Moneyball

This is Rusty Staub. When I was 10, he was my hero. Any Canadian kid with a baseball glove knew who he was in 1970, as Staub was the best hitter (by at least a two-run double) on a veteran Montreal Expos team. The day he was traded I sat in my driveway and cursed New York City. Little did I know that the Expos had received three fine ballplayers (I can still name them: Ken Singleton, Tim Foli and Mike Jorgenson) in the exchange.

People make a big deal about that book “Moneyball” a few years back but to me and many baseball fans Bill James was the man most responsible for the change in the way we look at hardball.

Rusty Staub had increased value through any educated lens, whether it be Bill James or Moneyball. The man walked and walked and walked and then walked some more. In 1970, Rusty Staub slugged 30 homers, drove in 94 and hit .274, but the kicker (112 bases-on-balls) drove his value through the roof. That same season, the Pittsburgh Pirates employed Matty Alou in the OF and he hit .297 and scored about as many runs as Rusty (98-97 for Le Grande Orange, Staub) but walked only 30 times. Alou was in a lineup that boasted all-time greats Roberto Clemente, Wilver Stargell plus others and should have scored many more runs with that Murderer’s Row following him. Alas, he did not and it would be the next season (with Al Oliver, another guy who rarely walked) replacing Alou in CF that the Bucs won the entire thing.

“Moneyball” has apparently arrived in the NHL with the hiring of new Canucks GM Mike Gillis. There’s an article online by Iain MacIntyre (Vancouver Sun) that focuses on Gillis’ preference for baseball-style “math” management.

I’m driving back from Medicine Hat today with my wife telling her about this story and she asks a great question: how would anyone apply baseball math to hockey and how would you measure it?

The answer comes from several sites you can click on to the right of this post: Mudcrutch, IOF, Nothing to See Here hell most of the blogs you can link to from here do some nice things combining math, logic and creative thinking.

Some of the things the blogs have suggested that math can tell us are:

  1. The goalies who will succeed upon NHL arrival (SP)
  2. The junior players and minor leaguers who should succeed
  3. The value of a true impact EV player
  4. The decreased value of draft picks outside the lottery
  5. The importance of situational stats
  6. No matter the math and the logic, luck exists.
  7. Most NHL teams make massive errors every summer.

Now you may say “well, Mr. Smart-Ass, NHL General Managers KNOW this stuff just by watching!” and my response would be “Oh yeah, well then explain #7.” WHY did everyone in the Oilblogosphere puke at the Souray signing? Call it Moneypuck, call it whatever you want, these things can be measured and decisions like the one to sign Brunnstrom to (what is likely to be) an enormous contract are being questioned before an NHL GM lines up for the magic pill.

I sincerely believe this Gillis fellow is going to be an interesting dude to follow this and the following summers, so I’m adding Tom Benjamin’s blog to the list at the right. I visit it daily, suggest you do the same.

Something is happening in Vancouver.

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30 Responses to "Moneyball"

  1. jon k says:

    To be honest, suggesting that GMs in the NHL only make decisions by watching is naive. The NHL despite appearances at times is still a big money business.

    It’s going to be interesting given that Gillis comes in proclaiming himself a moneyball disciple, no doubt.

    How much his decisions are going to be different from those of the more ordinary traditional GMs, I have my doubts.

    Any GM can tell you that Morrison, Naslund, and a few others are deadweight. The teams scoring problems are well-known.

    I have to say though, I’m interested in seeing who he targets on F from the UFA market. Picking up Ryder on the cheap just might make my day.

  2. Jonathan says:

    Given what’s gone on in Buffalo and San Jose, I kind of think that this sort of mathematical stuff is already in the NHL in a fairly big way.

    I recall reading an article critical of the Sharks for demoting Bernier and Carle in 2006-07. Both were posting nice NHL numbers at the time, and when Wilson was asked why they were sent down despite their stats, he said that they tracked a bunch of different stats showing that they weren’t contributing as much as the team would like. The writer finished the article by criticizing Wilson for letting a computer make his decisions.

    As for Buffalo, with the slashed scouting staff, the turning to video over watching games, you must believe they’re supplementing what their eyes see with statistical breakdowns of all kinds.

    In short, I really don’t see Gillis as being all that unique, even if he brings this kind of approach to the job. What would be unique is if he communicates it to the public- something we haven’t seen much of yet.

  3. Lowetide says:

    jon k: I’m no NHL insider but based “saw him good” still exists in this league.

    Jonathan: I think he’s unique in that he is stating it from the get-go and his decisions can be viewed through his stated bias. Ron Wilson clearly believes in it, but does Doug Wilson? Is it a team-wide mantra?

  4. Jonathan says:

    Jonathan: I think he’s unique in that he is stating it from the get-go and his decisions can be viewed through his stated bias. Ron Wilson clearly believes in it, but does Doug Wilson? Is it a team-wide mantra?

    Fair enough, and I wish I had the answer. I believe there are at least a few teams out there who use statistical analysis in a big way, but I’m no insider either. I loved Gare Joyce’s book, because it was a chance to have a look inside an NHL organization, but we get so few of those kinds of peeks that it’s hard to be certain either way.

    You’re right, of course, about Gillis being unique in stating that he wants to use that kind of system, but the proof will be if he can communicate that effectively over the next few years.

  5. rob says:

    There’s an article online by Iain MacIntyre (Vancouver Sun) I refuse to post a link to because it’s six miles long (is there a way to fix this?

    try http://www.miniurl.com, it seems to work well from what I have seen.

  6. Art Vandelay says:

    Did you get in any superslide time at the MH Lodge?

  7. Lowetide says:

    THANK YOU for the tinyurl thingy, works like a charm. I’ll forget but until I do you guys rock!

    Art: We stayed at the Holiday Inn and didn’t get time to hit the pool at all (quick trip). We had time to drink beer and visit only. :-)

  8. Bruce says:

    Staub was the best hitter (by at least a two-run double) on a veteran Montreal Expos team.

    LT: some days you are a poet. That is the best description of Rusty Staub I will ever read.

    Le Grand Orange was a beauty. So, in a wonky way, were those 1970 Expos and their “70 in ’70″ mantra, as they looked for a respectable record of 70-92 (!) in their second season. Thanks to Staub, Ron Fairly, John Bateman, a couple of characters like Coco Laboy, John Boccabella and the emerging Bob Bailey, and a shocking 18-win season from Carl Morton, they made it all the way to 73 wins, and it felt like a great season. Jarry Park was ten times the ballpark Olympic Stadium ever was, especially when Le Grand Orange took aim on the swimming pool beyond the right field fence.

    Of course I was a Cards fan, then as now, but Expos were #2 in my heart for their entire existence. A very loveable team for the most part. And they didn’t come any more loveable than Rusty Staub.

  9. Ducey says:

    Meh, saying you are going to go the way of Moneyball is very trendy. Has Gillis ever actually used statistics to analyse a draft? I doubt it. Canuck fans would likely feel better if he had some experience doing it.

    Beane, Ricciadi, Epstein all have used it but really Epstein had the beneift of the second highest payroll and Beane rode the coattails of the big three pitchers. Since then he has done little. Ricciadi has been a flop.

    Moneyball has been misinterpreted somewhat as a statsitical analysis when really the idea is to figure out aspects of performance that are undervalued in the marketplace. OBP was first now it might defence.

    Baseball is a natural for statistics because of the limited number of outcomes for each AB. Baseball has yet to come up with a great way to measure defence and I think the problem will be even greater in hockey.

    The Oilers seem to be doing something in recent years to turn around their evaluation. Glencross was either luck or someone paying attention to something. The drafts have been better. Garon was also a great cheap find.

  10. Lowetide says:

    Ducey: Have they stopped using range factor?

  11. GSC says:

    It would behoove Kevin Lowe to follow a similar model to the “Moneyball” system. Maybe instead of throwing big contracts at Sheldon Souray and Dustin Penner (AND draft picks with the latter), he’ll hedge his bets and act without as much emotion as he has in previous situations. That’s the biggest complaint I have with Lowe as a GM, he wears his heart on his sleeve.

    I thought he might’ve turned the corner with the Smyth saga, only to witness his desperate free agent exploits this past offseason. He also threw a wad of cash at Raffi Torres after a dreadful season, and what did he do prior to being put on the shelf for the season? It’s obvious that Kevin is poised to “overpay” to keep talent in town…but is it the right talent?

  12. Lowetide says:

    I think the Torres contract was a good bet. He was about 25 and established himself as a guy who could do a nice variety of things. He was unable to turnaround a season gone bad but he’s not that kind of player.

    This past season was a washout but that happens. There’s plenty to be critical about with regard to Lowe and contracts, but I’d disagree on the Torres deal.

  13. Moose says:

    I’ve actually heard Lowe cite “Moneyball” a few times in interviews, both live and in print (once on “After Hours” if memory serves). So I don’t think the concept is completely foreign to him, although I have no idea if the Oilers employ any sort of statistical analysis.

  14. digger says:

    Maybe instead of throwing big contracts at Sheldon Souray and Dustin Penner (AND draft picks with the latter), he’ll hedge his bets and act without as much emotion as he has in previous situations.

    When it comes to these transactions (and the Nylander gong show, for that matter), I’ll always be asking myself :

    How much of that was Kevin Lowe, and how much of it was the EIG leaning on Kevin Lowe to make some noise in light of the promises Katz was throwing around?

  15. Lowetide says:

    digger: I get that but man he had to know that Souray was an expensive narrow-view option and that Penner had the capacity to be only a role player.

    Just because the boss says “make a splash” doesn’t mean you have to do it this week. A nice trade option ala Pronger from STL may have shook loose from the tree later in the summer.

    And if not, then Lowe is sitting on a lot of coin when an opportunity comes along. The cap era is a whole lot about room to move.

  16. dawgbone says:

    LT, Lowe sat on coin and waited for something to fall out of the tree the year before, and we all saw how that turned out for the Oilers.

  17. Oilman says:

    Ducey: Have they stopped using range factor?

    LT – apparently – how else does Jeter win the Gold Glove?

  18. Traktor says:

    “WHY did everyone in the Oilblogosphere puke at the Souray signing?”

    Why did everyone in the Oilblogosphere have a woody for Mike Johnson, and how is it that this “impact EV player” can’t seem to find work?

  19. Oilman says:

    I would imagine Mike Johnsons new home will be in Vancouver

  20. Dennis says:

    Oilman: same reason why Tilda Swinton won an Oscar? Granted, she doesn’t have the people pimping for her that Jeter does but I watched “Micheal Clayton” last week and I was agog that Swinton won an Oscar for that performance.

  21. Bruce says:

    //How much of that was Kevin Lowe, and how much of it was the EIG leaning on Kevin Lowe to make some noise in light of the promises Katz was throwing around?//

    I get that but man he had to know that Souray was an expensive narrow-view option and that Penner had the capacity to be only a role player.

    I agree with Digger that EIG’s messy fingerprints are all over that daisy chain of events (inc. Nylander and Vanek, two unconsummated marriages that thankfully got annulled).

    And I have to disagree with LT about Penner being “only a role player”. If leading the team in goal-scoring is just a role, I’m glad somebody decided to do it. :D
    Looking ahead I see Dustin’s role expanding, I think we saw just the tip of the iceberg of some areas like taking faceoffs and a surprisingly effective cameo as a penalty-killer in Game 82. Conditioning and consistency will be key, but I hardly think we saw the outer limits of Penner’s skill set in 2007-08.

    As for Souray, I will agree he is a grotesque overpay, but he is hardly unique in that respect (Boyle, Jovanovski, Visnovsky, Johnsson, Kubina, Hannan, and McKee all spring to mind), and I remain more confident than seemingly most of the Oilogosphere that he will be considerably better than completely useless IF he comes back healthy. The health risk was what made the deal inadvisable in my view, and Sheldon’s nightmare season confirmed everyone’s worst fears in this respect. What little we saw — much of it playing hurt — revealed a multi-dimensional if far from “complete” player who potentially is an on-ice asset even as he remains a fiscal liability.

  22. Dennis says:

    I was on the record as being surprised at how useless Souray wasn’t but I still don’t trust MacT to play the fuck out of him on ST and then shelter the hell out of him at evens.

    And, bruce, if all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?:) You know where I’m going with that, it doesn’t matter that other D are overpriced, that’s no excuse for Lowe to do the same. Lots of folks agreed with Lowe’s line in the sand on 94′s salary so where was that line of thinking with Shoulder Souray?

    And I think it’s a little too convienant to blame the EIG for all of Lowe’s stupidity last summer. I mean it’s not like he didn’t fuck the Pronger trade so we have precedent of the guy muffing the big ones.

  23. Oilman says:

    dennis – that scene where she laid her clothes out must have cinched it for her….seriously, there must have been a Lindsey Lohan or Miley Cyrus movie out that was more deserving than that.

  24. GSC says:

    DIGGER: How much of that was Kevin Lowe, and how much of it was the EIG leaning on Kevin Lowe to make some noise in light of the promises Katz was throwing around?

    I would say there could’ve been pressure on Kevin from the EIG to make something happen, but as LT said that doesn’t mean you go out and make not one, but TWO ridiculously bad decisions in the name of “making a splash.” I still believe that Lowe too often gets caught up in the emotional aspects of his work and doesn’t properly detach himself from it.

  25. Dennis says:

    I don’t think ANYONE can argue that Lowe lets his emotions get the better of him and it rarely ever works out in a positive manner for the Oilers.

  26. digger says:

    gsc:

    I won’t debate your assertion that Lowe lets his emotions run away with him sometimes, since I agree with that sentiment.

    I disagree with you though that sigining Penner to an offer sheet was ‘ridiculously bad’. He didn’t have THAT bad a year, he wasn’t great but he did lead this team in goals, provided a dearly needed screen in front of the net with Smyth’s departure, and IMO he showed enough promise to think that the best from him is yet to come.

    For me, ‘ridiculously bad’ is thought of this team’s left wing position if he hadn’t been obtained.

    Raffi Torres as the #1 LW?

    The world just got a little bit colder after saying that. ;)

  27. Bruce says:

    I still don’t trust MacT to play the fuck out of him on ST and then shelter the hell out of him at evens.

    2007-08 TOI/GP:

    PP:
    1.Souray 4:15
    2.Pitkanen 4:07
    3.Gilbert 2:15
    4.Grebeshkov 2:05
    5.Smid 0:18
    Staios 0:10
    7.Greene 0:05

    SH:
    1.Souray 3:59
    2.Staios 3:58
    3.Greene 2:46
    4.Gilbert 2:31
    5.Smid 2:24
    6.Pitkanen 2:09
    7.Grebeshkov 1:09

    ES:
    1.Staios 17:52
    2.Pitkanen 17:50
    3.Gilbert 17:24
    4. Souray 16:04
    5.Smid 15:08
    6.Greene 13:50
    7.Grebeshkov 13:37

    Looks to me like the kindly old coach is right on your wavelength, Dennis, and you still can’t repay him with your trust? ;~) Didn’t look like Souray’s minutes were all that sheltered, however; according to BtN he faced the highest QUALCOMP of any defenceman (+0.05, tied with Staios) and also played with the lowest QUALTEAM of an blueliner (-0.15).

    it doesn’t matter that other D are overpriced, that’s no excuse for Lowe to do the same.

    Two points: 1) “Market value” for these 30-something defencemen might not be what you and I think it should be. 2) Many/most teams have one or two expensive skeletons in their payroll closet. Like us, they have to work around it.

  28. Dennis says:

    Bruce: Yeah, they weren’t riding him at EV but I’d play him even less than that.

    As for market value and skeletons, it’s up to Lowe not to cave to market value for a guy who most teams seemed to know WAS a potential skeleton.

  29. Bruce says:

    Yeah, they weren’t riding him at EV but I’d play him even less than that.

    Trying to find more ice time for Smid and Greene, Dennis?

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