In the last decade, the philosophy known as ‘Moneyball’ has revolutionised the way baseball teams evaluate players. Based on the field of ‘sabermetrics’, the approach is designed to reveal players’ ‘true’ value by judging them solely on their performance-related statistics. Given its remarkable success in baseball, how long will it be before Moneyball becomes common practice in the Premier League?
The use of sabermetrics was pioneered by baseball teams looking for a way to overcome the vast financial inequalities within their sport. The system seeks to identify the most cost-effective players, and so teams who are under the greatest pressure to use their limited resources efficiently have found the greatest use for it. In theory, this makes Moneyball an ideal antidote to the problem of the financial divide between the haves and have-nots of the Premier League. Yes, a salary cap would even things out once and for all, but how likely is that? As far as we can see, the league’s ‘poorer’ teams are going to have to come up with a solution of their own and this could be it.
Due to the subjective nature of player evaluation, there are huge inefficiencies in the football transfer market which are just waiting to be exploited. At the moment, players are valued in a non-scientific way; without using data, clubs are forced to predict their future output through hunches and guesswork. There are thousands of players out there who have been underestimated by the conventional wisdom, and so their true value is greater than their market value. Theoretically, if a system able to accurately predict players’ productivity was discovered, even a club of meagre means could assemble a squad strong enough to challenge for titles. This is the great attraction of Moneyball.
One Premier League club has already tried to implement a sabermetric approach into their transfer market dealings. John W. Henry, owner of Liverpool since late 2010, has already used the Moneyball philosophy to great effect with the Boston Red Sox. It was unsurprising then, that he quickly announced similar plans for the Anfield club upon his arrival. Liverpool have since installed an American-style hierarchy whereby transfers are controlled, in part, by a Director of Football. Damien Comolli, previously of Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal, was handed the role and proceeded to sign a draft of new players to rebuild the failing club. He claimed to have used a system inspired by sabermetrics in the acquisition of these players, most notably Stewart Downing.
You don’t have to be the most avid follower of English football to know that Liverpool haven’t enjoyed much success with this strategy. After a dismal season, in which an absurd number of their high-profile summer signings flopped, both Comolli and Kenny Dalglish promptly lost their jobs. Andy Carroll, Jordan Henderson, Charlie Adam and Downing have quite frankly been awful, especially when you consider the Reds splashed out a combined £78 million on them. Based on the example Liverpool have set, it would be surprising if other clubs were lining up to try their hand at this Moneyball game.