Book reviews Week: Moneyball

Posted by on Jul 11, 2012 in Book Review | 9 Comments
Book reviews Week: Moneyball

Moneyball by Michael Lewis
Published by W. W. Norton
2004, £9.99
ISBN: 978-0-393-05765-2

Unless you’ve spent the last year living under a rock or in Andy Carroll’s armpit, you’re sure to have heard of Moneyball. Either you’ve read the seminal Michael Lewis book, seen the Brad Pitt film adaptation, or read one of the torrent of blogs, articles, and sundry internet scoffings about the statistics based system developed by General Manager Billy Beane for acquiring undervalued talent for his Oakland A’s Major League Baseball team. For the six or seven people who aren’t familiar, here is a gross simplification:

Moneyball the book chronicled Beane’s replacement of traditional ‘eye test’ scouting of players with a system of ‘sabermetrics’ reminiscent (and possibly inspired by) of the methods employed by the pioneering amateur analyst Bill James. This system identified a correlation between a hitherto underused stat (‘On Base Percentage’, or the percentage of the time that a given batter would get to first base or beyond, including walks) and runs scored, and the subsequent correlation between runs scored and winning percentage. Beane found that players with a good On Base Percentage were more important to a team winning than those with better stats in the ‘pure’ batting stat categories, and better fielders – but since nobody else had worked this out, players with good On Base Percentage came cheap. He was therefore able to assemble an extremely low budget, but hyper-efficient team that had a great deal of success in the regular season whilst never quite putting together a run to the championship.

So far, so blah blah blah. What’s this got to do with football? It’s a pertinent question. Some ten years after Michael Lewis’ book came out, the terms ‘moneyball’ and ‘sabermetrics’ began to creep into the blogosphere and even the mainstream press. Billy Beane himself said that his methods could and should work in football.  A cynic might attribute this to the appearance of Brad Pitt’s film at the beginning of this year – but Damien Comolli’s resignation from Liverpool in April 2012 put stats firmly and legitimately on the menu of both the professional and amateur hack.

By this point, moneyball and ‘sabermetrics’ had expanded in meaning, becoming shorthand for a player acquisition strategy that was over reliant on statistics. Comolli had quite openly based the purchases of Jose Enrique and, infamously, Stewart Downing at least in part on their impressive stats for ground covered, forward passes made, and chances created. Sod’s law was particularly strong in 2011/12, as Downing recorded one of the most statistically pathetic seasons since geeks first began stopwatching time of possession. Comolli’s stats based approach quickly became a stick  to beat him and owner John W. Henry with, and article after article appeared to bust Liverpool’s reliance on the strategy.

Excellent points were made about why the approach failed in this case. Most point to the truism that statistics cannot tell the full story of a football match, because, unlike baseball or cricket, each “play” does not have a comparatively small set of concrete outcomes. Each at bat in baseball must end with the fielder on base, scoring, or out, whereas in football, once a ball lands at a player’s feet the number of options and results feels almost infinite by comparison – perhaps a little more infinite if it drops to Andres Iniesta than if it plonks onto Matt Mills’ size tens. The upshot of this is that it’s hard to find the “secret stat” – the undervalued number that both correlates to your team winning more games, and is undervalued by the competition. The Daily Mail (of all places) even ran a feature suggesting that the key stat was the number of short, intense sprints a player was able to make in 90 minutes.

Another suggestion was that Liverpool had not properly applied the moneyball method – that they had forgotten that the most important part of the doctrine is that your player purchases need to be undervalued by your competition, so that you can assemble an efficient squad and squeeze the most out of every pound. As Dave Whelan could tell you, the best way to get value in the transfer market is not to buy British – and certainly not to spend £35 million on raw English strikers with half a decent season behind them.

But it could be said that none of this is really moneyball in the first place. The use of stats to evaluate players is nothing new – Opta have been around since 1996, and messers Allardyce and Wenger, among many others, have been credited with sound use for years – but moneyball seemed more involved, more pseudo-scientific, and unforgivably for some, more American. Would it be unduly suspicious to suggest that saying you’re using moneyball strategies could just be a convenient way to make fans, media and gullible owners think there’s something more advanced going on with a club’s transfer policy than there really is? Liverpool are the highest profile adopters of the way of the stat, but they are by no means the only ones – but at least they have a clear approach to chuck out and move on from. They’re moving on.

For me, moneyball philosophy at its heart isn’t really about stats. What drove Billy Beane was the thrill of winning against rivals who had greater financial brawn, but considerably less brain. He loved to acquire a player asset for cheap, pump up their value, and sell on to other general managers desperate to emulate his success. Buy low, sell high. If it sounds like financial trading, that’s because that’s exactly where the whole concept comes from. Moneyball is about smaller budget teams identifying something, anything, to let them compete with, and beat, the big guys. The mechanism for Billy Beane was statistics, but in football it seems clear that that isn’t the answer. Instead, clubs have to find other ways of playing, other places to find their players, new tactical and organisational systems, not the equivalent of On Base Percentage.

This has never been more pertinent in football than now, with the mega-rich adding a zero to their income and their outgoings every year.

Olly Cooper
Olly knew he was a Spurs fan on the morning of 30th March 1986, at home on the outskirts of Harlow. He was watching a recorded Match of the Day with his Dad, who seemed quite excited for some reason. During the highlights, Dad asked son which of the two teams on telly he liked. "The red ones," Olly answered. "No you don't," said Dad, "you like the ones in blue and white". Olly has been suffering ever since. You can follow him on Twitter at @Olly_Cooper

6 Comments

  1. Lanterne Rouge
    July 12, 2012

    Swiss Ramble’s recent post on Reading’s finances included this: “They have become masters at buying low and selling high, signing players for peanuts, but obtaining large fees for them in each of the last four years: 2008/09 Dave Kitson (Stoke City) £5.5 million, Nicky Shorey (Aston Villa) £3.5 million, Ibrahima Sonko (Stoke City) £2 million; 2009/10 Kevin Doyle (Wolves) £6.5 million, Stephen Hunt (Hull City) £3.5 million; 2010/11 Gylfi Sigurdsson (Hoffenheim) £6.5 million; 2011/12 Matt Mills (Leicester) £4.5 million, Shane Long (West Brom) £4.5 million plus add-ons”.

    That said, one critique of the Moneyball model is that it can ‘improve’ a team but not necessarily lead to the highest honours – i.e it works best for underdogs. I think I’m right that the Oakland As never scooped a World Series – however, as you imply, there is no single definition of ‘moneyball’ or ‘sabermetrics’ – one might even argue that John Beck’s tactic of insisting that the ball be launched into the opposition’s final third over a hundred times in a game is evidence of a statistical mindset.

    Reply
  2. Gerschenkron
    July 12, 2012

    Interesting review, thanks. I tend to agree that the term “moneyball” is widely misunderstood by those using it with relation to football. Haven’t read it myself, so can’t really add much to the debate but can recommend a few other articles on the same topic (especially since LFC is mentioned a number of times in this review):

    1. http://www.theanfieldwrap.com/2011/08/lfc-and-moneyball-the-good-the-bad-the-ugly-and-the-applicable/ – useful overview written around a year ago

    2. http://www.theanfieldwrap.com/2012/05/booking-up-our-ideas/ – more recent, and wide-ranging including interesting thoughts on Lyon

    3. http://basstunedtored.com/2012/05/21/stewart-drowning-in-expectation/ – not that I think Downing is a world-class player, but sometimes statistics can be used in different ways – for instance, blaming a wide player for not having any assists – what if he created lots of chances that weren’t put away by colleagues? Things like “final third regains” and “final third pass completion” are arguably more important.

    Anyway, statistics are a useful/vital tool in contemporary football and pretty much all of the game’s successful coaches use them or employ someone to use them. You only have to look at those who decry them (Mark Lawrenson, Roy Hodgson, Vic Reeves) to get a sense of what’s at the heart of much of the noise that one hears in relation to them.

    Notwithstanding all this, as I say – very good review indeed.

    Reply
  3. Toby
    July 12, 2012

    The reason Oakland never won the World Series, and that the Moneyball theory hasn’t worked properly, is that the regular baseball season is 162 games long and postseason series are best of 5 and best of 7 games. There just arent enough games for the statistics to take effect…
    Base stealing is anathema to Moneyball, but is vital for advancing your runners around the bases to get into scoring position.

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  4. Olly
    July 12, 2012

    Thanks for the kind words. Alan, I totally agree about the importance of stats, and you’re right there’s no harm in seeking to quanitify a quality that you’re looking for in a player. But stats (apart from goals) aren’t going to suddenly “solve” the transfer market.

    Definitely agree that the you can see Spanish and Stoke-ian tactics as evidence of thinking your way out of a position of some kind of deficity against the competion (an absence and an overabundance of physically imposing specimens respectively) – and of examples of moneyball-type thinking.

    Toby, that’s exactly it as I recall – I do like the idea that somehow playoff series of seven games are too luck dependent for his approach to pay dividends…. I guess that’s why we like football though.

    Reply
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