For those who have seen the film Money Ball or read Michael Lewis’s book of the same name, you will be familiar with the name Bill James. For those who don’t know about the remarkable story of the Oakland Athletic baseball team then I thoroughly recommend seeing the film or picking up the book. Without spoiling too much of the plot, James is a much-maligned baseball fan and nerd, working as a security guard who came up with a statistical system that was able to be used to rank each attribute of a player and thus whether they could do a job for a particular team. He coined the phrase Sabermetrics and defined it as “the search for objective knowledge about baseball.”
Sabermetrics attempts to answer objective questions about baseball, such as “which player on the New York Yankees contributed the most to the team’s offense?” or “How many home runs will a particular players hit next year?” It cannot deal with the subjective judgments which are also important to the game, such as “Who is your favourite player?” or “That was a great match”
The General Manager of the Oakland A’s, Billy Beane, adopted the concept and took his team on an amazing run which then resulted in an approach from Boston Red Sox owner John Henry to join them, which he turned down. Yep, the same John Henry who today owns Liverpool FC.
Why is this relevant to the beautiful game? One real success story below the Premier League has been the rise of Brentford FC. The Bees are currently playing at the highest level in their history, having flirted with promotion to the top tier in recent years after decades of being, well quite ordinary. They moved into a new stadium at the start of this season although due to COVID-19, fans are yet to be able to flock there in serious numbers.
One reason for their success has been the approach taken by self-made millionaire and club owner Matthew Benham. Benham made his cash pile in betting, managing a hedge fund to be more precise before turning his hand to the world of sports spread betting. He employed a team of people to analyse every statistic about clubs and players, and used the results to predict results. Based on his wealth who is to question the success of this approach? The next logical step is to apply the model to his own clubs. Clubs plural as he purchased FC Midtyjlland in Denmark a few years ago. The club, who had never won a major honour until Benham got involved are the current Danish Superliga champions and in the same Champions League group as Liverpool and Ajax – now that is progress.
Will this model work for Brentford? FC Midtyjlland’s chairman, appointed by Benham, 31 year old entrepreneur Rasmus Ankersen thinks there is a 42.3% chance of Brentford gaining promotion to the Premier League in the next two seasons based on the data they have collected rather than looking at current form and making a reasoned guess of yes or no.
And that, ladies and gentlemen is the theory of Sabermetrics – using past performance and data trend analysis to make decisions about the future. Not just any data though – we are talking about ‘Big Data’, the analysis of thousands of attributes from numerous sources. The answers are in there somewhere – the key is making sense of it all and that’s where Benham weaves his magic.