The Moneyball Pioneer in the NFL: Why the Browns will trade their pick

For those that haven’t seen the film Moneyball, or better yet read the book by Michael Lewis (both of which I would highly recommend), I’ll start a brief introduction to the story and concept. The story is about the Oakland Athletics baseball team in the early 2000’s which managed to achieve some the best winning records in MLB over a number of seasons, despite only being able to afford one of the lowest payrolls. To put this achievement into perspective, all this happened at around the same time that the US government commissioned a Blue Ribbon Report on the Economics of Baseball which concluded that high spending teams in baseball have a significant, unfair advantage over the lower spending ones who couldn’t expect to achieve much success. The report recommended the introduction of a salary cap to even out the playing field.moneyball07

So how did the A’s manage to achieve such success? Luckily their General Manager, Billy Beane, realised that in order to obtain any kind of success they would need to think differently to other clubs, recognising that players valued highly by traditional scouting would be taken by clubs willing to pay them more. So he turned to a very analytical approach to team building. He used a process called Sabermetrics, which was the empirical analysis of player statistics, to find discover which attributes were most often undervalued and overlooked by scouts when considering the most important aspect of winning games, scoring run. Consequently, they built their team around players with these attributes, who other teams didn’t recognise the true value of, at a fraction of the cost.

Now on to the NFL. The big news this week was the Tennessee Titans have traded their first overall pick in the upcoming draft to the LA Rams. It’s pretty obvious that they have made this move so that they can draft one of the two top-rated Quarterbacks in this draft, Carson Wentz or Jared Goff. The second pick in the draft is held by the Cleveland Browns. There is a general consensus that the Browns might need a QB and will probably draft whichever of these guys are left by the Rams. Their other option of course, is to mimic the Titans and trade their pick for a greater number of picks. Given that there are other teams very publicly chasing a QB in the draft, most noticeably the Philadelphia Eagles, they should be able to do this easily. This is the option that I think they will take.

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Top rated QB, Carson Wentz

What has this got to do with Moneyball? Well, and I know I’m a bit late to the party with this, but I’ve only just found out that the Browns have hired a man called Paul DePodesta to be their Director of Strategy. DePodesta is a Harvard graduate with a major in economics, but more importantly was the right hand man to Billy Beane at the A’s and is considered one of the main pioneers of Moneyball. This move is a huge sign that the Browns are trying to change the game, like the A’s did, by taking a much more statistical approach to the recruitment of players and to determining which attributes are undervalued by traditional scouts. It is a risky approach to take in such a traditionally minded sport, but could become hugely successful if this innovation is given time to flourish.

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Paul DePodesta
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DePodesta was play by Jonah Hill in the film of Moneyball

Already there are signs that the Browns have committed to this Moneyball approach this off season. Firstly, they have acquired QB Robert Griffin III, a former Heisman Trophy winner, second overall pick and Offensive Rookie of the year in 2012. Considered a very athletic QB, dangerous both running the ball and throwing it, his stock has greatly decreased since his rookie season due to a succession of injuries that have affected his explosiveness. To me though, and I’m sure to DePodesta, this means that he could now be considered to be a hugely undervalued player. Sure his productivity has decreased in the run game, which is what many considered to be his greatest attribute, but he is definitely an underrated passer with a career rating of 91. I can certainly see the appeal that he might have to DePodesta.

Another sign of the Moneyball philosophy in play, is the number of starters that they have let leave during free agency whilst not bringing that many in. A major trait of Beane’s Oakland team was his willingness to trade star players for money or draft picks. Since 2011 in the NFL, the teams that have spent the least amount of guaranteed money in free agency (Bengals, Packers, Steelers) are some of those with the highest winning percentages. Instead of spending loads of money in free agency, teams that build their team through the draft by stockpiling picks have been some of the most successful. Further to this, Beane and DePodesta have always favoured bringing in younger players that they can mould rather than older players that they can’t.

Given this approach that the Browns seem to be taking under the influence of their Moneyball pioneer I find it extremely likely that they will trade their second overall pick. There isn’t a lot of value in drafting a QB that high. Sure, there is a chance they could be a huge success, but this isn’t a guarantee. What is guaranteed is that it would cost a lot of money. Besides, they already have a second overall pick at QB who probably costs a lot less. Instead, the Browns will probably favour having a higher number of draft picks that they can use to draft a higher quantity of players that have attributes they have identified as being most important.

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What is it about the Masters?

I don’t even like golf that much if I’m being honest. Well I don’t dislike it. I love going to the driving range every now and then to slice a few balls as far as I can. I even wish I was good at it, I’d love to be able play a few rounds and go on a golfing holiday with my mates. But as a spectator sport I’m still skeptical. I mean it’s golf, right? I might have it on in the background from time to time, just as background noise on a lazy Sunday for example, but on the whole I don’t really care too much. I just don’t really find it very exciting apart from a few stand out moments.

That all changes for the Masters though. I don’t really know why but it just does. There definitely is something about the Masters though. Suddenly I’m an expert and I care about golf so, so much. Over the weekend I found myself following every step. When I couldn’t watch it I’d be regularly checking my phone, following the live updates. As soon as I got back in front of the TV though I wasn’t moving. As cheesy as it sounds, there is definitely some sort of magic that accompanies the Masters.

Maybe I’m a bit simple, but as much as anything, I love the Masters because Augusta National is just so beautiful. The amazing long fairways, always perfectly green, all surrounded by the famous magnolia trees. The weather always seems to be perfect as well. The combination of beautiful green fairways, perfectly blue sky with lovely bodies of water spread throughout provide me with such a sense of envy and wanderlust as I’m sat watching from my sofa. Every year I tell myself that I will go one day, just to take it all in myself and be a part of it all.

Something special always seems to happen at the Masters. It is such a difficult course where it is seemingly impossible to achieve perfection. Mistakes will happen and it is a players’ ability to recover, to hit the most unlikely of shots. These moments of magic are what really makes the Masters so compelling. When Bubba Watson managed to hook the ball out of the trees in the 2012 playoff top set himself up to win. What about when Tiger Woods hit that shot on the 16th in 2005? Moments that will long be remembered and used to epitomize the Masters.

Even this year saw extreme drama, albeit of a different kind. Jordan Spieth was cruising, having hit 4 birdies in a row it seemed just a matter of when rather than if he would win his second consecutive green jacket. But then suddenly, in the space of 3 holes he was no longer cruising, instead he was all but out of the championship picture. It was heart-breaking for Spieth, while at the same time joyous for Danny Willet as he kept his nerve to win the competition that he wasn’t even sure of entering two weeks ago as his wife was giving birth to their first child.  It was his first ever major victory and made for a wonderful story. No matter who’s side you were on it, was compelling viewing.

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Golf definitely has a reputation of being tedious and dull. Often it is. I can certainly see its appeal, particularly when playing it, but on the whole it isn’t really for me as a spectator sport. But at the Masters, and Augusta National, it is just so much more that simple golf. There’s a certain lore that surrounds the place, and within it, everyone knows lies myths and legends.

How can Test Cricket catch up

The dust has finally settled. Poor Ben Stokes. He’ll come back. He’s too good not to. The exhilarating thrills of the T20 World Cup came to a dramatic end as England cricket fans everywhere felt the familiar pains of heart break while millions watched on. Even for those that look down on the shortest format of the game there has to be some acknowledgement of its appeal and how it has become so popular. Just from following England throughout the tournament you would have seen everything that makes cricket so special. In the opening match against the West Indies, we got to see how the individual brilliance of a great player can single handedly win a game after that great Chris Gayle century. The stroke play and power of that man alone creating such a brilliant spectacle. Next came England’s miraculous victory over South Africa, where England somehow managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by performing the largest run chase in T20 World Cup history against one of the strongest teams in the world. Following this England experienced a large scare against Afghanistan, in a game many thought would be a stroll in the park. England managed to grind out a victory in the end but it can be fatal to underestimate an underdog in this form. Then in their final group game, a winner takes all encounter against Sri Lanka, England looked comfortable, were in a very good position as Sri Lanka were trying to chase down a just-above-average total. Until suddenly they weren’t comfortable. The reigning champions were suddenly clearing the rope with their hitting and were steadily getting nearer the target. England managed to hold their nerve though, to set up a semi-final against New Zealand which they won with ease. The final saw England facing the West Indies, the only team to have beaten them so far. What a game it was! It had too many ebbs and flows to document but left me with the familiar heartbreak that I’ve become used to from following England cricket. I never thought I could feel this way about T20 cricket. This isn’t real cricket. Why do I care? But care I did. T20 cricket just gained another fan.

So while this format is thriving, the same cannot be said for test cricket. For the purist, particularly for us in England, test cricket is still considered the best and most important format. However, we are increasingly becoming a minority in this respect. Test matches in England are often sell-outs and the atmosphere is great regardless of the opponent. When Australia, the best test team on the planet right now, hosted the West Indies in Melbourne for their famous boxing day test, the average attendance over 4 days was just under 32,000. This seems like a lot on the surface, but it was the lowest total for an MCG test for 21 years and saw only 7000 turning up for day 4. Put into context, the following week the MCG hosted a Big Bash T20 league game between the Melbourne Stars and Melbourne Renegades which saw over 80,000 people pouring through the turnstiles.

The appeal of T20 cricket is obvious. To me though, even as a T20 convert, test cricket is still the pinnacle, the most interesting and the format I get most excited about. I want to see It remain relevant but to do so it may need to change in order to increase its global appeal. To me the biggest difference that T20 has in appealing to the masses over test cricket is its accessibility. T20 matches are only about 3 hours long so they can be played in the evenings. This means that spectators can go along after a day at work and see the whole game. The nature of test cricket is that it is long and drawn out, potentially taking a whole 5 days. If someone wants to go along for a day of test cricket, they either have to give up a whole day on their weekend or take a day off work. This is less of an issue in England where cricket is often seen as a sport for the middle and upper classes so fans can afford to take a day off work to go to a test game. Many other test playing countries don’t have that luxury.

Luckily it seems that the ICC has already recognized this and the very first day-night test was played in Australia last November. This test started play in early afternoon and continued until late evening. Essentially the morning session was move the just after the traditional evening session. This could be a very important move for test cricket as it allows to spectators to show up after a day at work, at a reduced price, and still have a lot of cricket to watch. It’s not a perfect solution though. Mostly because the host venue will need to have the right conditions: dry. It wouldn’t work in England, for instance, due to the dampness from dew that forms in the evenings here. There are also worries that the pink ball that has been developed for its visibility behave differently to the traditional pink ball, as it noticeably scuffed up more quickly.  It’s definitely a step in the right direction and there have been more day-night tests announced in Australia for their next season. The technology will only improve and hopefully will signal a new lease of life for, what is in my opinion, the greatest form of the greatest sport.