Today sees the release in the UK of the film Moneyball, by the makers of the Oscar winning film, The Social Network, and featuring Brad Pitt as another modern American hero, the Oakland A’s general manager, Billy Beane.
It’s based on the book of that name by Michael Lewis subtitled, The Art of Winning An Unfair Game and tells of Beane’s attempt to put together a baseball club on a budget by employing sabermetrics, the analysis of in-game activity developed by Bill James.
James was a baseball tragic who looked long, hard and with fresh eyes at why baseball teams win and lose. His ideas were so ‘left field’ that he had to publish his own books in a bid to reach an audience.
Beane, who felt that in his own career his true talents and potential were never properly made use of was drawn to James’ theories and insights which valued a player untraditionally, focusing on the players real contributions to winning and, importantly, not losing.
Rather than look at pitchers in the conventional way, he looked at which allowed runners to steal the most bases. Rather than concentrate on runs scored he concentrated on runs created.
His concept of the ‘Range Factor’ turned appreciation on its head from over-valuing attack to revaluing a player’s defensive contributions.
His ‘Defensive Efficiency Rating’ showed the percentage of balls in play that a defense turns into an out. And his ‘Pythagorean Winning Percentage’ produced statistics explaining the relationship of wins and losses to runs scored and runs allowed.
Using sabermetrics, Beane was able to spend his pint-size budget signing players from the draft that the big teams were overlooking. The Oakland A’s dominated baseball … until the big shots started using the same approach.
Perhaps the biggest lesson that cricket could take from James was his refocusing away from runs scored onto runs allowed.
As the motivation behind the organisation of cricket moved from gambling to Arnoldian Muscular Christianity and the virtues necessary for those capable of administering an Empire, the spot light, the laws and the glory were focused on the ‘art’ of batting – you know – bowling is indeed a manly activity but batting is gentlemanly.
Even the full professionalization of the game has never really exorcised that Ghost in the Game. Limited overs cricket has increased the appreciation of the value of fielding. Modern tail-enders who were once encouraged to have a swipe and make way for the main action are now expected to contribute runs.
But the glamour remains with the top order batsman. Sides must have six of them AND the keeper must be able to bat even if he misses the odd catch and is unlikely to stump an opponent unless trips over yards down the track.
Regular readers will know that Third Man, who started his days when the Squire and his fellows paid him to bowl at them on club practice nights at Hambledon and remembers, as if it was yesterday, the Varsity cricketers coming down in the summer and taking up the batting places in the precursor to the County Championship, is always vexed when the Man of the Match award goes to the batsman getting 174 out a total of 600 on a ‘road’, when a bowler in the same match who has taken ten wickets is left to enjoy a beer in the ice bath.
No one can deny that a ‘fifer’ is a tougher ask in Test cricket than a century, yet both secure a coveted place on the honour’s board.
For many cricketers, it’s an unfair game, where the opportunities and the subsequent rewards don’t necessarily go to those most able to contribute to winning. In cricket, its Moneybat … until that is someone comes up with a formula for calculating the true worth of a player’s contribution to winning.
Unless the Squire is planning economies among the staff at the Great House, this task may account for His recent preoccupation with a thick tome entitled, Human Resource Accounting.