Why Moneyball does not work…in football

by Darryl Fraser

Wednesday, April 4th, 2012

So Liverpool’s awkward season continues to progress. Mid-table Premier League and a Carling Cup (with potential FA Cup on the way) I doubt are what John Henry and company expected when they purchased the club last year. With a Champions League place way out of view lots of journalist are talking about how the Moneyball aspect is not working this year.

And this just drives me crazy.

I wonder whether or not journalists and Liverpool fans know what exactly Moneyball is. Just watching the movie does not mean you know anything about Moneyball. Read the book, then read the book again, then watch the movie and see if it makes sense.

Being Canadian I have a passion for baseball, as well as football and comparing the concept of Moneyball to baseball and football equally is ridiculous. Baseball is a sport without a time limit. It’s a sport where there are series of one vs one matchups (pitcher vs batter) where it is easy to quantify the result (hit vs out) and gauge how numbers speak to a players performance (batting average, runs batted in, etc). Football is a flowing game, with a specific time limit where you can measure statistics, but how accurate are these statistics. If a midfielder completes only 25% of his passes, yet three passes set up a goal is the midfielder worthless?

Moneyball (in theory) is about fielding a successful team on a limited budget. The Oakland Athletics are a team that have a payroll around $30-40 million a season where a team like the Boston Red Sox spend over $200 million a season, so Moneyball is to try and explain how Oakland can compete with Boston in the same season, with a clear deficit in funds. To compete Oakland have to find players that are undervalued by the bigger clubs and get them at a cheap price and hope that they produce results.

Do you think that theory applies at Anfield?

Where you can apply this Moneyball theory this season in the Premier League is with Newcastle. Who at St. James’ Park were excited this season about the likes of Demba Ba, Yohan Cabaye, Hatem Ben Arfa or Tim Krul this season? Yet how valuable have all these players been to Newcastle sitting level on points with Chelsea (a team who has spent much more) and fighting for a place in Europe? But if you believe the Moneyball can be applied to football (which I do not) then Newcastle is the argument you should be making, not Liverpool.

I constantly read about how fans say how Liverpool signed Jordan Henderson because of Moneyball, that is insane. Do you think that Jordan Henderson has been worth his value this season? Do you think any club had Jordan Henderson valued as high as what Liverpool signed him for? Now Jordan Henderson may very well be one of the strongest midfielders in Liverpool history (as he is still young) but it will have nothing to do with Moneyball. Similar cases can be made for Stewart Downing and of course Andy Carroll. Andy Carroll can easily be seen as a bust this season because of the price that Kenny Dalglish paid for him. Our only real successful player brought in this year which can be considered a deal was Craig Bellamy (free).

What is seems that King Kenny was doing last summer was trying to rebuild Liverpool they way every manager does. Go out and sign young talent, as well as some experienced players to help fill voids and maybe get some great buys as well. The Moneyball nonsense is only really an issue because of the Reds’ struggles. All teams rebuild, some make great signings some make failures. But all is forgiven by being competitive. Are fans in Manchester upset that United wasted money on Tiago Bebe? Or that City have wasted money on Robinho, Wayne Bridge, Emmanuel Adebayor, Roque Santa Cruz and probably some others? Doubtful, because they are winning.

But wait you may be thinking, what about the Boston Red Sox? They spend a lot of money and win, is it Moneyball? No, if you were paying attention to what Moneyball is supposed to be about, it is competing on a limited budget. Having a budget over $200 million dollars is not really limited. Now the principles of Moneyball are being preached in Boston, where they still try to get the players who will offer them the best value for their money, but they are able to put a higher price tag on that value than a team such as Oakland.

There is one final issue that you should consider when talking about Moneyball. In baseball there is a manager and a General Manager (GM). The manager fields the players, the GM signs and trades players. There is not that role distinction in football. Kenny Dalglish goes out and brings in players, and also decides which eleven players will suit up. Also in Moneyball, the manager is really just a face, the GM has all the power.

Now this is not an indictment of Liverpool or John Henry. I am a Liverpool fan, a huge one and take so much flack from my buddies who support other teams. I was so excited when John Henry bought Liverpool because I have seen with the Boston Red Sox what he can build. I also believe he will follow through and bring Liverpool back to its original glory, but it will take time. Just because a snag has been hit rebuilding this season, do not look for excuses such as Moneyball has failed.

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  • Dan the fan

    Great piece. Moneyball demystified. Shame we can’t buy a win though. Truly shocking run at the minute. Here’s hoping you’re right about John Henry seeing things through.

  • GenevaRed

    Like your article very much & agree with most of it. Like you I am a baseball fan (RedSox) but also a season ticket holder at Liverpool. Where I disagree is that Moneyball principles have not played any part in Liverpool’s signings so far. You also need to include the roll of Damien Comoli in your assessment – he has adapted the statistical approach of Bill James to soccer – analysing players actual contribution vs perception & glib media assessments. He also looks at other aspects such as fitness, discipline, athletic abilities etc…. Comoli has had as much influence on the signings as Dalglish & don’t forget Jose Enrique as a value for money signing to add to Bellamy. He also played a major role in shifting some of the players that were surplus to requirements & slimming the wage bill. The stats in soccer are more difficult to to be definitive about – a perfect assist can be wasted by a lousy striker (as a good pitch can end up yielding a base through lousy fielding ) Comoli apparently talks to Billy Beane from time to time but I don’t think he seeks to apply Moneyball blanket fashion – unfortunately the UK media would have you believe that’s the case & you can never accuse the journalists here of thorough research! I too was thrilled at FSG’s acquisition of Liverpool & while I am disappointed with the current situation I am still optimistic we can restore past glory if we give Dalglish, Comoli, FSG time. Meantime I am just as excited about Opening Day tomorrow at Detroit as I am about receiving my FA Cup semi-final tickets this morning!

  • Andy

    Very interesting article, plenty of food for thought here. Knowing very little about baseball I can only offer an opinion about “moneyball” from a soccer perspective. I think that one of the biggest challenges to this strategy is persuading a team’s fans that moneyball is the way to go. Liverpool fans might look jealously at Newcastle’s new signings, but there would have been riots at Anfield if Demba Ba had been signed during the January 2011 transfer window as a replacement to Torres. My point is that fans want big names bought for big bucks. Even though Demba Ba has scored more goals than Carroll and Suarez combined – and would have cost a lot less than either – Liverpool fans would have turned their noses up at him in 2011. Part of the reason this strategy is working at Newcastle is because it is a smaller club and their fans have a more realistic attitude as to the quality of players they can attract. In short the biggest obstacle to a moneyball strategy working in Liverpool is the Liverpool fans themselves.

  • Tom

    I’m afraid your definition of Moneyball is incorrect. “Moneyball” in baseball is about creating a more objective approach to player analysis, versus the traditional way of looking at players through the subjective eyes of a scout.

    The “money” in Moneyball (and it isn’t called Moneyball, at least in baseball, it’s called Sabermetrics) has little to do with the amount of money and everything to do with value. The goal would be the highest value for the money….and that amount of money spent will differ between LFC and say QPR, as it does between Oakland and Boston.

    In other words, “Moneyball is about getting the best team on a limited budget” isn’t quite right. You can spend a pound, you can spend a billion pounds…and provided the billion pounds spent returns a billion pounds of value, you’ve got a Moneyball team.

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