Monday 17 November 2008

The harsh and strange lessons of Moneyball

Billy Beane, the hero of Michael Lewis's revelatory book Moneyball, should have been a superstar. He was a natural, a baseball player so gifted that scouts came from across America to his high school field just to watch him train. He looked a billion dollars. He was a first round draft pick for the New York Mets in 1980. 

And then he played 148 games in six seasons for four different teams. He hit a career total of three home runs. 

Billy would have been just another schoolboy phenomenon who couldn't cut it in the major leagues had he not absorbed the lesson of his own life. Instead, he realised that how baseball looked wasn't necessarily how baseball really was. 

He became general manager of the Oakland As in 1997 and proceeded to pull off the greatest ongoing giant-killing in sport by recognising that conventional wisdom meant very little in an organic, living game. 

Baseball runs on stats. Ultimately, teams, players, eras are defined by them. And Billy worked out that the stats used in baseball were wrong. Or at least, they were out of date. Standard measures like RBIs and stolen bases were relics of a bygone age. Their usage led enormously rich teams to waste huge amounts of money and time on players that would never deliver. 

Beane found his new measures of success or failure in a fanboy's book of geeky stats called Baseball Abstract. He began working with a new set of standards named sabermetrics. With them, he discovered that many effective players were being rejected by other teams because they looked weird and ugly, and because they weren't successful by the old measures. The Oakland As ended up with a bunch of cheap rejects who consistently outperformed the market. Beane now co-owns the team. He is a superstar at last. Everyone in baseball uses sabermetrics.

Baseball was reshaped by many things: the size, strength and athleticism of its players (and, it should be noted, rampant steroid use), and external factors like the demands of TV. It took 37 years for Roger Maris's single-season home run record of 61 to be broken, but once Mark McGwire had done it, it was broken twice more in three years. As soon as players understood what was possible, they went and did it.

Cricket's reshaping is happening much more quickly. Imran Nazir just got 111 from 44 balls in the ICL final, and it doesn't even seem that extraordinary any more. 

The lesson of Moneyball is, what are the stats that define this new game? Strike rate during powerplays? Economy rate whilst bowling second? Boundaries to balls faced ratio? The Batsman doesn't know, but I don't think it's the establishment that are going to find them. So it's over to the geeks and the freaks. The answers are out there.

England's limited over sides seem a little like the baseball teams that Billy Beane overcame. It's not that they're not thinking, it's just that they're not thinking the right things. Beane thought differently and came up with a team full of unfashionable freaks.

Napier, Mascarenhas, Rashid, Panesar, Wright, Key... who knows? But Moores doesn't have much longer to find out. Beane used his stats to develop and drive a philosophy on playing the game. What's Peter's?

NB: KP's post-matchers just get better. Today's was along the lines of: 'okay, we were thrashed, but we were less thrashed than last time...' Accentuate the positives, chap.


Anonymous said...

Good read, despite the baseball stuff.

I'm from Nu Zuld, and we tend to see things in simple terms.

Like playing your limited trump cards up front.

So why doesn't KP open? Just once.

The Old Batsman said...

Cheers Leg Break. Excellent question. Don't have a sensible answer. Maybe because he wouldn't like walking out there with someone else: he'd have to share the spotlight then...

Anonymous said...

Therefore he should open with Bell.

That way he can stride out 10 metres ahead of the ginga gnome and no-one would notice..

The Old Batsman said...

First few singles would be interesting.