Billy Beane: The number-cruncher whose methods could revolutionise Liverpool
His approach to stats helped the Red Sox find success. He tells Glenn Moore it would work in football too
Friday 08 October 2010
Calamity. It is the last week of the transfer window and Glen Johnson breaks a leg. A replacement is required. Roy Hodgson, using the club scouting network, his own Continent-wide contacts, and the knowledge gleaned from decades in the game, draws up a shortlist of replacements and presents them to the board. A new American director looks over the paper, then tosses it away. "We've got our own list," he says, handing over a neatly-printed spreadsheet. "These are the players the Recruitment Operative recommends. Their stats are a fit for Johnson. Which one do you want?" The list has been drawn up by the young college grad with the computer who sits down the corridor from Hodgson crunching numbers. "So this," thinks the veteran manager, "is what he has been doing, this is what it has come to."
Inconceivable? Not at all. Liverpool's prospective new owners believe in metrics, the application of statistical analysis in sport made famous by the book Moneyball, Michael Lewis's bestseller about the Oakland Athletics' baseball club and their innovative general manager, Billy Beane.
The As are one of the poorest clubs in baseball, but have consistently performed way above their financial level. As Lewis revealed, Beane has achieved this by ignoring traditional recruitment processes, instead using detailed statistical analysis to pick up players on the cheap and to formulate a playing philosophy which debunked accepted notions of how to win baseball matches. In doing so he blew a hole in the old canard that only people who had played the game to Major League status were capable of identifying talent and managing it. Moneyball's publication in 2003 drew much criticism from traditional baseball men, but also prompted several owners to rethink their strategy. Maybe they did not have to keep hiring grizzled old tobacco-chewing trainers who wasted their millions in a fruitless pursuit of success.
John William Henry, the man behind Liverpool's putative new owners, the New England Sports Venture (NESV), was already ahead of the curve. When he bought the Boston Red Sox in 2002 he offered Beane a five-year, $12.5 m contract to move to Boston. Beane, reluctant to uproot his family, said no. The Red Sox did the next best thing. They hired Bill James, the iconoclastic analyst whose ideas initially inspired Beane, and 28-year-old Yale graduate Theo Epstein, who would have been Beane's No 2 if he had joined, was given the lead role. "Billy Beane is a sharp mind," said Larry Lucchino, CEO of the Red Sox and NESV. "We tried to hire him, but what we've done since Theo took over is to take some of the quantitative analysis approaches and overlay them with the resource advantages of our market."
In English that means use the stats and add the financial muscle the Red Sox has to buy the best rather than just the best-value players. It worked, Boston twice winning the World Series. Coincidentally Beane was in London yesterday, appearing with Arsène Wenger on stage at the "Leaders in Performance" conference at Stamford Bridge. Their presence together, at an event attended by a impressive cast including Martin Johnson, the England rugby coach, underlined how seriously British sport now takes metrics. So, too, the five stands in the exhibition hall taken by companies like Pro-Zone and Opta who are now selling recruitment analysis as well as match statistics.
Speaking exclusively to The Independent, Beane said: "You would have a hard time finding any major sport in the world which is not using metrics in some way. Performances in baseball are much more easily measured than in soccer but each sport has a metric which is relevant, it is identifying it. Basketball is much more similar to soccer and many NBA teams are using metrics."
Beane became a fan of English football some years ago when he watched a match while in London and now rises at 5.30am each weekend to follow the Premier League on TV. He has worked with Spurs, is friends with Chelsea's performance director Mike Forde, and has had discussions with young managers like Aidy Bothroyd and veterans such as Sir Alex Ferguson. Confidentiality meant he could not go into details, but he said the use of metrics is growing in the English game.
It could increase dramatically with the Red Sox involvement at Anfield but before Liverpool fans despair Beane had only praise for NESV. He said: "I know John Henry and the ownership group, they are one of the brightest, most innovative and successful sports franchises in the US. Boston is not a dissimilar franchise to Liverpool. It has a passionate fanbase and a history. They combined efficiency on the field with a great team and incredibly increased the awareness of the brand. The Red Sox are as popular in the States as the [New York] Yankees, which once seemed impossible. They have been good for the game."
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