Monday, May 14, 2012

Moneyball, the Sharks and the NRL.

Being a casual Oakland As fan, I was pretty well acquainted with the story behind Moneyball well before it was made into a Brad Pitt movie. Ever since the movie dropped, however, every second sports columnist has been comparing every second team to the Moneyball As, generally through dubious means ("oh, they lost a star but they're doing fine.") That's not Moneyball, that's Ewing Theory.

When it comes to rugby league, it's hard to take a true Moneyball approach. One thing the movie didn't really touch on in great depth (for good reason, since it doesn't make for great drama) was the level of advanced statistical analysis (known as sabermetrics) that was involved. Sabermetric stats like RBIs, WHIPs and what not else (don't ask me what they mean cause I don't know) had been around for ages but Billy Beane and the As were the first team to really take them seriously when it comes to player evaluation. Now basically every major league side does it.

Baseball, however, is one of the most empirical of all sports. You can take data in baseball and, with the right methods of extrapolation, get a fair idea of whether a player is quality or not. In footy, that's nearly impossible. Firstly, we don't have that level of statistical analysis at any level of our game - and even if we did, it would be near useless due to the level of intangibles that exist in footy. You could probably come up with some fancy statistical methods to show the value of a Paul Gallen, but how would you use the same stats for a halfback or winger? Would you have to weight by position? You see the problem.

That said, let's not forget one of the other lessons of Moneyball. While the guys Beane picked up were all great on Excel spreadsheets, there's a reason why they were easy and relatively cheap to pick up - there was something wrong with all of them in the eyes of the conventionally-minded scouts, be it injury history, age, unorthodox style or whatever else.

Being a Sharks fan, I'm always going to give love to my boys - however, I reckon it's pretty clear to see that we made the two defining Moneyball moves in last year's player market.

The first and most obvious was picking up Todd Carney. Todd is a classic example of what I just mentioned - a guy who's issues (in his case, off-field incidents) overshadowed the value he could bring to a team. At some point, assuming he keeps his nose clean (which I firmly believe he will), I'll write more about Todd, but for now let's focus on the deal. I was genuinely stunned when he was let go and I didn't hear about 15 teams chasing him. This is a guy who may be one of the best five-eighths in football when he's playing well. We picked him up when his value was lowest and now he's happy enough that he'll probably re-sign end of this year or sometime next.

Of course, questions of character like the ones asked about Todd pose a different set of questions to ones over playing idiosyncrasies. The second group of transactions I'm thinking of, however, are straight out of the Billy Beane playbook.

Remember the scene in the movie after Jason Giambi leaves and the scouts are trying to convince Beane that Player X, Player Y are the guys to replace Giambi? What does he say to them? It's been a while since I actually saw it so I don't remember the exact words, but the essence was; we're not going to replace these guys with just anyone. It's impossible. What we're gonna do is find guys who can replace their production, however that may be.

You may recall within the space of a few weeks last year we lost our two relatively young, borderline State of Origin props in Luke Douglas and Kade Snowden. The panic thing to do would have been to throw a bunch of cash at replacements for them. Our football team, small as it may be, had the brains to not do this. Instead they took advantage of the Tigers splurging on Adam Blair (a profoundly anti-Moneyball move, which I will discuss later) to pick up Bryce Gibbs an old school workhorse prop who plays tough and makes up for his lack of try-scoring prowess with the best Twitter account in the NRL along with Andrew Fifita (a damaging ball runner who's most effective in short spurts off the bench) and former Shark Ben Ross from the Bunnies. We also trawled for bargain backups in Mark Taufua and Jon Green - all of whom have been effective when called upon.

Surprisingly, the reason why I wrote this post is not just to crow about the great recruitment of my Sharks. I've read enough of the mainstream media talking up our recruitment class of 2012.

What I want to talk about here is the mentality of player movement. Fans perpetually believe that it's the big buy that matters, the one that will always put them over the top. The Adam Blairs, the Chris Sandows. Hell, I won't lie here - Cronulla's smart shopping has largely been a case of necessity due to our recent well-documented financial issues. Even now fans continue to clamor for another big name signing (usually an outside back). But let's be honest here. How many of you can remember, off the top of your head, the year when your team caught the biggest fish in the free agent ocean and went on to win the title the next year?

Here's the thing. The $500 000 guy is rarely the guy who puts you over the top. Look at Wests with Blair or Parra with Sandow (who of course let Jeff Robson trot right into our arms). Think they aren't suffering a slight case of buyers remorse? Generally, if you need to spend that kind of money on a free agent it's a sign that there's a real problem at your club in that position, something systemic that a flashy purchase won't necessarily solve. We Sharks fans learnt that with Nigel Vagana.

It's all about buying smart. The Broncos do it consistently. Melbourne did it before and after they got pinged. Manly as well. You rarely hear about those teams going after the $500 000 man - they use their salary cap space to keep their best players and snap up stud juniors and undervalued guys from other teams blinded by fools gold. This year, Cronulla learnt their lesson and did just that.

Are we witnessing a revolution? The principles of Moneyball, after all, were fast adopted by almost every other team in Major League Baseball. One of the ironies of the story is that Beane's emphasis on unorthodox methods of evaluation to find undervalued players originated as a way to keep the low-payroll As competitive in the salary-capless MLB, only to see them come to fruition with the big-spending Boston Red Sox two years later.

I'm not sure that you'll see this happen in footy though. As long as fans continue to fetishise the big names, clubs will feel pressured to go out and sign them lest be seen as "doing nothing" by their fans. Hell, the Sharks themselves basically caught a massive break when Todd was released. However they were smart enough to grab it. It remains to be seen if teams in the future will be more uniformly so.

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