Andy Carroll’s £35 million move has surprised a lot of people, particularly in the light of the Liverpool owners’ reputations as careful, smarter investors. NESV, as you’ll know, famously took over baseball’s Boston Red Sox and won a long awaited World Series, and in so doing used what were termed “moneyball” principles.
People were unsure what that might mean in a footballing context, and they certainly didn’t expect *this*. I’m not really surprised.
A (fairly) quick overview of Moneyball: this was a book written by a gifted writer called Michael Lewis. Lewis had extraordinary access to the Oakland Athletics baseball club, run by a man named Billy Beane. Despite not spending much money relative to his peers, Beane was able to consistently win lots of games. How? Among other things, sabermetrics.
Sabermetrics is a term invented by Bill James, a compiler of statistics and another good writer. Saber comes from the acronym SABR, the Society of American Baseball Research. Metrics is measurement. Sabermetrics. James and others counted a lot of things in the 70s (baseball is a series of countable actions: pitch, hit, run, pitch, swing, miss, etc). James et al *proved* a number of things about the game that were not then accepted within the game. Proved them, beyond any doubt.
But the ideas didn’t catch on. Baseball insiders complained that these stat geeks hadn’t played the game, and should spend more time at the ballpark rather than sitting in their mothers’ basements (this still comes up as a put-down, even now). So these ideas, which could have transformed the way teams ran themselves, didn’t take.
James had a hard-core underground following though, and self-published four annuals of his writing. He got a book deal and from 1982 to 1988 published his work each off-season. It remains fantastic stuff, combining hard analysis with a very readable style.
His readership grew and in time some of these readers acquired positions of responsibility within baseball. One of these men was Sandy Alderson, who ended up running the Oakland A’s. In time he hired Billy Beane, and suggested Beane read James’ work.
Something clicked in Beane’s mind: of course! Beane’s revelation was so strong because he himself had been exactly the kind of player that teams overvalued: tall, athletic, handsome (some baseball scouts looked for ‘the good face’ which they thought showed character, resourcefulness, etc), super-fast. Scouts would see Beane in action and drool. Never mind that he couldn’t really hit a baseball.
Beane realised that actual production on the field was everything, and with James’ analyses, found better ways to measure this production. In the old days players would be valued by their speed, by their batting average (how often they hit the ball safely) and something called RBI (how often they hit the ball and a teammate scored), but these things didn’t tell us enough about a player: sure they helped, and the good players would have good scores in these measures, but so too would some bad players. What’s more, a lot of good players would not score well on these measures. They might be slow, or miss the ball too often (but when they did hit it, they hit it a long way). These players would be undervalued by baseball’s decision makers who were conditioned into an old school mindset.
So Beane sought out players who didn’t look like athletes and who were productive in ways that the mainstream didn’t value highly enough. By doing this he could put together an effective team on the cheap. This is a gross oversimplification, of course, but the point holds and the method worked: Oakland won a lot of games.
Michael Lewis went to find out more, and wrote a book outlining a lot of these methods, profiling a number of Beane’s players and telling a really engaging story. He called the book Moneyball, and a phenomenon was born. Old school baseball types rejected the book, and one prominent commentator (Joe Morgan, effectively (and frighteningly similar to) Alan Shearer) even denounced Billy Beane for writing such a book bragging about his accomplishments! (of course Beane had done no such thing, and didn’t even know what Lewis was writing.)
John Henry, a wealthy man through his work in the financial markets, was also (I believe) aware of Bill James. The financial markets are a bit like baseball in their search for undervalued assets, so James, Beane and the Moneyball phenomenon resonated with him. And if Beane could be so successful without spending much, what might be achieved with the appropriate financial backing? Henry and his team bought the Red Sox and went about finding out.
They hired a 28 year old to run the side, Theo Epstein. Epstein knew Bill James’ work inside out, but hired James as a consultant anyway. He spent money, lots of it, and after 100 years of winning nothing, the Red Sox soon won the World Series. Moneyball vindicated!
Kind of. The Red Sox took things to a new level. A quick look at their roster of players shows that they used some Moneyball techniques: First baseman Kevin Millar wasn’t wanted in Major League Baseball and was just about to sign on in Japan before the Red Sox intervened; Mark Bellhorn was a scrappy player who had his ups and downs, but who certainly wasn’t considered championship calibre before joining Boston. But he did all the important things that people don’t notice well. David Ortiz, who walloped a lot of big hits (literally and figuratively) for the Red Sox, had been let go by the Minnesota Twins. He could barely run, but could hit a baseball miles. Bill Mueller, the third baseman, was like a Bellhorn but better. Manny Ramirez, their eccentric outfielder, was mightily productive but hard to control. The Sox kept faith, happy to let his work on the field do the talking. The pitchers were good in anyone’s eyes, but it’s worth noting that the ‘missing piece of the jigsaw’ was Curt Schilling, a player for whom the Sox had to pay a lot to acquire.
Moneyball? I think you’d define it as making decisions for a reason. They bought in a number of good, undervalued players, but realised that this alone isn’t enough to win things, so supplemented these core parts with superstar talents like Curt Schilling, players who were among the best paid in the league.
Let’s bring this back to Liverpool. One of the issues NESV had with the current squad, and also Roy Hodgson’s signings, is that the players are all relatively old. Older players can be over-valued: they have built up big contracts but are probably past their peak; they are trading on their fame now, not necessarily on the ability that earned this fame in the first place. So there’ll be a big emphasis on young talent, talent coming into its peak and which might then be usefully sold on in due course. (The Torres deal is terrific for them, too: a player who was briefly great, but has since only been good, but who still commands the fee of a great player. Torres = Carroll + Suarez? Yep. Torres might very well become great again, Carroll might never become great at all, but the equation does balance and under the circumstances (Torres wanting to leave for one) it feels like a good move).
Andy Carroll makes sense for Liverpool on a few of levels. One: he’s young. In five years he’ll be in his prime (or perhaps past his prime, but near enough that someone will still want him) and can then be sold on for good money again. If transfer fees exceed inflation (as surely they will, especially if there’s an economic recovery) then there’s a fair chance that a good amount of that £35million can be recouped. Especially because two: he should age well. He hasn’t played a lot of games for his age, and his skillset is one that ought to hold up. Three: he’s unique. Seriously, Carroll has an ability that not many others have. He’s phenomenal in the air, has a decent touch, and appears to have the instincts to make the most of his skills. He’s what Peter Crouch should have been. Four: (ack) he’ll enhance the brand. He’s John Charles, John Toshack, a most English of English centre-forwards (and yes, I’ve just picked two Welsh players…). Liverpool fans are nothing if not backward looking: they’ll love their all action number 9. He’ll make the club a fortune in shirt sales around the world.
So there are reasons to spend big on Carroll. No, he’s not undervalued at all; but he’s not without value, and as a signing (especially given the context of receiving so much for Torres) he makes sense. Liverpool’s owners will have done the analysis and will know that success costs money. The more you spend the better you get. From there it will have been a question of working out how to spend that money. You can buy seven five million players for £35 million, but then you end up no better off; you can buy three ten million players and maybe that does make a difference; but if you think you have found premium talent, talent that is not available from any other source, you have to pay up. With Carroll and Suarez Liverpool have paid up; they’ll know what they’re doing here, and just as Chelsea and City had to spend away to kick start their ascendency, so too are John Henry’s team. He needs defenders now and a few more £10 million types dotted around the pitch to make this really pay off, but the recovery is on. It’s not Moneyball in the “undervalued player” sense, but it’s Moneyball in the “we know what we’re doing” sense.
UPDATE: a couple of updates made to reflect some comments on other sites about the piece: Qualified “Torres was great; now good” comment; I do know that Toshack and Charles weren’t English, but hopefully the point stands; finally, I’m not American! (not that there’s anything wrong with that… and my esteemed co-author here is American, and all the better for it. Stops digging hole)