Football ain't baseball but it could still be Moneyball
The toughest choice Billy Beane had to make when he left high school was choosing which sport to make a career in. He chose baseball and the New York Mets chose him, making him the 23rd overall pick in the 1980 Major League draft.
Unfortunately for all concerned, Beane would spend the rest of the decade as the ultimate journeyman, a bit-part player with a great future behind him and a tangible example of just how hard it is to put a value on talent.
Beane, now 49, has spent the last two decades trying to avoid making the same mistake the Mets made. At this, he has been a huge success. So successful, in fact, that his story became a best-selling book that is now a hit film.
And he is played by Brad Pitt, which can't be bad.
But I don't really want to write about that, not in a direct sense, anyway. Moneyball (in case you haven't guessed) is a great read and a riveting watch, a rare combination.
What I want to address is an issue raised by my colleague Alistair Magowan on Thursday: What, if anything, British sport can learn from Beane.
Moneyball is not, as some seem to think, buying young players with re-sale value. That is as old as black boots and baggy shorts. It is also not the use of statistics. Sport has used statistics since people started keeping count of the score.
What was new about Beane was that he realised the baseball establishment (the same one that picked him as a star) was using the wrong stats. If he could find the right ones, he could gain a competitive advantage in his job as general manager of the Oakland Athletics that would compensate for his small budget.
It is this attempt to upset the perceived natural order of things - it is obvious who the best players are and the richest teams will buy them - that explains the full title of author Michael Lewis's book: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.
Beane did not come up with this all on his own, far from it. He was standing on the shoulders of unheralded giants as far removed from the world of scouting networks and famous coaches as possible. These giants were obsessive amateurs who specialised in box scores and spreadsheets. Traditional scouts hated them in the same way Luddites hated mechanical looms.
But Beane knew these number-crunchers were right, particularly when it came to the revelation that on-base percentage (OBP) was a very underrated marker of a player's worth. For the sake of this debate, it is not important to dwell on what this actually means. What is important is that Beane was able to find players other teams did not rate highly and combine them into a winning ensemble. The Holy Grail of professional sport.
I met Beane, a huge football fan, in London a few weeks ago and asked him if he thought there was an OBP for our national game. "There are metrics for every business and sport that have a relevance and value. Identifying them is the trick - and having faith in them is the next step," he said.
"Is there as strong a correlation with statistics in football as there is in baseball? Maybe it's not as strong but there are certainly some things on a football field that have more value than others things.
"I'm not arrogant enough to go into somebody else's sport and tell them how it's done but I guarantee you there are people in the back room at some of these clubs who have created some very sophisticated models and paradigms. They're just not going to tell anybody about it."
With good reason. The interest generated by the book, published in 2003, didn't help on that score. But Oakland's 2002 campaign had already alerted Beane's richer rivals to the value of his methods. Success persuades.
Beane is phlegmatic about this: "When you get an efficient market the universe gets back in order." But what is interesting for British sports fans is that the rival who learned best were the Boston Red Sox, who share an owner with Liverpool.
John W Henry, a financial trader turned sports entrepreneur, did not just poach Beane's ideas, he tried to poach Beane. He failed but the pair remain close, prompting a wave of Moneyball headlines when Henry let Damien Comolli, Liverpool's director of football and another friend of Beane's, and manager Kenny Dalglish embark on a spending spree this year. Oh, and the Red Sox won their first World Series for 86 years in 2004, repeating the feat in 2007.
"I know John and Damien very well and they have a certain philosophy," Beane told me.
"John's baseball team is certainly driven with a sort of rational and quantitative analysis, and my guess is that this would be part of their decision-making at Liverpool, too."
It is at this point in any discussion of Moneyball that critics normally point out Beane still hasn't won "the last game of the season" and the Red Sox have just endured a terrible campaign, while spending £35m on Andy Carroll looks like somebody else has been using the wrong stats.
Fair comments, all of them, but nobody is claiming to have cracked this just yet. A more constructive criticism of Moneyball's relevance to football is that football ain't baseball.
Like basketball or hockey, football is an "invasion sport", a game where one team is trying to invade the other team's space in order to score goals or points. They are, by their nature, more fluid and the "outcome" data you need is harder to gather and measure.
In fact, prior to the arrival of companies like ProZone, there was very little data on which to even attempt the kind of analysis that is relatively easy in baseball, which has lots of measurable outcomes that add up to the main goal of scoring runs.
Despite the claims I have read of certain teams cracking this conundrum, I am not convinced anybody has had an OBP-style eureka moment yet.
This gut feeling was confirmed when I spoke to the man who is probably Britain's closest equivalent to the baseball theorists who influenced Beane, Professor Bill Gerrard. The University of Leeds academic has been trying to find a more evidence-based approach for evaluating football players since the mid-1990s. That work eventually attracted interest from the Premier League but Gerrard's experience of dealing with professional football was akin to "banging my head against a brick wall".
"There was no attempt to establish a real dialogue and the coaches weren't interested," he said. "They wanted me to give them some tools to find players but there was no relationship. I was at a conference recently and one performance analyst from a top club actually presented my work back to me without knowing where it came from."
Gerrard collaborated with Beane on some statistical analysis of Major League Soccer games, particularly those of the San Jose Earthquakes, who are part of the Oakland A's stable. That finished last year and Gerrard has moved on to other sports, most notably rugby union. He has also been impressed by the open minds he has encountered in cricket - he described England coach Andy Flowers as a "change leader".
Gerrard says British football has been slow to embrace Moneyball techniques but admits there are signs of change. Gerrard himself helped Bolton Wanderers develop an electronic screening system to target affordable overseas talent and save money on scouts, while numerous other teams are expanding their performance analysis operations.
So let us not get too carried away with the game-changing potential of Beane's theories for our sports just yet but let us also acknowledge that he has not stopped looking for the philosopher's stone - and neither should we.