Eighteen years have passed since the Oakland Athletics’ groundbreaking 2002 MLB season. If you are not aware of the significance, that season was made famous by the Athletics’ GM Billy Beane and his attempts to use sabermetrics to improve the team’s roster on a budget. It later became famous as the basis for the Moneyball film, starring Brad Pitt.
While almost two decades have passed since the first Moneyball season, it’s worth remembering that using advanced analytics in sports is still relatively new. Indeed, many franchises around the world still shy away from its benefits. Making decisions based on gut-feeling or intuition is fine up to a point, and some of the greatest moments in sports have undoubtedly come from instinct alone, but the evidence is growing around the value of analytics.
Analytics are everywhere in the sports industry
If we look at a sport like basketball, for instance, you can see that there is a lot of sense in using data. Sports bettors will read basketball betting tips based on statistics, including those for individual players. Betting analysis, while not always perfect in its prediction of outcomes, is nevertheless heavily-based on actuary, and that ensures that it is correct more than it is wrong. The betting analysis of NBA across 2015-2019 favoured the Golden State Warriors for success, for example, and five consecutive Finals appearance attest to that.
The point is that if other measures of sports performance, like betting, are based on data and science, shouldn’t the decision-makers be doing the same? It seems that many are. The New York Times recently ran an article, detailing “Why Nerds Rule the NBA”. A fascinating read, it detailed how the analysts like Dean Oliver and Roland Beech became part of the coaching staff of top-level teams.
Baseball and basketball are not alone, of course. A lot has been made of Liverpool FC’s approach to analytics. The Champions League holders and Premier League champions-in-waiting have added several analysts to the management staff, including the club’s sporting director Michael Edwards. Liverpool even has an astrophysicist at work in the analytics department. If you have watched the transformation of the club from also-rans to arguably the best soccer team in Europe in recent years, then it’s difficult to argue that the scientific approach has not worked.
British cycling revolutionised in a short period of time
While “Moneyball” is an American invention, there have been other data-based initiatives elsewhere. Dave Brailsford, for example, revolutionised British cycling within a few short years. His “marginal gains” theory is beautiful and simple. It works like this: If you break down all the component parts of competitive cycling – wheels, pedals, helmet, shoes, breathing, eating, etc., – and improve them by just 1% each, then the sum of those components can add up to a huge advantage. Dozens of Olympic medals and Tour de France wins under Brailsford’s direction would attest to this fact.
There is a big difference between what is happening now and what happened in the Moneyball era. Billy Beane used sabermetrics to determine the acquisition of players for whom he felt the market had undervalued. Today, with sports clubs like Liverpool, every facet of the game is analysed to try to improve performances and results. It might be expensive to host a science department in a sports club, but the results seem to suggest that it’s worth it. The truth is, however, that we are probably only scratching the surface of the sports analytics industry right now. Expect to see many more advancements in the years to come.