San Jose Plays Moneyball

So San Jose rearranged the deck chairs yesterday and PICKED UP A COUPLE OF GUYS in an effort to jump start a floundering team.

So what. Isn't that what a last place team does right about now? Particularly a team that's scored an anemic 11 goals in 16 games?

Well, sure it is. Frankly, The only surprise would be if they DIDN'T go out looking for some help.

But the real story here isn't Scott Sealy, whom KC sent over for some cash and a draft pick (in a move which smells like the Wizards are getting ready for a major pickup). Neither is it Norwich-departing Darren Huckerby, who was poised for a move to Toronto until his aging joints got a look at the painted concrete they use for a pitch in BEEMO Stadium.

Nor is it the other moves they're reportedly ready to announce: a 36 year old Brazilian middie and an unnamed forward from parts unknown.

Rather, the interesting thing about these deals is the guy who is the inspiration behind them:

Billy Beane.

Most of you know that Beane, a pencil-necked numbers freak, is the GM of the Oakland Athletics and subject (NOT author) of a book called Moneyball which describes Beane's revolutionary, non-Steinbrenner approach to building a baseball team.

Since there are plenty of guys who can explain his methods far better than I can, I'll confine myself to the basics, which are quite simple: using a bunch of statistics that other people either don't bother to gather or that they don't care much about, Beane has been remarkably successful at predicting future performance and assembling amazingly productive teams for comparatively little money.

A funny thing happened to Beane about five years ago: he became a soccer fan.

Or, to be more precise, HE BECAME A SOCCER FREAK who now spends five hours a day watching football from around the word. He's spent considerable time in Europe, consulting with and learning from football gurus across the continent.

And he's developing some theories about how you can evaluate soccer performance and assemble a successful team without having to shell out massive sums for slaves like Cristiano Ronaldo.

Which brings us to Oakland A's owner Lew Wolff. When Wolff began hearing from his prize numbers geek that he thought he could use his methods to get the jump on the soccer business, he did what anyone with his money would do: he bought the guy a team to play with, and the New Earthquakes were born.

And as Beane is gradually turning the Athletics over to Assistant GM David Forst (who has been DECLINING GM OPPORTUNITIES for better than a year now in anticipation of taking over the team this coming Winter), he's spent more time trying to develop the methodology and the models he thinks will help him put together a winner in San Jose.

Working with Professor Bill Gerrard at Leeds Business School, Beane is working at QUANTIFYING A SPORT WHICH MOST OBSERVERS HAVE THOUGHT WAS MOSTLY IMMUNE TO SUCH ANALYSIS

Beane is undeterred:

The main difficulty the pair have faced is that while a sport such as baseball can be easily broken down into individual events - a pitch, a hit, a catch - football is a much more fluid game, which makes it more difficult to isolate cause and effect. Nevertheless, Beane seems determined. "Say you have an approach to signing players and you get it right 30% of the time and then you can discover a different approach that allows you to do the right thing 35% of the time, you have then created a 5% arbitrage. I don't know if we can do that for soccer but I want to find out."

More specifically, Beane's focus at this point is on four specific areas:

1. Number of touches
A measurement of how often a player is involved on the ball
What it reveals Player's fitness level, the number of times he gets into a position to receive the ball and team-mates' willingness to pass to him
2. Shot creation
The number of times a player participates in a possession leading to a shot (both on target and off)
Reveals The attacking effectiveness of a player, especially attacking midfielders and forwards. Measures ability to balance ball retention with creating scoring chances
3. Ability to retain the ball
A measurement of the probability that the next player who touches the ball will be a member of your team
Reveals Contribution of players who are less directly involved in attack
4. Balls won per 90 minutes
Measures defensive effectiveness
Reveals Attacking players' willingness to defend; defenders' ability to tackle, intercept passes and position themselves well

ESPNet's Jeff Carlisle commented on the evolving reliance on this kind of analysis IN AN ARTICLE LAST JANUARY which pointed out the increasing importance of outfitds like MATCHANALYSIS to MLS sides and the vast amount of statistical data now available to all MLS teams.

Beane wants to take it much farther. And in a league with a tight - some would say absurdly small - wage budget preset for each team, the "5% arbitrage" that Beane is aiming for becomes not just an edge but a monumental advantage.

None of which is to imply that Earthquakes GM John Doyle is going anywhere, or that he isn't intimately involved in player selection. But as Beane works out the framework of his analysis, Doyle will lean more and more on information that only he will have access to.

Which isn't to say that pickups like Sealy and Huckerby are all going to pan out. They're not. All they're asking is that they pan out a little more often than everybody else's do.