Even though the book Moneyball, The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, by Michael Lewis and movie of the same name are over a decade old, it seems like we see references to both in football more than ever. Often these references seem to indiscriminately associate Moneyball with any sort of advanced statistical analysis without truly capturing the essence of the concept and why it is so important even today. However, this really isn’t what the underlying concept and application that was coined Moneyball was really about.
The individual and football club most associated with the term Moneyball, is undoubtedly Matthew Benham and Brentford. But, ironically, Benham has not always enjoyed the association.
In 2015, at the Matchbook Traders Conference at the Emirates Stadium, after Brentford were introduced as a Moneyball club, he said: “Thanks for the kind introduction, but I hate it. It’s much misunderstood – people say: ‘Oh, Moneyball – these guys came along and applied stats to baseball.’ But of course, baseball has been incredibly obsessed with stats for 100-plus years… Moneyball’s idea wasn’t about using any old statistics but statistics as an academic and scientific exercise to see what stats actually helped predicted things. The Moneyball label can be confusing because people think it is using any stats rather than trying to use them in a scientific way.”
While we at The Scouted Hub wholeheartedly agree with Matthew Benham, his viewpoint is not easily understood. Some of this may be due to a lack of a comprehensive understanding of the history and nature of the game of baseball. Some of it may also be due to a lack of awareness of the storyteller himself, Michael Lewis. But regardless, a better understanding of Moneyball and the concepts therein can be useful to professional football clubs, especially those trying to cope with the ongoing data revolution in the sport.
What is the true meaning of Moneyball?
In the movie, a notable quote is an attempt to capture the essence of the non-traditionalist movement that we commonly associate with Moneyball. The character of Peter Brands, who is loosely based on Paul DePodesta, one of the kings of the Sabermetric revolution in baseball, explains to the main character, Billy Beane, the GM of major league baseball’s Oakland A’s, how “there is an epidemic failure within the game to understand what is really happening and this leads people who run major league baseball teams to misjudge their players and mismanage their teams”. Brands goes on to elaborate a bit on those misconceptions, but the movie attempts to capture in a brief moment, a larger movement that did indeed cause a lot of conflict between baseball traditionalists and those that thought like Paul DePodesta. Brands sums it up by declaring that “baseball thinking is medieval, they are asking all the wrong questions, and if I say it to anybody, I’m ostracised”.
Some of these concepts were started by a man named Bill James, who wrote a series of articles that eventually became semi-annual publications known as The Bill James Baseball Abstract. James would ask fundamental questions about baseball and attempted to answer them empirically, often repacking some of the incredible amounts of available baseball statistics differently. He called his approach “Sabermetrics” in reference to the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR).
Some of the answers he found to his questions challenged the traditional thinking about baseball and the driver of its outcomes, and as a result, James and many of his followers were considered pariahs for much of his career. But it was his approach to look at the sport in a different way that is very much at the core of Moneyball.
As someone that grew up in America playing baseball and was somewhat involved in the Moneyball era, I witnessed a lot of what is covered in the book and movie firsthand. Whether it was being around traditional scouts and witnessing their conversations or playing the game and trying to adhere to what my coaches were telling me, even if it still always make sense to me, the book and movie attempt to capture these fundamental conflicts. I heard ridiculous things akin to the bad body type stuff in the movie, including my personal favourite of “have you ever seen a 300 lbs. first baseman?”
I had experiences as a player being wrongly encouraged to swing the bat rather than take pitches and wait for the pitch you know you can really do something with or take a Walk.
In fact, one of James most fundamental concepts was the value of a batter simply getting on base and avoiding outs. James had proven that Walks and On Base Percentage had much higher correlations to Runs Scored than the traditional measures of Batting Average and Runs Batted In. As someone who was a very patient hitter with an approach reinforced by a batting instructor that was probably ahead of his time, this didn’t always conform to what my other coaches wanted and might have contributed to my acceptance of analytics today.
Most importantly, at the professional level, this was not congruent with how players were valued or with scouting methodologies at the time that emphasised player tools rather than more innate abilities to recognise balls/strikes, control the strike zone, and capitalise on the opportunities those abilities created. This clash is at the heart of the underlying concepts of Moneyball. It was that Billy Beane, through Paul DePodesta and the influence of others, had gained a different and better understanding of the game and what drove performance. As a result, Billy Beane’s Oakland Athletics applied these ideas to player valuation and were able to identify players that they thought we undervalued by the rest of baseball. However, that has very little to do with data and analytics, other than historical data providing evidence and confidence in Beane and DePodesta’s viewpoints.
The role of analytics.
While analytics was important to support the new ways of looking at baseball, the A’s primarily used analytics because they were cost-effective and didn’t have the revenue that other clubs did. Beyond that, other clubs were using data as well, and it was just that the A’s were emphasising different types of data than other clubs.
However, the point and the reason Matthew Benham was perturbed about their association was that Moneyball wasn’t about the general application of data, it was the different idea of what type of a player the A’s were looking for and the unique data sets that helped identity those players that really mattered. This included factoring in the players’ salaries and acquisition costs, again driven by the A’s lack of revenue. In fact, one of the key players they lost, Jason Giambi, was one of the best players in baseball using the exact same data sets.
The viewpoint of the author.
The true concept of Moneyball becomes even more apparent when you start to take a closer look at the author’s background. Michael Lewis had written many books before and after about independent thinkers that changed the way people looked at problems in certain industries, whether it was an element of the Financial industry or even other sports such as American Football. However, Lewis’s focus was on the various characters like Beane, DePodesta, and Bill James in the baseball industry with unique viewpoints. It wasn’t just because they were statistically inclined - in fact, Billy Beane was far from it.
Applying Moneyball to football.
The key message in Moneyball as it applies to football is not to be afraid to look at things differently no matter what the general consensus may be. There are many traditionalists in football that are resistant to change, much like they were in baseball, the most traditional of all American sports.
However, much like in any industry, innovation is the key to beating your competition. That starts with having intelligent people that are free to develop new ideas on how to solve problems. Clubs should not be afraid to hire or take advice from intelligent people from different backgrounds, including other sports and other cultures and multiple generations. Diversity of thought is critical to finding solutions to problems, especially those in football, some of which have been around for a hundred years. It’s then up to the club to create the environment and structure for those bright individuals to thrive.
Having a strong identity
It cannot be understated how important it is for each club to have a clear identity that can drive approaches throughout the organisation, including a clear footballing philosophy. Once a club has a clear idea of how they want to play and what types of players they want to bring into the club, they can apply their own ideas to the player market and attempt to do what the A’s did - find players that they uniquely value more than other clubs.
While the difference might not be quite as pronounced as with the Oakland A’s and maybe not quite befitting of the Moneyball label, there are still so many sources for players around the world and so many opportunities to find talent. The sport itself also has more opportunities to have a unique playing identity. Baseball has much less flexibility on style or tactical approaches. Football is more fluid and variable, with so many different ways to succeed on the pitch. That is an opportunity for clubs in both tactical success and recruitment.
Unlike baseball that always had a ton of historical data, the availability of football data is relatively new. Nonetheless, data can be very useful in the same way in terms of identifying players that might fit a club’s style of play. While many clubs use data models to help with identifying recruitment targets, the model is only as strong as the club’s style of play and, in particular, requirements of players in different areas and roles on the pitch.
Data can be packaged in many different ways, but much like the Oakland A’s, the club that can best translate its specific requirements into unique data models, will be the most out of the continually evolving world of football data. Whether it’s identifying talent from less scouted regions or just performing objective due diligence on particular targets, it still comes down to understand the unique needs of your club first. Without that level of understanding, clubs will not be able to take advantage of new data advancements or applications. And for many football clubs, this is absolutely necessary in order to complete. Maybe even to a greater extent, world football is very much an unfair game in the same way as baseball is, but due to other factors such as financial fair play restrictions.
Regardless, it also helps to have the proper attitude about data. Football is a fluid game, and data is not always perfect or even comparable across providers or leagues. Matthew Benham and Bill James were both pioneers when it came to using new data approaches to solve problems. But both of those individuals always remained sceptical of the quality and limitations of data.
The inevitability of change.
One thing that is inevitable in any competitive industry, such as professional sports, is that innovation will continue. In baseball and the post-Moneyball era, eventually, every club realised what the A’s had figured out. The Los Angeles Dodgers hired Paul DePodesta to be their General Manager. Even the Boston Red Sox eventually hired Bill James and used the combination of financial power and intelligence to finally win the World Series in 2004 - their first championship since 1918 - as well as in 2007, 2013, and 2018. The basic concepts that were revolutionary then and scoffed at by mainstream media have since become commonplace now. Many other clubs came up with their own new ideas, and there was an explosion of innovation in approaches to the game and its future that continues today. This has affected on-field strategies and even transformed the way clubs scout and plan for the future.
We’ve already seen tactical innovation to some extent within football or at least modernised versions of historical innovations. In the same way we’ve seen in baseball, innovative practices from clubs will allow them to disrupt even some of the biggest leagues, and those practices will be adopted by others and talent will be in demand by other clubs.
The data revolution in football has only just begun. Emerging technology in tracking players, movement, and other events, coupled with the emergence of new data tracking companies and sources, will only continue to push the boundaries of data-based innovation. Clubs are incorporating tactical, data, and many other disciplines into innovative ways to train and develop talent.
If there is one thing the we at The Scouted Hub hope that professionals can take from this article is the value of employing smart people with open minds and clear collective objectives. To us, there is nothing more powerful, or enjoyable in our case than getting smart and committed people together and inventing new ways to solve problems.
We also know that football is a competitive industry, and we appreciate the pressure clubs, players, agents, and other professionals are under. As a result, it can be risky to take chances on new ideas. But by taking the “right” risks, clubs can find ways to innovate and outperform their competition, even in an unfair game.