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.

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.

Paul DePodesta
johan hill
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.