Sport seems to be the most unlikeliest of places to look for scientific objectivity.
Sport, after all, is the arena where people look for fairytales, the comeback against insurmountable odds, David beating Goliath.
It’s where the athletes are imbued with superhuman skills, where luck is something you can control, where tribalism rules and a sense of perspective is checked at the door.
At the start of every season, which fan of whatever sport or team hasn’t said to themselves: “This is our year.”
Sport – at least professional sport – is also a place which needs to be run by sportsmen and women. Ex-professionals who know the way the game is played, know how to judge a player, know how to win.
So when someone tells you that everything you think you know about the sport you love is wrong, it is, to say the very least, intriguing.
Moneyball by Michael Lewis is a book which does just that.
It sets out a hypothesis that scientific rationalism can be brought to bear on sport. A hypothesis that was tested in the cut-throat world of professional baseball by a small market team called the Oakland Athletics and their ambitious forward-thinking General Manager Billy Beane.
The book examines the belief of Beane and his front-office that the conventional wisdom of baseball was wrong, the stats that baseball insiders put their faith in, the selection methods of talent, even the idea of what an athlete should look like. It was all wrong. More importantly they believed that it could all be done better.
They implemented a system based on Sabermetrics (derived from the Society for American baseball Research) – based on analysis of the sport through objective, empirical evidence, using statistics that measure in-game activity.
By taking a more scientific approach, looking in details at the factors behind the scoring of runs and how games were won and lost, they created a new set of analytics – numbers that wouldn’t lie, wouldn’t skew the abilities of any individual player. If the numbers said a player was good, he was good regardless of whether he was fat, slow, unorthodox – the numbers didn’t lie.
It meant they could put a more accurate value on the abilities of players. It also meant the A’s were able to level the playing field against wealthier teams with annual player budgets three or four times greater than their own.
For a more detailed rundown of the book check out the description on Wikipedia
All of which makes you wonder whether a similar system could work for football? The Sabermetricians – led by a man called Bill James – wanted to understand the sport they followed better. They wanted to hep the teams they supported do things better. Would a similar movement work here?
How many times have you sat watching a football highlights show and been staggered by the apparent ignorance of the pundit? Trotting out the same well-worn phrases for poor defending – ‘he was standing off…’ ‘he wasn’t defending the channels’.
They’re supposed to be pundits, they are supposed to know more than us, they are supposed to explain the finer points of the game. I want to know why something happened, I don’t want a repeat of the action I have just spent the last ten minutes watching.
It makes a system which can explain elements of the game attractive . Like baseball there are existing stats which are well-known and understood by insiders and supporters alike – like assists, goals scored, fouls committed etc – but reading Moneyball it does make you question how valuable these actually are.
United striker Dimitar Berbatov was the Premier League’s top scorer – but he made just 27 starts. Taking into account considerations of squad rotation, injury etc that’s still an impressive goals to game ratio – yet Berbatov didn’t even make the bench for the Champions League Final. Clearly Sir Alex Ferguson sees something that the stats – at least the stats that the fans see – just don’t highlight.
I’m aware that some of these statistics might already exist. That firms like Opta have a vast amount of data which they already supply to the media and football teams. Much of it is proprietary – we can’t access it without paying a costly subscription fee. Sites like Zonal Marking and Soccerbase are great but we’ve got a long way to go before the football community can emulate the likes of fangraphs.
We’ve open sourced hardware, software and public data – would be great to see an open source football stat community too.
Moneyball is available to buy from Amazon.