Every year, there seems to be a word or phrase in any facet of life that gets beaten to death and it forever remains lodged inside your cranium.

Not to get too political, but I can recall during the second Vic lockdown last year where the Andrews Government absolutely cocked up Hotel Quarantine and left us with hundreds of cases every day for a few months – the phrase was simply: ‘I can’t recall.’ A good one to get out of any sticky situation.

In football, this is no exception. Last year the word of the year was definitely ‘hubs’ but because that hasn’t happened this year, we need another one – Moneyball seems to be the flavour of the year for journalists in 2021. Although in fairness, this is a term that was gathering traction for the past few years now.

Over the weekend, Russell Jackson – who is a man I have a great amount of respect for – wrote something on the ABC website about Moneyball and how it has changed the landscape for recruiters in the AFL. However, it’s the mainstream journos – not just in the AFL apparently – who continuously butcher and bastardise the term – I do recommend reading once you’re done here.

I did find it quite amusing that Jon Ralph – who has been one to use the term quite a bit in the past – respond to the article challenging us to find a ‘better, catchy one word title to sum up trades.’ And then proceeded to have a bit of a whinge saying it’s really hard to get things right with massive staff cuts.

All I have to say to Ralphy about that is just be thankful you have a job right now in comparison to many others who are in lockdown and are unable to work.

Anyway, if you’re still confused about how Moneyball works, a quick little word from me: Basically if you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, the premise of this is a real-life sports story about Oakland Athletic’s (Major League Baseball) General Manager Billy Beane assembling a roster on a cash-strapped team based on analytic means and sabermetrics that ended up competing with some of the best teams of the MLB in 2002.

After a very patchy start and through continuous trading to get the team right, the A’s got on a roll mid-season, including winning 20 consecutive games and lost to the Minnesota Twins in the American League Division Series… Baseball is bloody complicated, I’d much rather watch the cricket.

There’s probably a lot more to it, but to me, this is what basically what Moneyball is about: Building up premiership-contending teams by bringing in players that suit the needs of the team through mid-tier or bargain prices.

But this is where things can get a little bit misleading, and Jackson references a few teams as examples in his piece.

The Sydney team of the 2010s are a good example by bringing in players such as Rhyce Shaw, Shane Mumford, Josh Kennedy and Ben McGlynn on somewhat bargain deals and all of them ended up being vital to that 2012 premiership.

That Melbourne side of 2012-13 – the one that Mark Neeld coached? Yeah, that’s an example of one that can backfire. They brought in guys such as David Rodan, Tom Gillies, Chris Dawes (albeit on decent coin) and Shannon Byrnes from different clubs on the cheap and all of it backfired horrendously.

But just to make things very clear, signing players on big money contracts is not a ‘moneyball play.’ Sure you might need him to play a key role for your team, but it absolutely defeats the purpose of going cheap to get value. Signing Zac Williams to a multi-year contract worth approximately $800,000 per season is NOT Moneyball, people. It is almost constitutes financial abuse.

Having a look at sides that have employed this scheme in recent years. The first one that immediately springs to mind is how Essendon last year made both the trade period and the AFL Draft work to their advantage.

Yes, it’s often talked about how a Draft in any sport is basically a crapshoot, but for the Bombers, and mainly list manager Adrian Dodoro, they have managed to find a way into turning the Bombers from a team that for the past couple of years have been a side that has been stuck at the crossroads and turned them into a side that has a bright future ahead.

Flipping Joe Daniher, Adam Saad and Orazio Fantasia for Picks seven, eight and 29 – which was then used for Jye Caldwell – is first-class wizadry. It has resulted in a draft hand that netted the Bombers Archie Perkins and Nik Cox – both kids have been brilliant this year, whilst I also maintain that Zach Reid will flourish when he gets his opportunity to slot into defence next season.

On top of that, Dodoro immediately addressed the departures of key forward Daniher and the rebounding half back flanker in Saad by bringing in Nick Hind from St Kilda for basically a pick in the 60s, and Peter Wright from the Gold Coast for a future fourth round pick. Not only have both gentlemen played in most, if not all the games this year, but they’re both providing plenty in their roles.

A lot has been talked about Hind already by others this year, but how St Kilda neglected him playing across the half back line for two years is a mystery to me. His statistical jump in every facet this year has been sensational and should be up there alongside Isaac Smith, Tom Hickey and possibly even Jeremy Cameron – if he ever fixes his hamstrings – as a recruit of the year.

But Wright… maybe he won’t ever be that 40-50 goal giant unit we were expecting when he was taken so early in the Draft all those years ago, but what he has done this year is provide the Dons with another target to kick to and to give Sam Draper a chop out in the ruck. It has proven to be more of a benefit than a detriment. Considerably so.

They’ve been quite persistent with him and Cale Hooker as foils to allow Harry Jones to flourish without getting as much attention from defenders as… say maybe Nick Larkey from North Melbourne has this year. Wright’s still had his games this year where he’s done next to nothing, but his impact overall on this Essendon side has definitely been a positive one.

The more I’ve thought about the Bulldogs, the more I like to think that maybe there’s a bit of Moneyball ideology involved in recent years. Well, I guess something had to be done after that basket case year of 2018.

That following off-season saw the Dogs make a couple of minor moves towards the end of the trade period – but in the context of what was to come, they were excellent moves and moves that aligned with the ‘Moneyball’ strategy – by acquiring Taylor Duryea from Hawthorn and Sam Lloyd from Richmond both for late picks.

We’ve seen what Duryea has been able to do since crossing over and adds another layer of defensive leadership and has quite the sharp IQ in terms of knowing when to go and leave his direct opponent to cut off an opposition forward entry. What Lloyd did was add an avenue to goal that the Dogs had lacked since the premiership year. He kicked 38.31 and led the Dogs that year for goals.

That following off-season saw the Dogs target both Josh Bruce and Alex Keath – Some may disagree about it being Moneyball and it’s fine, but I think this is exactly what it is about. Both men had underlying circumstances surrounding their old clubs and were exactly what the Bulldogs needed to go forward.

Keath had been one of the finds of the first half of the 2019 season for Adelaide, but with only just a handful of games under his belt and a stress fracture in his shin to boot, there was an opportunity for the Bulldogs to ask for something a little lower than the first-round pick the Crows were hoping for, given his work at the start of the year was All-Australian worthy. Currently, he stands as the heartbeat of the Bulldogs’ defence – without him, the Dogs aren’t a top-two team.

Bruce, although there is nothing more to it than the fact that he wanted more years on his next deal, was seen as a bargain at the time. The Bulldogs only handed over picks 32 and 51 to acquire him. Yes, last year was a dismal year for Bruce individually, but this year he and Aaron Naughton have formed a very good partnership up forward and have made the Bulldogs forward line work, not just for them, but the others around them.

I also feel compelled to hand you a bad example. Alastair Clarkson’s recruiting plans in the past have resulted in Hawthorn being one of the best dynasty clubs in the modern era. See the Hawks picking up Brian Lake, Jack Gunston, Shaun Burgoyne, Josh Gibson, Ben McEvoy as proof of that strategy.

However, his attempts to keep the team from petering out in recent years have backfired and have seen the Hawks practically forced to rebuild and blood kids as a result. And put them a couple of years behind where they should, theoretically, be.

In recent years, they added Tom Scully and Jonathan Patton from GWS – both talented players on field, but both of whom had struggled for injury in recent years – for fourth-round picks. Both were unable to recapture any form that made them very dangerous players five years ago. And whilst the deal to get Chad Wingard over from Port Adelaide cost a bit, that hasn’t exactly worked either.

They also signed ex-Saint Darren Minchington as a pre-season supplemental selection ahead of the 2019 season and – whilst realistically he was only a depth player, the fact you would sign him after a failed career at St Kilda as opposed to someone a little younger – speaks more of the desperation of the Hawks at the time.

In fairness to the Hawks though, they did nail the trade for Jack Scrimshaw from Gold Coast for a third-round pick, and Jarman Impey for Pick 34 back in 2017 was okay, I think he adds a lot of run and carry around the ground. Finally, Sam Frost has proven to be a tough player to beat in a one-on-one and makes him a handy pick-up… until you see him kick the ball.

Moneyball is supposed to see the sides thrive and run into form. They were very patchy in 2019, went backwards in 2020 and are now consigned to a rebuild and sit in the bottom two this year and will probably not do much for the next season or two, possibly even longer depending on what Sam Mitchell does when he takes over from Clarko.

Though I have sensed many coaches have adopted this Moneyball ideology in football, I see this sort of strategy as a hard-sell considering that there are a lot of statistical areas to cover as opposed to baseball – also there are very few positions in baseball as well. As opposed to inside/outside mids, ruckmen, key positions, general forwards/defenders and more players on the field to cover and analyse.

There are genuinely a lot of ins and outs when it comes to the analytical aspect of football, and I haven’t even begun trying to crunch numbers to get to the point.

I suppose what I’m trying to say here in closing is that adopting the Moneyball ideology during the trade period is just as risky and as just as much of a crapshoot as going into the Draft and targeting which kids you would like on your side.

But if you’re a coach, recruiter or statistical bloke as calculated as someone like Billy Beane, then this whole bargain bin recruitment plan should be a piece of piss, right?

Right?!?!

 

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