What is Moneyball, and does it work in football?

AZ Alkmaar recently convinced Billy Beane, a trailblazing baseball executive, to serve in an advisory capacity to the Eredivisie club, prompting recurrent questions as to whether his revolutionary Moneyball philosophy can be effectively implemented in football. 

In his role as general manager of the miserly Oakland Athletics, Beane famously capitalised on market inefficiencies to bridge a gargantuan budgetary chasm and outperform wealthier, seemingly more powerful teams. He used statistical analysis to isolate and understand exactly how a baseball team succeeds before constructing a roster in that vision, mastering the art of winning an unfair game.

Now, AZ hope his ground-breaking ethos can be transplanted to help them consistently compete with big-spending giants like Ajax and PSV, just as it enabled Oakland to battle the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.

What is Moneyball?

To evaluate whether Moneyball can work in football, we must first delve into the concept itself, beyond the common misrepresentations, and gain a true understanding of what it actually is. As a professional baseball writer with a keen passion for football, especially that of the Netherlands, I’m better placed than most to separate fact from fiction in this regard. Accordingly, let me begin by dispelling a few myths and explaining what Moneyball is not

Moneyball is not the method of buying cheap players and making them better, nor is it relying solely on a laptop to spit out optimal transfer targets. Rather, Moneyball is the quality of approaching conventional problems from unconventional angles, the concept of thinking differently to everybody else and repeatedly asking what can we do to improve?

Moneyball is a fluid worldview that encourages iconoclasm and provides an inspirational guideline in the constant quest to unearth new market inefficiencies and discover fresh solutions to age-old puzzles.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Billy Beane faced such a puzzle. He was tasked with constructing a successful Major League Baseball team on a minuscule budget, with making the unfashionable Oakland A’s good enough to beat teams that dwarfed them in terms of revenue and resources.

In 1998, Beane’s first year on the job, Oakland spent $22 million on player salaries while the glamorous Yankees spent $71 million. By 2003, the disparity reached triple digits, with Oakland spending $50 million to New York’s $152 million. 

Theoretically, the A’s should have finished last every single year, but Beane, a former player with a fiery competitive instinct, could not allow that to happen, and it did not. Rather than lurking in the cellar where their budget belonged, Oakland won the American League West in 2000, 2002 and 2003, frequently making the postseason against all odds. They have continued to enjoy success more recently, despite similar financial disadvantages, with further division titles secured in 2006, 2012 and 2013.

All told, during his seventeen-season reign as general manager to date, Beane has faced an average budgetary disadvantage of $118 million per year to the richest teams but has delivered six division titles and eight postseason berths in Oakland, a quite incredible record. 

So what is the secret? Well, at least in the early years, Beane went back to the very basics when searching relentlessly for a way to build a successful team using his minute resources. He asked the simplest, but most overlooked, of all questions: how do you win baseball games? 

Beane embarked on an exhaustive study to find the definitive answer. He asked scouts, players, broadcasters, and everybody you could possibly think of, before ultimately arriving at sabermetrics, a branch of thought holding that scientific analysis, especially of statistics to measure performance, offers the most efficient solutions to baseball problems such as that which faced the Oakland A’s. 

In explicit terms, the leading sabermetric philosophies of the day isolated obscure statistics such as on-base percentage (the regularity with which a batter reaches base safely) and on-base-plus-slugging percentage (the regularity with which a batter reaches base safely and hits for power) as the most crucial components in the context of winning baseball games. A team comprised of players with high ratings in those categories would, theoretically, produce more baserunners and, by extension, score more runs, than a team of players with lower ratings, ultimately leading to more wins.

So why didn’t every team use these metrics when targeting players? Why didn’t the Yankees simply buy the available players with the highest on-base percentage? Well, we are viewing the problem from a position of historical hindsight. At the time, prior to the Moneyball revolution, the conventional wisdom of scouts and executives held sway in baseball, with teams more likely to buy a player based on his reputation, appearance and ability to sell tickets than his accomplishments in obscure statistical categories. Every team had access to the metrics, but most chose to ignore them in favour of hunches and subjective opinion.

Billy Beane, on the other hand, did not care for such anachronistic, myopic reasoning. Quite frankly, he couldn’t afford to care about it. Oakland’s budget simply did not stretching far enough to encompass elite free agents, so in a desperate bid to end the status quo of Major League Baseball, Beane put his entire faith in, and began constructing his team in the vision of, Moneyball, the only system he thought could potentially being success to the A’s.

Inside Billy Beane’s strategy

In neglecting all traditional sentiment and rebuilding with the components deemed most efficient by science and mathematics, the Oakland A’s essentially stripped down an old Ford Focus, replaced the petrol engine with solar panels and then watched it beat Ferrari and Mercedes in a race.

Yes, it was that impressive.

Oakland made stars out of previously overlooked and undervalued cast-offs, unfashionable players such as Eric Chavez, Chad Bradford and Mark Ellis becoming integral cogs in a division-winning machine.

When homegrown stars became too expensive, departing for glitzy teams elsewhere, Beane maintained faith in his philosophy, replacing heroes like Jason Giambi with scrubs like Scott Hatteberg.

The people coming in were always unheralded, if not flat-out derided, but they always got the job done. They always played a role in bringing success to the collective team, and they always made Beane’s vision work in practice.

Oakland A’s historic payroll disadvantages

To this day, the Oakland A’s remain an island of misfit toys, with very few individual stars but an unparalleled sense of purpose and cohesion. During the 2014 season, for instance, they spent just $83 million on player salaries, compared with the Los Angeles Dodgers’ eye watering $235 million outlay. Both teams made the postseason playoffs, but Billy Beane did so while effectively paying $943,000 per win, compared with $2.5 million per win for Ned Colletti and the Dodgers.

Naturally, AZ hope Beane can advise them on how best to bridge a similar gap between themselves and the Eredivisie’s biggest spenders. The disparity in financial expenditure between AZ and their nearest rivals is somewhat similar to that faced by the Oakland A’s.

Since 2009, AZ have spent 191% less in transfer fees than PSV, 141% less than Twente and 120% less than Ajax. By comparison, during the same timeframe, Oakland has spent 235% less on player salaries than the Yankees, 163% less than the Red Sox and 127% less than the Dodgers. 

However, there is a sharp contrast between AZ and Oakland in terms of how much success the club is able to derive from its budget. For instance, over the aforementioned six-year period, the baseball team has defied the odds to finish, on average, with only 0.5 less wins than the Red Sox per year, 3.5 less than the Dodgers and 8.5 less than the Yankees.

Considering the huge financial chasm between the teams, those results are incredible. Yet despite similar budgetary deficits to their competitors, AZ have, during the same stretch, typically finished 14 points behind PSV, 22 points off Ajax and 14 points adrift of Twente in the Eredivisie standings. 

Clearly, they aren’t getting enough bang for their minimal buck. Hence the arrival of Billy Beane.

How can Moneyball be applied to football?

So will his philosophy translate effectively to football? Well, in the first instance, Beane’s influence may help AZ find better replacements for the players they traditionally lose each season.

Since the mid-2000s, the Alkmaar club have, like many middling Eredivisie outfits, been forced to sell their best players to aid survival. Accordingly, a host of star players have departed the AFAS Stadion, from Ron Vlaar, Mousa Dembele and Jeremain Lens to Graziano Pelle, Niklas Moisander and Adam Maher. 

Of course, Beane has endured a similar plight with Oakland, who have lost star players such as Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon and Josh Donaldson during his tenure, all of whom simply became too expensive to keep around.

However, Oakland became masters of replacing these departed stars, often gleaming better results from less-heralded replacements. Such is the style of Moneyball, Beane doesn’t attempt to buy players as much as he tries to buy wins. Perhaps AZ can benefit from his tutelage in this regard when tasked with replacing present stars who will inevitably move on.

Why Moneyball may not work in football

Yet here, we begin to encounter the difficulty of applying Moneyball to football. If the main pillar of this philosophy is to impartially buy wins as opposed to emotionally purchase players, we must therefore ponder what, exactly, leads to wins in football, which is where the fundamental problems lie. 

You see, in football, the notion of winning is far more ambiguous than in baseball, because the former is subjective art while the latter is objective science. In baseball, play is more rigid and codified, with each action on the diamond having one of a pre-determined set of outcomes, all tied directly to the overall result. However, in football, play is more fluid and divergent, with no boundaries or limitations to what may occur and no real way to quantify how valuable a certain action is in relation to the overall outcome of a game.

For instance, in baseball, we know that a home team down by two runs in the third inning with runners on first and third base and one out, will on average score 1.186 runs in that inning. Similarly, we know that the aforementioned team, in the aforementioned situation, has a 40% chance of winning the overall game. We know, because baseball is one giant, interconnected pursuit of mathematics.

On the contrary, football is something of an unburdened mess. A beautiful and entertaining mess, but a mess nonetheless. For instance, in football, we don’t truly know how valuable a step-over is, or whether a sideways pass dramatically alters a team’s likelihood of winning. Similarly, we have no way to compute the impact of team spirit, cohesion and chemistry, factors traditionally cherished by the football-watching masses. 

Ultimately, in football, beyond causal entertainment, we rarely know the true worth of any one action on the field, which is a major divergence from baseball, in which all minutiae is calculable. Accordingly, this is a major blow to Moneyball’s attempted integration into football.

However, the greatest restriction to the philosophy is football’s inherent preoccupation with style of play. As fans, we demand not only victories, but also an attractive and entertaining brand of football. Take Sam Allardyce at West Ham, for instance. He has guided the club to Premier League respectability, but many still question and criticise his overly direct tactics.

Football is a balletic, poetic art. As such, we want to see great play, great skills and great moments of individual brilliance, not just a mundane plod towards victory. Therefore, even if a football club uses advanced data to construct a team, as prescribed by the Moneyball ethos, it will count for nothing if the manager doesn’t then play in a style best suited to his players.

For instance, if a club purchases a certain player because of his high pass-completion percentage, only for the coach to deploy a direct game plan that effectively negates his impact, that signing is essentially futile.

Moreover, in football, much more than in baseball, each game calls for a different strategy. In this regard, tactics play a much greater role in football, with each opponent offering different problems that need to be counteracted. Accordingly, it is difficult to play in one uniform style, meaning it is similarly difficult to efficiently recruit players using data.

How Moneyball can be used in football

Any successful application of Moneyball would likely have to help enrich a predetermined style of play. For centuries, we have debated the best way to play football and the most efficient route to victory. Ultimately, conjecture still abounds. Such is the demanding nature of football, we are highly unlikely to alter the approach of experienced managers. What they believe is what they believe. However, perhaps the Moneyball spirit of finding new ways to hone and improve your product could help identify the best and most valuable players who fit the specific philosophy of a coach.

For example, managers preferring a more direct style could utilise specific data regarding headers and physical battles won rather than looking at mere height. Likewise, managers determined to play a neat passing game could rely more heavily on pass completion statistics rather than a player’s posture and appearance on the ball.

For this to work effectively, there would need to be total trust and harmony within the managerial hierarchy of a football club. The manager must trust whoever is in charge of player recruitment and, in turn, the person in charge of player recruitment must have the support of ownership and trust in his analytical department. In the capricious, short-minded, boom-or-bust world of contemporary football, such situations are hard to find.

Can Billy Beane revolutionise football?

Of course, Billy Beane, ever the iconoclast, would likely disregard my thinking entirely. He always tries to take the unconventional route to glory. Rather than accepting the traditions of football, he will likely delve into a deep study and, just as he did with baseball, find a way to decode, once and for all, what it actually takes to win football matches. It may be harder and require much more work, but Beane will try to master a game that has never been mastered.

“Even if you don’t have faith in statistics,” he once said in a BBC interview, “some things on a football field have more value than other things and, once we agree on that, it’s finding what are the next most valuable things, which aren’t so evident to everybody.”

Therein lies the undeniable genius of Billy Beane, who simplifies the most complex of issues with a precocious clarity of thought. AZ Alkmaar, just like his Oakland A’s, have some talented players, some valuable assets and a whole heap of untapped potential. Accordingly, in the coming weeks and months, it will be intriguing to see just how much autonomy Beane has and, ultimately, whether he can cook up a winning formula to steer the club closer to its big-spending adversaries.

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