In 15 days, Ross McCormack turns 30 years old. He’s never played in the Premier League, has spent the last eight years in the Championship, and has only played in one top-flight league: the Scottish Premier League. In those eight seasons in the Championship, McCormack’s never been on a promoted side, making the playoff just once, with Cardiff City in 2010.
Yet Aston Villa may be on the verge of spending anywhere from £12 to £15 million on the Fulham striker.
When we think traditionally, that wouldn’t be a great idea. Generally speaking, football clubs of Villa’s stature will target players who have high potential re-sale value; guys like James Milner, Ashley Young and Christian Benteke provided the club with nice profits after a few years of service.
Clearly, Villa won’t expect to see that out of McCormack. In fact, the Scotsman’s prospective move to B6 is reminiscent of one made five and a half years ago: the move for Darren Bent.
With Villa in the bottom end of the table for the first time in years, Bent was brought in — for between £18 and £24 million — for one purpose: Premier League survival. He scored nine times in 16 appearances during his half season at Villa, and the club ultimately rose to ninth in the final table.
Unlike those other signings above, Bent wasn’t brought in because he’d be resold down the road for a larger fee, rather he was brought in because the financial implications of not making the move could far outweigh the spend required to get the player.
His value to Aston Villa is dependent on one idea: If the club win promotion this year, the club are set to gain around £110 million.
That allows us to bridge the gap quite nicely to talk about the idea of “moneyball”* in football, and how it applies to Villa’s pursuit of McCormack. Advanced metrics are easy to use in baseball, the sport from which the term originates, because it’s largely an “individual sport” with a team aspect; at least that’s how my high school coach presented it. But it’s generally true. If you strike out ahead of me, it has little impact on my ability to reach base in my at-bat.
That differs from more dynamic sports, like basketball and football, which are more fluid in nature, requiring chemistry between players, and featuring a wealth of various tactics dependent on personnel. But while we see advanced metrics coming into focus in the NBA, we haven’t seen that jump yet in football — and a lot of it boils down to the size of the squad. Where basketball teams play just five players at once, football clubs trot out 11-man lineups each week. The result? There are 10 “pairwise” interactions at a time in basketball, compared with 55 in football.
When people talk about the things stats “don’t measure” in football, those interactions are often at the forefront of criticism, and rightfully so. It’s difficult to describe such a vibrant, dynamic game in, well, static circumstances. But we try anyway!
A lot of McCormack’s value to Villa depends on where this team is right now. If it’s a mid-table side, signing McCormack is perhaps the difference between finishing eighth and 12th. In that world, Villa aren’t making a great call and are better off handing minutes to a youngster, like André Green or Rushian Hepburn-Murphy, and accepting a 14th-place finish.
But I’m not sure Villa’s there. Let’s say they’re one of the top eight sides in the division right now, the ones who, at the end of the day, are going to fight for promotion.
In that world, McCormack becomes extremely valuable.
Just ask Brighton, who missed out on promotion after finishing joint-second with Middlesbrough, if they could’ve used McCormack last season. If he would’ve added just one goal, at the right moment, Brighton would be a Premier League side today — and they’d be £170 million richer.
And that’s where the margins exist that turn McCormack into a potentially great value signing.
Let’s hold everything else constant and say McCormack would add 10 goals to Aston Villa’s side this season, when compared to other strikers who’d play in his place. Take half of those goals and allocate them to matches where the result doesn’t change — you know, making a 2-0 win a 3-0 one or a 2-0 loss a 2-1 one — and five to matches that affect the final scoreline. Let’s give three to matches that would’ve been drawn, and two to matches Villa would’ve lost by a goal.
There’s eight points added.
Just ask Brighton this year or Derby County in 2014 what eight points would’ve done. Hint: It would’ve provided Premier League football and a massive shipment of money.
Holding everything else constant, of course, doesn’t really work practically. McCormack and Rudy Gestede, whose place he’d likely be taking in the XI, are nowhere near the same player. McCormack’s 10 interactions with his teammates are likely to be different from anyone else’s, which is what makes this analysis difficult. If McCormack makes everyone around him better, too, it’s not out of the realm of possibility to say McCormack adds 15 or 20 goals to the team on the whole, not just the 10 he’s personally adding. But if he scores goals Villa would’ve got anyway, there could be little value in adding him.
And therein lies the gamble. If Villa are a side a couple pieces away from promotion, and McCormack is the right fit in Villa’s tactical setup, he could be the talisman to spur the club back into the Premier League. That would bring the club £110 million, with survival in that first year back adding more than £102 million to the club’s bank. If he’s the guy that makes the difference between 2nd and 4th (followed by a playoff loss), or the difference between 5th (followed by a playoff win) and 7th, he isn’t worth £14 million to Villa. He’s worth his share of £110 million.
And that’d be a lot more than £14 million.**
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* As a quick, end-of-article aside, the idea behind “moneyball” is about finding market inefficiencies through the use of more advanced statistical metrics. Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics, the subject of the Moneyball book and film, found that baseball teams overvalued traditional statistics in player evaluation, and that metrics like on-base percentage and slugging percentage were better indicators of on-field success.
But specifically, they had to resort to this because Oakland is a small-market team, incapable of spending the money of traditional contenders in Major League Baseball. Thus, a key point of “moneyball” is cost-driven; a player the market valued at $2 million might really have a true value of $5 million, allowing the A’s to assemble a team much better than their payroll indicated.
Remember that when discussing the term as it relates to Villa, both last offseason and this one. Jordan Ayew cost £8 million. He was not a “moneyball” signing. It isn’t like Villa plucked some six-goal player from League One for £500,000 the stats showed as being really good down the road.
** The other thing this all supposes is that there aren’t other players Villa could get to provide a similar effect for less than £14 million. It’s the same theory that lets a Ciaran Clark sale be a potential positive, as he’s probably worth less than £5 million to the club. Spend that money, get a better player, and you’ve improved your side.
In that light, if a guy like McCormack was available for £8 million, then that’d be McCormack’s value. Just go buy the other guy, get the same effect and spend the other £6 million on actually buying a competent right back.
But if you think McCormack is the guy to fill the role that wins you promotion — not just a guy to fill that role — then you pay whatever it is Fulham want and don’t think twice.