Examiner Sports column, 3 January 2008.

March 25, 2008

When finding genius is more than Beane-counting

IT WAS with a good deal of interest that we saw some English newspapers singing the praises of Billy Beane
recently.

Readers with better-than-average recall may remember some time ago we mentioned Beane, a baseball manager of some repute with the Oakland Athletics, and the book written about him by Michael Lewis, Moneyball.

Here’s the 30-second version: the book explains how Beane decided to ignore the hunches and gut instincts of baseball scouts in favour of the hard currency of statistics and percentages when it comes to picking players.

The result? The Oakland Athletics are a relatively successful team because they choose players whose career stats can more or less guarantee reliability. Beane is a great believer in players who can get on base, for instance, rather than those with huge home run totals; though the latter may draw applause, the former can get their teams into a position to win games.

Beane’s approach is appreciated by many top sports figures on this side of the world. The American addressed a football conference in England before Christmas attended by Alex Ferguson, Sam Allardyce, Martin O’Neill, Alan Curbishley and Howard Wilkinson.

The sharp-eyed will immediately see the weakness, however, when it comes to applying a statistic-based approach to fluid field games such as soccer.

Baseball is a series of recurring set pieces whose formality lends itself to minute comparative analysis. Every player has a prescribed role and the game is based on the accretion of detail and figure, while ascribing responsibility for individual plays is a serious issue when it comes to scoring.

By contrast, some of the best work done by a holding midfielder may not involve touching the ball at all. A
fearsome tackler sitting in front of the back four encourages opposition
players to try the wings rather than the centre, but post-game statistics won’t reveal that.

Beane’s approach comes under attack in other ways, too. The Oakland Athletics aren’t one of the richer baseball teams around, so success for them is relative: getting into the play-offs is the height of their ambition, but a World Series title is beyond them.

To win a trophy, you need money, for one thing, but you also need players who dare greatly rather than just accumulate healthy statistics: flair players. Stars. To put this in perspective, one of Beane’s biggest admirers in the soccer world is Aidy Boothroyd — a paragon of honest effort but not likely to have to buy much silver polish.

For our money, objections to the Moneyball model centre on its smudging of the romantic sense of identifying talent. Seeing ability in the raw and knowing that it will blossom is a rare skill in and of itself, and the men who can do it are an unusual breed.

Everyone knows the famous telegram sent by scout Bob Bishop to Matt Busby about the young George Best: “I have found a genius.”

Now, it’s easy to say that the man who identified George Best as a good footballer wasn’t exactly splitting the atom, but it isn’t always that easy.

In the 1940s, baseball scout Tom Greenwade pulled over at the side of a road in Oklahoma to watch some youngsters play a casual game. He was on his way to another town, and another prospect, but before he restarted his car he had spotted Mickey Mantle, one of baseball’s all-time greats.

That sensation, of discovering a star before he really begins to shine, isn’t something that can be determined by figures and averages; it’s dictated by instinct and evaluation, an appreciation built up over years of observation.

And that’s something that comes through in Moneyball, the conflict between the grizzled old-school scouts and the fresh-faced number-crunchers whose philosophies collide in debates over which players should start and which should stay on the bench.

Still, recognising talent has always been an unusual business. They say when Walter Scott’s son was growing up, he had no idea of his father’s fame, but when he was told Scott senior was a genius, he wasn’t surprised; he just thought that that genius applied to
another area altogether.

“Aye,” said young Scott. “When we’re hunting he’s commonly the first to see the hare.”

contact: michael.moynihan@examiner.ie

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