Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Moneyball and Football

Piece I wrote for the late lamented Word Magazine, December 2011 issue (with sidebar)...

Game Changing

Here’s a little-known sporting fact. On the eve of the 1966 World Cup Final, Alf Ramsey had considered dropping Bobby Moore — or so claimed George Cohen, having eavesdropped on a conversation between Alf and his trainer. 

Moore was the captain; a national hero; he was the tournament’s star defender. It cut no ice with Alf. The West German forwards were nippy. The quicker Norman Hunter might cope better.

For Ramsey, victory meant ruthlessness. He had already discarded Jimmy Greaves. Remote and aloof but always pragmatic, his philosophy was simple. There was no room for sentiment in sport. Not if you wanted to win.

In summer 2002, in the packed clubhouse of the Oakland Coliseum, home of the Oakland Athletics baseball team, sat a kindred spirit to Sir Alf. As he listened to his scouts on Draft day — baseball’s annual equivalent of the transfer deadline, in which the clubs traded players or picked college hopefuls — Billy Beane was a tightly-wound coil of frustration.

A former prodigy, one whose promise had fizzled out, the 40-year-old general manager was a cynic. The meeting represented no thrill of possibility, merely an act of confirmation — of a multi-billion dollar business, entirely beholden to sugar-daddy CEOs who, illogically, entrusted the acquisition of their key assets, the players, to a misguided tier of middle-management.

The evidence was there before him, the blowhards scratching their bellies and chewing their tobacco, each enthusing about some kid with “the tools”, who had “wheels” (could run) or a “hose” (a strong arm) or, astoundingly, just looked the part — who had “the Good Face.”

At Beane’s side was a Harvard graduate with a laptop. Paul DePodesta had never played the game, invoking immediate suspicion, but had proven himself as a statistician in the application of a new analytical system called Sabermetrics. 

Sabermetrics — from SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research — enabled an empirical evaluation of a player’s performance beyond the traditional tallies of “home runs” and “stolen bases”, stats that had little relevance regarding overall team play — methods of calibration, moreover, that had been formulated before the Civil War.

To Beane it was crystal clear. The Athletics — the “A”s — operated on a fraction of the budget of big-spenders like the New York Yankees. To compete, they couldn’t live on dreams. They would have to “exploit the inefficiencies of the market”. To “count cards at the casino.”

The coaches were resistant but Beane played hardball. Out went stars who could command a decent price, in came unknowns and has-beens but whose “on base percentage” (DePodesta’s sacred denominator), would yield a whole greater than the sum of its parts. 

The upshot was a fairytale. The second worst team in baseball stormed to the top of their division. By season’s end, the “A”s had broken baseball’s all-time record with a twenty-game winning streak.

Michael Lewis 2003 non-fiction book about it — Moneyball: The Art Of Winning An Unfair Game — became a national bestseller. The former bond trader had coined a phrase that is now common currency across the Pond and is proliferating here. With the advent of the film, starring Brad Pitt as Beane and Jonah Hill as DePodesta (in the movie, “Peter Brand”), prepare to hear “Moneyball” even more.

Inevitably the film has tweaked things. The “A”s aren’t quite the Bad News Bears portrayed. They had gone to the World Series three years on the bounce from 1988-90. But the movie, directed by Bennett Miller, has been a hit in the States, suggesting an Oscar nomination for co-screenwriter Aaron Sorkin who, as he did with The Social Network, conspired in the filming of the unfilmable.

What the movie can’t show — unlike the book — is the real star, Bill James, the man who invented Sabermetrics. In 1977, the amateur statistician had produced a photocopied pamphlet, Baseball Abstract — “the search for objective knowledge about baseball” — which sold just 75 copies. In 1999, Stats Inc., the data corporation built on James’ obsession, was sold for $45m.

Amusingly, James blames baseball’s skewed thinking on a visiting English journalist named Henry Chadwick. In 1859, Chadwick had drawn up the blueprint for player assessment employing the principles of cricket. And thus followed a century and a half of misinformation. 

Despite common origins, Sabermetrics doesn’t apply too handily to our own summer pastime. The IPL notwithstanding, cricket has simply not been subject to the vagaries of the free market. Baseball and football, however — both with long traditions, both run on the same irrational business model — have an awful lot in common. 

In 2010, football writer Simon Kuper and statistician Stefan Szymanski attempted a ‘football Moneyball” with their book, Soccernomics (retitled for the domestic market, Why England Lose). 

While they found a similarly and nonsensically cavalier attitude to the transfer market, they also confirmed one inconvenient truth about top-flight soccer in England — the deeper the owner’s pockets, the more likely a club was to succeed. 

Indeed, their study of Premier League football over the ten year period from 1998-2007, showed that a side’s finishing place in the table correlated almost exactly[ital] to the size of its wage bill (not its transfer fees). The bigger wage bill, the better the players. And it is the quality of the players, more than anything — not the coach, not the tactics — that will always be the barometers of success.

Of course there had[ital] been individuals to buck the trend — most notably, Brian Clough and Peter Taylor, who had made Derby County then Nottingham Forest punch way above their weight in the 1970s. But, Kuper expands, for the majority of teams, a manager has no impact whatsoever on a club’s long term trajectory. He is simply “the ex-pro seen as good person to present to the fans and the media, hired because of what they look like — good-looking, quite masculine, conservative.” And who, to boot, is rarely in the post for more than three years.

“Only about 10% managers add value to their teams,” he says. And some more surprisingly than others. “We did an estimate of which managers add most value over and above the players’ wage bill and Tony Pulis (manager of Stoke) has consistently done so. Pulis is right up there with Arsene Wenger and Alex Ferguson.”

Though if you’re looking for the domestic equivalent of a Billy Beane, our most hardened moneyballer, without question, is Sam Allardyce, currently manager of West Ham and whose prior record with over-achieving Bolton Wanderers is now looking sorely underappreciated.

It’s no coincidence that Allardyce had spent time in the US, where this unlikely student of sports science, a pioneer of the computer evaluation system ProZone, learnt to model the humble Trotters exactly along the lines of an American outfit.

Interestingly, in an assessment of attacking midfielders (“passes completed in the final third”), Allardyce regular, Kevin Nolan, can be ranked alongside Xavi and Steven Gerrard. Though, like “Big Sam”, he just isn’t popularly recognised — he doesn’t have “the Good Face.”

Sports science has improved vastly in the last ten years and football has embraced it. But the skill lies not in amassing the data but in interpreting it. “You have all the numbers,” says Kuper. “But the problem for most teams now is what do they all mean?”

In one notable incident, Alex Ferguson, momentarily enthused with the new possibilities of stat-gathering, sold defender Jaap Stam to Lazio in 2001, not because of comments in Stam’s autobiography, but rather due to the Old Trafford number-crunchers identifying a marked decline in Staam’s tackling ratio. At 29, he was ripe for moving on.

“Now we know that tackles are not a good gauge of a defender,” says Kuper. “Paolo Maldini never made a tackle in his life.” Staam had simply improved his positioning, affording him an extended swansong in Italy. Ferguson, unusually, admitted it a "mistake."

Billy Beane, it turns out, has been a fanatical convert to Premier League football. And his idol? Arsene Wenger (a man with a Masters in Economics) — because of “his ability to spend money and extract value” from players, or so declares the Gunners’ new owner Stan Kroenke.

Kroenke is one of several American sporting magnates who has landed on our shores — along with the Glazers at Manchester United, Randy Lerner at Aston Villa, and, significantly, John Henry who, a year ago, bought Liverpool.

Henry also owns the Boston Red Sox. And it was Henry, so impressed with Oakland’s rise, who decided to moneyball his own team in an attempt to end a ninety-year absence from the summit of the MLB. In a scene in the film, Henry is shown trying to recruit Billy Beane, something that almost happened were it not for a last-minute change of heart on Beane’s part.

Henry, instead, hired good old Bill James as a senior adviser. In the ultimate revenge of the nerd fantasy, James is believed to have been influential in rostering up the Red Sox team that bagged World Series triumphs in 2004 and 2007. (Although a reversion to profligacy, coupled with poor performances, has since made the Red Sox a bit of a joke).

The more cash you have to play with, the less your need for recourse to the stats, seems to be the conclusion, which is why Manchester City, though newly state-of-the-art in the data department, will probably continue to measure talent — even ostracised shorties like Carlos Tevez — in bundles of fivers.

At Liverpool, Henry’s first order of business was to bring in, as his director of football, the Frenchman, Damien Comolli an avowed moneyballer, both a friend and disciple of Beane — the idea to restore a rational, stable economic transfer policy.

His first purchase? Andy Carroll from Newcastle for £35m…


Sport is a notoriously poor translator to the movies. How can a piece of scripted drama, made years after the fact, possibly match the live spontaneous theatre of the real thing?  

Team sports, especially, tend to look rather ludicrous when the action is choreographed. “John Colby, West Ham United and England,” says Michael Caine in Escape To Victory. Not unless there’s a minimum weight restriction.

The best sporting flicks — like Chariots Of Fire, Seabiscuit or The Damned United — tend to concern human drama, events on the field a backdrop.

There are two notable exceptions — films about baseball and boxing. One because they tend to made with the muscle of Hollywood behind them. And secondly, as individual sports — or in baseball’s case, a team sport full of static, individual moments — it does not take too much of a stretch to accept Kevin Costner, Robert Radford, even Madonna, as a plausible ball player.

Plus, with the National League founded in 1876, baseball — unlike basketball or American football, which only came into their present incarnations relatively recently — has a wealth of history, tradition and a whole mythology to draw on. As somebody once said, “Baseball is America.”

Pride Of The Yankees (1942)
Lou Gehrig was the star second baseman of the New York Yankees, till stricken with the motor-neurone disease that nowadays bears his name. Released a year after Gehrig’s death, at the age of 37, the film has one of cinema’s all-time tearjerker finales as Gehirg (Gary Cooper) bids farewell to the crowd from the middle of the diamond. He didn’t get “a bad break,” he tells them. “I’m the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

Bull Durham (1988)
Ron Shelton’s film is an affectionate stroll down a well-worn path — the old dog teaching the new dog its tricks, in this case veteran catcher “Crash” Davis (Kevin Costner) and rookie pitcher “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins). The addition of groupie Annie (Susan Sarandon), in heat for both of them, has made for a consistently favourite pick among all-time great sports flicks.

Eight Men Out (1988)
Indie filmmaker John Sayles tells the story of the Chicago White Sox and their infamous throwing of the 1919 World Series. The “Black Sox” scandal is still spoken of in hushed tones, though Sayles sides with the players during the trial, denied by their feudal owner from earning an honest buck. Includes the line issued to star outfielder Shoeless Joe Jackson (DB Sweeney) that has gone down in baseball lore — “Say it ain’t so, Joe.”

The Natural (1984)
Robert Redford could deflect fast balls with the Colgate whiteness of his smile. Oft-dismissed as a bit of schmaltzy idolatry, the story of the late-comer to the game, who steps out of nowhere to play in the major leagues at 35, has a touching ring of hopefulness about it. “Wonderboy” Redford plays with a bat he made himself from the tree that was struck by lighting and killed his Pa. In the hands of a lesser mortal you’d be killing yourself.

The Odd Couple (1968)
Not a baseball film per se but one that demonstrates its place in American culture. Sportswriter Oscar Madison (Walter Matthau) is pulled from the press box at Shea Stadium to take an “urgent” call from prissy flatmate Felix Unger (Jack Lemmon), just as the Mets are about to achieve a sensational victory. Felix warns Oscar not to eat hot dogs because they’re having franks and beans for dinner. “A triple play. The greatest thing I ever saw,” yells his colleague on return. “And you missed it, Oscar. You missed it!”


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