The Oakland Athletics in 2002 were in a worrying predicament.
After reaching the playoffs the year before and falling at the first hurdle, all Oakland achieved with their success was enable their best players to be displayed in the shop window for the baseball world to see. What's more, they needed to slash their payroll, preventing them from renewing the contracts of some of their top players.
A small market ballclub that struggles to draw fans to the outdated Coliseum stuck in a damn competitive environment. Surrounded by the San Diego Padres, the San Francisco Giants and the Angels/Dodgers of LA, only money could help out the A's. And they didn't have a whole lot of that. So when the Yankees, Red Sox and Cardinals came calling, all Oakland could do was shake hands and begrudgingly wish their talent the best of luck elsewhere.
That's not how you win though, is it? We know from our own experience with Aston Villa that losing even two good players can sink a ship. The A's had to replace a bunch of key performers with limited resources.
To do so, they seemed to turn to absolute madness.
A security guard, Bill James, had written a book dismissed by traditional baseball scouts. The Bill James Baseball Abstract was dismissed for being 'kooky' and 'weird'. For the entirety of its 140+ year history, baseball had relied on individual knowledge and refused to allow any objective attitudes. You had to play and manage with your heart, the numbers were just an addition to that.
And thus, similar to how some football clubs still evaluate prospective talent, it was that scouts chose players based on how they looked. Did they have a 'strong swing', did they have a 'square jaw', did they have a 'good face'? Scouts in the 2000's actually thought they could predict a good player by his looks. Seriously.
This is especially true for the Oakland General Manager Billy Beane. Once upon a time he was a baseball prospect with the face and all the physical tools that led to scouts going wild over him. When he got to 'The Show' (Major League Baseball), he fell short. He failed. So when Beane chose to use statistics and Bill James' methods to replace his star players, he was grounded in his own shortcomings. He knew that these primitive scouting eye tests weren't enough.
People had always believed that scouting led to performance which led to numbers. In fact, it was the other way around. Reliable players put up good numbers regularly simply because they were talented baseball players. Scouts were looking at those who could bat in runs, steal bases and hit the ball often, or very far. They were looking for the big players that made the big plays, when in reality, those plays came with a hint of luck more often than not. Getting on base, you see, was what really mattered.
If you hit a single, you get on base. If another player hits a single, you get on second, maybe third, and he takes first. Eventually, you score, depending on the performance of the opposing pitcher. If a team were to create a batting order of players who always hit singles, you will score--rather unfashionably--but you will score.
So when Billy Beane refused to acknowledge his scouts' choices in replacing his best players and instead sat down with statistician Paul DePodesta, there was a tangible discord within Oakland's front office. Beane didn't have the money to sign players that should be replacing the ones he lost, so he simply flipped the board and made his own game.
This strategy, thanks to a book and a Oscar winning film, is known as 'Moneyball'.
Beane and DePodesta chose players based on their on-base percentage and slugging percentage. The first stat, OBP, is calculated like this:
(Hits + Walks + Hit by Pitch) / (At Bats + Walks + Hit by Pitch + Sacrifice Flies)
If you hit the ball, are hit by the ball or outsmart the pitcher by drawing a walk, you get on base. The issue is; that instead of determining success by OBP as defined above, scouts looked at batting average, which is similar, but ignores walks. Basing evaluations of hitters on batting average can give you a 'good' player but it elects to completely ignore an entire statistic which essentially means the same thing as hitting the ball. Plate discipline is a valuable trait too. Beane chose to combine OBP with slugging percentage (essentially the same as before, but adding in the types of play - single, double, triple, home run), known as OPS, to select his team. He simply wanted players who get on base, because if you get on base, you score.
In the same year that Beane began employing a statistics based recruitment model, the Oakland Athletics won a record 20 games in a row and made the playoffs with a salary ($44 million) almost three times less than the New York Yankees (traditionally baseball's biggest spenders) who had also made the playoffs. The A's didn't win a World Series (the Yankees have won 27 of these), but that was never the goal. Beane set out to make the team just as competitive, but vastly cheaper. You can't argue that he didn't.
Beane's model was used by numerous other baseball teams to great success. The trouble is, Moneyball does not directly translate to football - and can only really be used as a basis, that of 'exploiting market inefficiencies'. Why? Because football is a fluid, low-scoring sport where goals are hard to predict. Baseball, on the other hand, resets after every pitch. Effectively, there are at least 250 breaks in the action per game. Plus, with a higher number of average runs being scored in baseball compared to goals in football, there is a larger margin for individual errors in baseball. A goal is worth much more than a run.
We can use total shots rate [Shots For / (Shots For + Shots Against)] to predict the success of a team, as TSR has a strong relationship with victorious teams and their points tally. The issue lies in the fact that all shots in football aren't equal. They depend on a huge amount of variables, which simply don't exist in baseball. I could take 20 shots from the halfway line and miss whilst eventually scoring a penalty. Some shots are worthless and others valuable. Expected Goals, or xG is the answer to that.
It gets a bit complicated now, but xG is calculated with a variety of in-depth statistics including the angle of shots, the type of assist that led to a shot, the distance from goal of the shot and the type of shot. From this we can see how many goals the average team scores from the quality of chances created. xG can tell you how efficient a team is, but it's still a measure of a collective, rather than a single player. Goals can always be created by dumb luck, and always will. Stats in football are still in their relative infancy and whilst people such as Michael Caley (@MC_of_A) are doing a damn good job of visualising these stats in football, it's just a bit harder than baseball, and outliers such as Leicester City can happen. It doesn't mean we can't do a good job of predicting the majority of events, though.
So when Tom Fox hosted a well-attended gathering at Villa Park last July to speak about Villa's future, he chose to mention 'Billy Beane' and 'Moneyball' as buzzwords for his recruitment policy. I've spoken at length about how I feel Fox is a walking corporation and we know that inside the big companies are completely ludicrous attempts at internal brainwashing via schemes and weird training programs, so I guess Fox couldn't help but mention Moneyball, because in a way, that was the easiest way to spin Villa's summer.
But it's wrong.
I can guarantee that not a single statistic was used correctly last summer. I can tell you right now that Aston Villa's recruitment policy was perhaps based on data, but subjective decisions were made instead of objective ones.
Thanks to numerous leaks at Bodymoor Heath, we know Adama Traoré was purchased simply because Stoke wanted him. The same may very well apply to Idrissa Gana Gueye and Jordan Veretout who were chased by Newcastle, Bournemouth and Leicester City. Villa's head of recruitment, Paddy Riley, simply snatched players away from competitors, outbidding them in what could only be described as the opposite of the principles that Moneyball was founded upon.
There is no evidence of Moneyball being used as even a foundation at Villa Park. In actual fact, I wouldn't put it past Villa to simply copy and paste Beane's model in baseball to football. This is wrong, in the first instance as proved above. You cannot just spend low and play high - football doesn't work like that. You need the right players in the right position in the right frame of mind, not just anyone.
And anyone is exactly who Villa bought this past summer. They bought and bought high for no reason. They scouted Ligue 1 'because it was cheap' and bought some good players, but for a high price. Remember Moneyball and exploiting market inefficiencies? Villa simply looked at The Sun and saw a story about how overpriced English footballers are and waltzed off to purchase from Europe, that's it.
£859.25 million was the total spend of Premier League clubs in the summer of 2015. Villa spent £54 million of that sum. 107 players moved to Premiership Clubs in the summer transfer window as a result of a paid transfers; whether it be a tribunal, undisclosed or disclosed transfer fee. That's just a fraction over £8 million per player, inflated by blockbuster purchases by clubs such as Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea. A closer look at Villa's recruitment shows that all of Villa's first team purchases (Veretout, Amavi, Gana, Rudy Gestede) were right around that price, or exceeded it, when they bought Jordan Ayew and Adama Traoré.
In support of Villa's recruitment, the net spend of the summer was only £9 million thanks to the sales of Christian Benteke and Fabian Delph, but still - Moneyball it is not. Villa did not exploit the market and buy low valued players, but instead bought and spent as anyone would expect them to! The main additions to the team cost the average, not lower. No diamonds were discovered in the rough. Villa bought players at a break even cost - which is commendable, but we now know what happens when you buy average for the sake of buying average.
You see, baseball is a team game, but it's not as dependent on your team-mates as football is. You can be a completely useless in the field, but stroll leisurely up to the plate when it's your turn to bat, crush the ball out of the park and be a hero. It's not like that in football, your mistakes are the team's mistakes. If Micah Richards sprints out of position, he puts his team under pressure. By investing in a variety of different personalities purely based on numbers or minuscule scouting blurbs, you're in for a horrible time - personalities and team chemistry matter exponentially more in football. The best example of this is Jordan Ayew. Villa went on a small streak in early 2016 which could have ended in the club actually staying up, had they not been undermined by momentary individual lapses in judgment. In a match against West Ham, with Villa applying pressure, Jordan Ayew let his emotions get the best of him and allowed provocation by Hammers defender Aaron Cresswell, resulting to an elbow being crunched into Cresswell's nose. Ayew was sent off, Villa lost the game. Who knows what could have been?
Ayew is not the problem, but a mere symptom. Without comprehensive analysis, you don't know what you're getting. Jordan Veretout suffered a bout of homesickness as he raised his infant child in a Birmingham hotel room. Jordan Ayew is constantly on the verge of exploding in anger, no doubt a product of his club's dire situation. Idrissa Gana is one-and-done with Villa. These aren't the issues, Villa's lack of reinforcement for these issues, and not having a subsequent contingency plan, is the issue.
Fox's use of the word Moneyball is lazy at best and completely uninformed at worst. Stats only point at one purchase being chosen based on data, Rudy Gestede, someone who has performed relatively well for Villa, but also someone who was pinned out as a Tim Sherwood signing. Why is this? Rudy gets on the end of good crosses. It doesn't matter if it's in the Championship or the Premier League: Gestede needs not a high quantity of delivery, but a good quality of it to score. He can't make chances happen, but he can put them in the back of the net (as long as they are airborne and he doesn't have to use his feet). Villa simply don't have the players who can provide good enough service to Rudy. In fact, they don't play high enough for Rudy to be anywhere near the box. His energy is wasted pressing central defenders alone or chasing after nimble midfielders, leaving less in the tank for the times when Aston Villa need him to make a vital sprint in a rare moment of attacking impetus.
If Villa had stuck to the Moneyball ideology spouted by Tom Fox during the summer, they'd have bought capable backups and wouldn't have gambled on fragile players to play 38 games a season. If Veretout and Gana were injured in the summer, Villa would have been forced to prematurely thrust either Jordan Lyden or Gary Gardner into the first team at the start of the year, scuppering any form of team chemistry that may have been built up. There simply isn't a high enough quality of squad depth at Villa Park to enforce a 'next man up' system. If you're fit, you play. That's it. Staying healthy is an underrated trait, too. Look at league winners Leicester City. They used the fewest number of players in England's top flight, just 23. Liverpool and Manchester United used the joint-most, with 33 apiece.
Fox and Riley spent so much time believing that they were doing the right thing that they didn't plan for what happens if the plan simply doesn't work. Not only that, they failed to adapt when everything failed, letting the club slide into the Championship. A team wasn't formed, simply a collection of individuals who played the same game and spoke the same(ish) language.
In retrospect, Villa's 2013 season mirrors Moneyball far more than any other club in the Premier League. Villa spent little, but gained a lot from Benteke, Vlaar and Westwood. That year was rocky and Villa should have been relegated, the fact that they hardly stayed up seemed to have scared them from continuing with that same recruitment policy. Vlaar was written off as injury-prone, Westwood wasn't looked at since he was playing in League One and no-one in the Premier League was seriously looking at the Belgian Jupiler League for future stars. Villa exploited a few gaps by accident and should have continued. Tottenham, Leicester and Bournemouth have all since proven that Villa's previous strategy worked. Dele Alli may very well have been bought for the same reasons Aston Villa bought Ashley Westwood. There is value and talent to be found throughout the lower levels of the English football leagues.
A textbook example of this would be Benik Afobe, an Arsenal academy graduate who scored 22 goals in 46 games for Wolverhampton. If Villa had a functioning recruitment department, they could have snapped up Afobe for £2 million, a bargain compared to the still-relatively-cheap-in-today's-crazy-market £10 million that he cost Bournemouth in January. The key aspect of Benik's game is that he is a handful, even for competent defenders - he's fast, strong and can finish. He will make a chance on his own and has the strength to hold off burly defenders and the composure to slot it home. Benik Afobe has discipline too, he's only seen a single yellow card this year and doesn't bring the attitude or emotional baggage of a Jordan Ayew. Most importantly though, Afobe fits the role of what you'd expect from Gabby Agbonlahor or Scott Sinclair - meaning that Villa can play the same style of football even if they have two injuries in their striking setup.
Moneyball isn't just about buying, it's about selling. Every player has a price. Villa made a horrible mistake with Fabian Delph, who should have cost Manchester City upwards of £15 million to acquire. However, Delph left for only £7 million. This cannot ever happen to a club which wants to remain competitive and minimum-fee release clauses need to be inserted into the contract of every single asset the club values. The easy way to do this is by tiers - put your first team starters at about £15 million and you'll be floating in cash if everything goes right, even after replacing everyone who departed (look at Southampton). The harder (nearly impossible) method is to evaluate signings by how many goals you believe that they would bring to the club, which xG can help us with - then you find the value of a goal to your football club and work this into the contract. You get around the player's griping by offering high performance related incentives, to encourage the player to reach the valuation determined by the expected goals and you have your release clause. That's not all though. Players will leave the football club, and thus the scouting team needs to have identified several replacements before the player even arrives to the football club he will leave. It's a constant cycle, but if done correctly, the team stays on a level platform at all times while increasing revenue, key to the long-term success of the club.
Villa actually succeeded in offsetting the outgoing Fabian Delph with Idrissa Gana, but they failed to replace Tom Cleverley and Christian Benteke with like-for-like players. This is another factor that led to their doom. Tim Sherwood correctly identified that a number of Villa's players were not equipped for Premier League football. Tom Fox refused to purchase a large amount of new players. He is correct that Villa should not blow money on 15 new players, but that doesn't mean his thought process isn't flawed.
Aston Villa can easily afford to pluck a large number of players from the lower leagues while consolidating top flight status and remaining financially sound. There may not be someone like Benteke or Delph - but as I've already mentioned, there's value in every single tier that lies under the Premier League. It's the lower base of the football pyramid for a reason, the building blocks that hold up the top flight.
Moneyballers, Aston Villa are not. At least not yet. That's a scheme that allows for clubs with little financial resources to remain competitive. What this really is, is a CEO getting over excited and carelessly splurging money on a one track ideal. There's a bright future for the thinking of Billy Beane and Bill James throughout sport, but don't look to Aston Villa for an example of it. Stats-based analysis can be done as part of an extensive recruitment programme, but it needs to be well thought out - not jumped upon because it seems trendy.
Let's leave the buzzwords behind.