Soccer and Sabermetrics: Any Future?
I have always been a statistics nut. The love of the numbers behind sports came early for me, as a young boy “keeping book” for my Yankees (I am now a rehabilitated Yankees fan, firmly rooting for my local Phillies since the Y2K). I’d laboriously watch the games, scribble down every hit, walk, error, and out (before DVR made it easier to catch what you missed). I learned about the backwards-K and how to “balance” the scorecard to be sure you were correct. Then later on came more of an affection for terms such as earned run average, on-base percentage, and the beloved “runs created” stat.
These advanced, highly-derived statistics are what are known in baseball circles as “sabermetrics.” The term is concocted from the Society of American Baseball Research, or SABR. So by now you’re asking, “What in the heck does this have to do with soccer?”
The answer to that question may be, “Nothing,” at least at the moment. But that may be changing.
When New England Sports Ventures (NESV) purchased Liverpool, we saw the owners of the Boston Red Sox gain one of the giant clubs of the world. One of the things the Red Sox are known for is their General Manager, Theo Epstein. Epstein is a disciple of Billy Beane, who conceived of “Moneyball” while holding the same position with the Oakland Athletics. “Moneyball” is a system of staffing a team relying heavily on statistical analysis while comparing to compensation. The Athletics, being a small-market team, wanted to field the best quality team (and farm system) they could at bargain prices. Epstein brought this philosophy to the Red Sox, but NESV was willing to spend much more money to allow for acquisition of top talent. They now have two World Series rings to show for this analysis.
Back to Liverpool. When NESV acquired the Reds, many felt that John Henry would bring the principles learned from Theo Epstein and apply to an association football system. I’m not particularly sure they have acquired Luis Suarez, Andy Carroll, and Jordan Henderson as a result of analysis, but that leads to my perspective.
I was thinking: as of right now, MLS does not offer the level of statistical depth for public manipulation that we have with, say, the Guardian Chalkboards for the Premier League. Nonetheless, I had a question about the Philadelphia Union I wanted to answer, and it morphed into this entire idea of, “Can you manipulate even minor statistics to quantify a team’s performance? Can we compare two different matches for a team (or two separate teams)? Can we come up with derived numbers that describe who was really the better team in a match?”
I think that the answer is, “Yes, Yes, and Yes.” If you take a simple statistic like possession, it’s very misleading. A team on the road might hem themselves in when in the lead, and cede possession easily. Does that mean the team that’s behind played the better overall match? Is possession more important than a stat like challenges won? Shots on frame? Corners won?
What are your thoughts? I believe that the prevalent sports culture in this country revolves around statistics. From batting average to free-throw efficiency, goals against average to driving accuracy, Americans love metrics to compare and contrast. Sometimes, as in the case of SABR, it takes an outsider’s perspective to push the envelope and change the way we look at a sport. I’m hoping I can be one of those crusaders.