Liverpool, 'Moneyball', and Awful Journalism

Watch out kids! Don't get computer modelled!

You know what the worst part of the NESV Liverpool takeover saga was, for me? It wasn't the mind-numbingly long legal processes, it wasn't the fact that the club escaped administration and thus did not end week nine on zero points... it was the English media, long a bastion of not-caring-one-fig-about-baseball, decided that 'sabermetrics' was now a compelling storyline. One can imagine a small spike in Michael Lewis's royalty cheques this month as hordes of reporters scrambled out to buy copies of Moneyball and thus become experts in how modern baseball organisations are run.

As many of you know, writing about football is a relatively new venture for me - prior to this venture my main output was focused squarely on baseball analysis. It's also no secret that there has been some opposition from those amongst the media towards those having the temerity to try to understand their sport in more than cliches. Thankfully, this has died down a little in the past few years as more and more organisations embrace modern research in their decision making, but for years sabermetrics (most commonly defined as the pursuit of objective knowledge about baseball) was out in the wild.

Sabermetricians, a snarky bunch at the best of times, have thus developed many tools in their arsenal to combat derision from mainstream sources. Perhaps the best known of these is the eponymous technique of the bloggers at Fire Joe Morgan - something I think it's high time we introduced the likes of Paul Hayward to. So, without further ado...

Hollywood-style plots would be bad box office at Liverpool

A promising start! Obviously Mr. Hayward is aware that a Moneyball movie is supposedly forthcoming (ed note: I still have no idea why), and if I'm feeling generous, the 'bad box office' bit not only articulates the thesis that Moneyball is bad for Liverpool but also takes a swipe at the Oakland Athletics' notoriously meagre home crowds.

Anfield's new owners appear to subscribe to the Oakland A's philosophy that winning teams can be built on the cheap

Which would certainly explain why, according to Cot's Contracts, the payroll for NESV's Boston Red Sox stands at a robust $168M, second in MLB and only 290% higher than the aforementioned A's. Right? Wait...

Coming soon to a movie theatre near you: Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt, the story of how the trampled-on Oakland Athletics rocked baseball using statistical models to unearth buried talent and win for the little guy.

No. No no no. Moneyball told the story of the A's surviving in the American League West by using statistics to find undervalued skills, then attempting to exploit the resultant market inefficiency. It's not like they acquired Chad Bradford because Paul Depodesta invented ground ball percentage. Good try though. Nice and cliched.

Coming just as fast to Anfield, by the looks of it: a Premier League variant to stop Liverpool spending £20.3m on another Robbie Keane and £17m on Alberto Aquilani when better software and a lower payroll would do.

I love how their desire to avoid flushing £40M down the toilet is portrayed as somehow sinister, like the new owners are cackling with malicious glee as they refuse to spend millions of pounds on another over-hyped, washed-up player. Those bastards. Also, I don't think better software would have helped much with the Keane thing. Windows 7's antiviral tools only go so far, and Keane is like herpes.

Trace the movements of Liverpool's new American owner before Tom Hicks and George Gillett were finally ousted and they indicate the adoption of the sabermetrics talent-spotting model the men behind New England Sports Ventures copied from the Oakland A's at Boston's Red Sox, the Rip Van Winkle of major franchises.

First of all, if we discount the apostrophes in A's and Boston's, that's 43 words without any hint of punctuation. 86% of the above paragraph is a breathless rant about unspecified evils by Hicks and Gillett and a preemptive railing against NESV for their being about to do the exact same thing. The other seven words are a humourous reference to a man who, legend has it, goes to sleep for 20 years and wakes up in a world he doesn't recognise. This is a rather massive understatement when it comes to the Red Sox, arguably the most successful MLB team of the current millennium after an 86 year gap between championships. Here's the tale of Rip Van Winkle, Red Sox edition:

One autumn day, Rip is escaping his wife's nagging, wandering up the mountains with his dog, Wolf. Hearing his name being shouted, Rip discovers that the speaker is a man dressed in antiquated Dutch clothing, carrying a keg up the mountain, who requires Rip's help. Without exchanging words, the two hike up to an amphitheatre-like hollow in which Rip discovers the source of previously-heard thunderous noises: there is a group of other ornately-dressed, silent, bearded men who are playing nine-pins. Although there is no conversation and Rip does not ask the men who they are or how they know his name, he discreetly begins to drink some of their liquor, and soon falls asleep. He awakes in unusual circumstances: it seems to be morning, his gun is rotted and rusty, his beard has grown a foot long, and Wolf is nowhere to be found. He is also wearing a pair of rocket boots, can fly, and has fucking laser eyes. Rip leaves the mountain, annexes his village and later conquers the United States of America. His ultimate fate is to ascend into a god-like non-corporal being worshiped by races all the way to the Shapley Supercluster.

Trust me. My team has played the Red Sox. This is kind of how it goes.

Liverpool's new proprietors are already talking as if the home run they hit at Fenway Park can send a second ball fizzing across the Mersey.

I'm pretty sure the only way to get a home run ball from Boston to 'send a second ball fizzing across the Mersey' is to clone an army of Bryce Harpers and station them at strategic intervals in the Atlantic. It would be pretty tough though. I agree, Paul. This is a bad plan.

Two reconnaissance stops were the clue. At Fulham, where Roy Hodgson, coincidentally, was manager, success sprang from the restoration of stalled careers – Danny Murphy, Bobby Zamora, Zoltan Gera – and the digging out of hidden treasure (Brede Hangeland).

Why yes, this is just like how the Red Sox operate. They certainly don't use a core of home-grown superstars (e.g. Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, and Clay Buchholz) to complement major acquisitions (e.g. J.D. Drew, Victor Martinez, Josh Beckett, John Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka, some of which have turned out better than others). And no, Adrian Beltre doesn't count as a 'restoration of a stalled career', because he was plenty fine when healthy for Seattle.

At Arsenal, NESV was touring the Bloomingdales of worldwide scouting: a club where analytical models were so ingrained that Arsène Wenger shipped out Gilberto Silva for taking a fraction of a second longer to redistribute the ball than he had a season earlier.

Memo to Mr. Hayward: Fractions of seconds are what we like to call 'numbers'. They're probably not best referred to as 'analytical models'.

For all its beauty Arsenal's playing style is based on a dictatorial imposition of geometrical principles, and Gilberto was slowing up the slick ice hockey pace, so out he went.

I love this. Love it to pieces. To wit:

Geometry (Ancient Greek: γεωμετρία; geo- "earth", -metri "measurement") "Earth-measuring" is a branch of mathematics concerned with questions of shape, size, relative position of figures, and the properties of space. [Wikipedia]

It's a pretty unusual geometrical principle that dictates pace and timing of ball redistribution, I have to say.

There is a universe of difference, though, between using empirical evidence in the service of art and trying to build a title-winning side on the cheap, which is what many Liverpool supporters will fear NESV is trying to do.

First of all, Arsenal play the way they do because they believe it is the most effective way of playing football. If Gilberto Silva was released, it wasn't because his play wasn't pretty enough, it was because Wenger considered that time delta to be detrimental to the performance of his team. And, yes, it probably was. 'Time until next pass' is something that's referred to frequently in the football world - we call it 'tempo'.

Secondly, the only reason Liverpool supporters fear NESV are going to run things on the cheap is that you are telling them that's what Moneyball means. Boston Red Sox. $168M payroll last year. Second most expensive team in major league baseball. Widely regarded as one of the best three teams in the league, missed the playoffs this year due to being in a division with the two other top three teams in the sport. Incidentally, since there are 30 teams in MLB, and 20 in the Premier League, some simple arithmetic (or analytical modelling, if you're Paul Hayward) yields the rather interesting fact that the Boston Red Sox were just as successful this year as Manchester United were in the 2009/10 season.

"At the Red Sox we invested a lot in management and the scouting system," says Tom Werner, the NESV chairman. "We believe the foundation of any good sports club has to be the experience, valuation and understanding of scouting."

Someone needs to teach Mr. Hayward about baseball terminology, so I guess I'll do it. Scouting is assessing talent through things like... stop watch measurements, careful observations of swings, movement, mechanics, discipline. It is often considered to be diametrically opposed to sabermetric analysis, although in reality they are of course complementary.

See, knowing this sort of thing is useful in avoiding the use of quotes that are totally contradictory to the thesis of your article.

Aghast at Liverpool's £103m wage bill and £260m gross spend between 2003 and 2010 (the league's fourth highest), these value-hunters are returning to a template authored by Billy Beane, Oakland's general manager, which said, in the starkest terms, the world is full of bargains and game‑changers whose brilliance is concealed by ignorance or circumstance.

Yes, I can see why NESV would be aghast at a £103M wage bill. Why, they've never seen seen such money spent on a sports team before! Leaving aside, that is, the £105M spent on the Red Sox last year. And yes, Billy Beane was forced to value-hunt. Do you know why the Red Sox are different? Because they don't have to. They have more money that Oakland, coupled with better intellectual resources. They don't have to get by with decent, underrated players as their core - they go out and buy superstars, fill out the roster with sleepers on the cheap, and spend the rest of their budget on a youth system that's one of the tops in baseball, ranked #6 out of 30 by Baseball America at the beginning of the year.

The Boston Red Sox are not the Oakland Athletics. The Boston Red Sox are a baseballing juggernaut propelled by money and brains, one of the best-built organisations in the entire sport.

Without salvation, sport would be shorn of one of its most reliably corny plot lines. With the fall has to come the possibility of an ascent, of redemption.

You would think these sentences would tie in somehow with what's next to come, right? Wrong!

Except that football can't be reduced to a set of mathematical criteria in the style of baseball or the NFL, though some have already tried.

My favourite part about people who insist that football can't be numericised is that the logical extension of that argument leads to a hilarious position regarding salary. If you can't turn football into actual facts and figures, you're left with using a random analytical model number generator to figure out how much to pay anyone. Fernando Torres? Overpaid at £198 and four goats a fortnight. Titus Bramble? Sign the man to a £4T, 180 year contract. Why the hell not?

The 'some have already tried' part reads better as a bone-chilling warning: 'And they never found Martin Reep's left kidney! Ooooooooooooooooo!' Some have already tried, yes. So we'll have to try again, and try better. Difficult is not the same thing as impossible, and we've heard very similar words about, say, baseball, from people like Mr. Hayward.

Prozone, a useful tool, will yield insights into ground eaten up or pass completions but it tells us little about temperament, courage, dedication or the ability some players have (and others lack) to cope with the demands emanating from 70,000 spectators.

So it will tell us about how people play football rather than about the media's favourite bullshit stories. I like it already. Also, if temperament, courage, dedication and ability to deal with crowd pressure have an effect on how players play football, they will show up in the actual football related statistics. And if they don't, they don't matter - so why would anyone care?

Bill James, who devised the sabermetrics statistics Beane put into operation, wrote in the 1985 edition of his Baseball Abstract: "Now why [do I care about statistics in baseball]? It is because baseball statistics, unlike the statistics in any other area, have acquired the powers of language."

Ah, Bill James talking why he likes baseball. Here is a by no means exhaustive assortment of other things that are as relevant to this article:

  • A study on the toughness of Euoplocephalus's external bone plates.
  • A history of the Great Wall of China.
  • Socks.
  • Aaron Ramsey's pet dog Betsy.
  • Jabba the Hutt.

Good luck with that. The same is demonstrably not true of football.

Correct. Bill James does not care about football.

Hodgson has already displayed his talent for spotting a good 'un lower down, and will do so again at Liverpool, where he may have no choice.

We're going to get into completely-unrelated-sentences-attached-for-no-good-reason again! I can smell it!

But baseball players are measured by a narrow range of skills.

Yesssssss.

Pitching and batting are easily monitored by results.

A) No, pitching is not easily monitored by results. B) I bet the results Mr. Hayward is thinking of include things like wins and losses, earned run average, and runs batted in.

Also, defence exists.

Speak to any Premier League manager and he will tell you the promising 17-year-old you once saw light up his stadium was cut because he lacked the necessary character to survive in the first-team squad.

Something like this has never happened in baseball.

PS: Mr. Hayward, Did you know that one of the most notorious all-the-talent-in-the-world-but-couldn't-perform-under pressure busts was... Billy Beane, Oakland A's general manager? You should, since you are England's self-appointed foremost Moneyball expert.

In time NESV may find that some of the people making these judgments are really quite good at what they do.

Unfortunately by the time NESV find this out they will have sacrificed all of their employees to their new computer-overlords. I think that's where he's going with this.

In football, players who slide down from the top of the pole tend not to rise so high again. Glenn Hoddle's second‑chance academy in Spain, a laudable initiative, is not hiring planes to fly reprogrammed discards back to the Premier League.

So football is a lot like baseball then. Reading this you almost get the impression that Hayward is making up his own twisted baseball narrative as he goes along... oh.

The urge in matters of scouting is to defend not a computer model but the human eye, intuition, knowledge, the moment of revelation. There was no Moneyball when Liverpool spotted Kevin Keegan or Alan Hansen or when Manchester United, to quote Sir Alex Ferguson, first saw on a parks pitch a young, spindly Ryan Giggs – "a dog chasing a piece of silver paper in the wind".

Again. Red Sox. Good at scouting (proper scouting). Good at analysis. Lots of money. Good team. The lesson behind Moneyball is that if you are clever in your use of resources, you can gain power beyond your station. It is not, never has been, and never will be, that 'computer models' should take over the world.

Hayward appears to be insisting on thrusting a bizarre cheapskate Red Sox narrative down his readers' collective throats. Of course, making up the news and then writing about it appears to be par for the course for football journalism in the UK - should we really be surprised that it's any different here?

Oh thank God.

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