as nuisance value (i.e. how often does a defender make a mistake when Carroll heaves into view) could provide worthwhile evidence.
Essentially, the sticks being used to beat Andy Carroll with are nothing to do with ‘moneyball’ and more to do with the fact that he just hasn’t performed as expected based on the scouting report. It’s not ‘moneyball’ that was at fault but either Carroll, for playing badly, or Liverpool for not playing to his strengths (the very strengths that would’ve been identified by the use of advanced metrics).
Which brings me back to Henry Winter and his tweet about Craig Bellamy. While Carroll has been a failure so far and is therefore used as a good example of how ‘moneyball’ doesn’t work, Bellamy is apparently now being held up as an example of what you can get if you don’t resort to the evils of ‘moneyball’ statistics.
If anything, Craig Bellamy is probably the purest ‘moneyball’ signing Liverpool have made since FSG took over Liverpool in October last year. Ignored by most of the big teams, (so much so that he spent last season in the Championship), but signed for Liverpool for next to nothing because Liverpool had identified something that the other teams had not, and are now reaping the rewards.
This doesn’t stop people once again using the word ‘moneyball’ to beat those pesky Americans bringing their fancy-dan, new-fangled ideas into our sport.
There is a scene in the Moneyball movie where Billy Beane first presents his ideas to his scouting team to be met with sneers and disgust. “How could you possibly throw away over a hundred years of collated wisdom for the findings of a little dweeb with a spreadsheet” (I’m paraphrasing here). In this situation the National Media are the scouting team and the “little dweeb” with the spreadsheet has come in from America and tried to change our national game. How dare he? “Metrics will never work in football”, they cry. But then, so did Beane’s scouting team and Brad Pitt didn’t want to play them in a movie, did he?
The reason the film was made is because Beane’s methods were wildly successful. The A’s qualified for the playoffs where their lack of financial muscle gave them absolutely no right to be. Against the backdrop of the sneers and disgust, Beane carried on regardless and succeeded (although he never has won the World Series). A lot of the teams in Major League Baseball now use advanced metrics to assist in scouting.
It’s too early to know whether the use of ‘moneyball’ or advanced metrics will be successful in football, but the attitudes of a lot of people who have already declared it dead, are the same as Beane’s methods received when he first used them in baseball. There is no reason why the same sea-change can’t happen here too.