Moneyball's mantra helped ABs win World Cup

MARK REASON
Last updated 05:00 22/02/2012

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OPINION: A film called Moneyball has just been released in New Zealand. It's the story of how Brad Pitt helped the All Blacks win the Rugby World Cup.

It's the story of how geeks, computers and statistical analysis revolutionised professional sport.

A few years ago a writer called Michael Lewis became interested in a baseball team called the Oakland A's. The A's should have been anything but. They were 'D' list at best. But year after year Oakland were able to compete with the best and the richest teams in Major League Baseball.

Lewis wanted to know how a bunch of goofballs, paid peanuts, were able to take on the swish millionaires of America's game. The answer was a failed baseball Adonis called Billy Beane (played by Pitt) and a thin, pale nerd by the name of Paul DePodesta.

Between them they changed the world of sport. Beane's personal humiliations had turned him into a believer. He didn't care how good a player looked. He had been there himself and he had failed. DePodesta was the Harvard man.

DePodesta proved that the old baseball scriptures were bunk. The hitters who controlled the strike zone, the hitters with the highest on base percentage, the hitters who drew walks, they were the men. It didn't matter if they looked like a dying circus elephant, these men were the Usain Bolts of baseball.

Lewis' book sent shockwaves around the world. One of them shook the floor under Wayne Smith's desk. The All Blacks' assistant coach had always been interested in statistical analysis. He had helped set up the Verusco system in the 90s. What if the All Blacks could find their own Paul DePodesta?

Smith says: "Back then we were using raw data, like tackles made and tackles missed. Then we started qualifying the process by asking how effective the tackle was. Once I read Moneyball the seed of an idea started about looking carefully at total contribution."

DePodesta maintained that 'error' by itself is a false construct. You have to look at process more than outcome. For example the defender who never puts himself in position to make many tackles will have a low 'error' count. But his contribution to the team will be low.

Smith continues: "We needed our own Paul DePodesta and we found him. Ken Quarrie has a Phd in statistics. He had read Moneyball. He added great value to our selection process. Ken Quarrie is rugby's Paul DePodesta. If the northern hemisphere ever hear about him and get their hooks into him ... "

The NZRU certainly kept Quarrie under wraps during the World Cup. I wanted to speak to Quarrie during the tournament about Moneyball and his processes with the All Blacks, but the NZRU refused permission.

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The information was too sensitive. Fair enough.

The tackle is a good way to understand some of Quarrie's analysis. Does a tackle produce slow ball for the opposition? Does the tackle create a dominant position for the defence by putting the tackled player on his back? Does the tackler hit his man over the gain line? Does he produce turnover ball?

Conrad Smith, for example, is particularly good at making tackles that produce turnover ball. But due to his size Smith was initially rejected by Wellington. It is those sorts of false assumptions that DePodesta and Quarrie are so good at exposing.

You also wonder if the old All Blacks would have had the courage to drop Mils Muliaina and play the World Cup with a raw back three of Israel Dagg, Cory Jane and Richard Kahui. I would bet Quarrie's analysis and DePodesta's theories contributed to the shrewd bravery of that selection decision.

You won't find DePodesta in the film Moneyball because he refused the makers permission to use his name. So the thin geek becomes a fat dork called Peter Brandt, a brain on steroids played by Jonah Hill.

But to make the book work the film-makers really needed a big star with a human hook. And so Billy Beane is played by Pitt and he has a loveable daughter, who flies in to see daddy and who plays the guitar and sings endearing songs.

When the Oakland A's are on the verge of the record-breaking streak of 20 victories, Beane is driving nervously round Oakland's boondocks, unable to watch. Then his phone rings. The ex-wife and loveable daughter are watching the game and urge him to return to the stadium.

It's hokum of course. In reality it was Oakland's advertising department who persuaded Beane to return to the stadium because the franchise could not pass up the publicity. In reality it is Beane who rings his daughter, Casey, only to discover that she is watching American Idol. That's real life.

But even without the sugar, Moneyball is the story of our sporting times. Its mantra is "adapt or die".

Or as Graham Henry said the other night: "Remember, Shag, we are evolving."

- Wellington

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