"The Boot"

When Moneyball doesn't work

Posted by The Shadow on April 17, 2012 (0 Comments)

A few weeks ago Karmichael Hunt was extolling the virtues of a book teammate Gary Ablett Jr had recommended to him. 'The Four Hour Body' written by Timothy Ferriss aimed to get maximum results from minimal time in the gym through a combination of seemingly minor changes to your lifestyle, diet and fitness regime. Hunt said the book had helped his body rapidly morph into a physique better suited to the challenges of Aussie Rules after years playing as a bulky fullback in rugby league.  

In some ways Ferriss' 'The Four Hour Body' echoes some of the ideas of another good read embraced by the broader sporting fraternity in Michael Lewis' 'Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game'.

'Moneyball' analyses the once unusual approach of former Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane who is credited with turning a mob of undervalued baseball misfits into a contender in the MLB. Much in recent times has been made of transposing Billy Beane's moneyball strategies to other sports. Typically, the system relies on rigid statistical analysis weighed against the players' income and overlooks some of the old fundamentals once so readily embraced in sports scouting. Like 'The Four Hour Body' though the objective is pretty much the same. How do you get the best possible team by spending the least possible money?

In the AFL, mature-aged recruits are often celebrated as moneyball bargains and evidence that this shrewd 'outside-the-square' approach has been adopted by our own code. Michael Barlow, Orren Stephenson and Ian Callinan have all been referred to as moneyball players. No doubt, they're all good value but in the cold hard light of day, there are many anomalies moneyball seemingly can't factor in.

Not all players can be secured on the cheap and there are few better examples of this than Karmichael. He's come with a high price tag that in moneyball terms makes him seem as though he's grossly overpaid. The same can be said for Israel Folau.  

But Hunt and Folau exist outside the parameters of conventional moneyball logic. Both players were signed in part to garner newspaper column inches in markets more accustomed to covering rugby league. Their remuneration reflects an ability to capture free editorial coverage both locally and nationally for their respective teams. Surprisingly to some, if the value of the media coverage and subsequent interest they generate was monetised I'm sure marketing executives would argue they're being underpaid.

In Greater Western Sydney's case Folau serves the dual purpose of attracting disproportionate media attention while drawing people's eyes away  from high-priced recruits like Tom Scully, who neither crave the limelight nor need it as their own skills and bodies evolve.

Most of the Gold Coast's picks with prior AFL experience - with the exception of the erratic Jared Brennan - have proven to be solid medium-term investments meaning Hunt doesn't need to act as such a media focal point. His game is improving noticeably and as a result he'll attract far less criticism this year than last.

One can't help but think Folau's improvement must mirror that of Hunt's to help ensure the off-field success and longevity of the Giants. Much more hinges on his ability to perform well than just a player proving he can adapt to a new code. His retention seems to be a lingering issue but so was Hunt's until he re-signed this year. The AFL's promotional dollars may have the final say when his contract is negotiated but only time will tell. 

What Folau does have going for him is that on the field both he and Hunt started slowly while showing occasional glimpses of brilliance. Also in the giant Giant's favour is he is more athletic and could evolve into a crucial key position player. His early NAB Cup form was promising and that's an encouraging sign.

Last weekend Hunt played his best game for the Suns and is showing rapid improvement. Again, the narrative arc that he provides is something that only money could buy but it also seems likely that it will foreshadow the improvement of the Suns young list.      

Seb Tape, Aaron Hall and Tom Lynch were all standouts against Essendon who played finals last year. Seeing a hard, experienced athlete like Hunt on the field can only be of benefit to their development.

Both Folau and Hunt's much celebrated hardness could be their greatest weapon. Tactically, the game is becoming more congested and the value of tough players who can win contested possesions - either over-head by taking a big mark, or on the ground - is more valued than ever. This suits both players' respective games and means their capacity to constantly run in the manner of most elite players may not be so harshly judged.    

Ultimately, neither rugby league convert is or ever will be a moneyball player but that doesn't diminish their inherent value to their football clubs, nor should they feel compelled to justify their salaries on those terms. 


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