Saturday, May 31, 2008

Rajasthan and Moneyball

Michael Atherton's column in The Times asks if Rajasthan are the Oakland A's of the IPL. The Oakland A's are a low-budget team in Major League Baseball, who were nevertheless able to make the playoffs and compete well with much richer teams. They did this by exploiting inefficiencies in the player market and clever drafting — batters who earned lots of bases on balls were undervalued by other teams, and other teams tended to draft players straight out of high school, a much riskier strategy than drafting players who had proven themselves at college level. The story behind this is detailed in the excellent book Moneyball. The publication of the book seems to have made life more difficult for the A's — many other clubs now employ the same sort of statisticians as the A's did, using the same ideas.

Rajasthan spent the least amount of money of all the IPL franchises at the player auctions, so in that sense they're similar to the A's. But we shouldn't overstate how prescient they were, because they really weren't.

They flagrantly ignored Moneyball principles early on. Their big success-from-obscurity has beeen Swapnil Asnodkar. Asnodkar, indeed, averages over 40 in List A cricket, and could easily be selected based on that stat. (Quite how he manages to do so with such a loose technique is not something the stats can shed any light on.) But they didn't pick him in the XI until their fifth game. Earlier, they had picked (for instance) Taruwar Kohli. You can't get much less Moneyball than that — he was picked off his under-19 performances, without having even played a first-class or List A match. Selection based on under-19 results! Under-19 cricket is of much lower quality than senior domestic cricket, and you're much safer in going to players with proven senior records. We don't need Moneyball to tell us that.

Of course, there is the requirement to play four under-22's, but there should be some 21-year-olds playing first-class cricket to choose from. Warne also picked the legspinner Salunkhe, who hadn't played a first-class game. Perhaps the experience of playing with Warne on the field was good for Salunkhe in the long term (I don't know), but he wasn't particularly effective and was soon dropped.

Some of the principles of Moneyball should carry over to the player trading in the IPL. The difficulty will be in evaluating the players. It is easy to see how they performed in this tournament, but teams shouldn't be working out their trades purely on this tournament. Some players were lucky (Marsh and Tanvir), and some unlucky (Dhoni (Edit: Check stats before posting!), Tendulkar, Misbah). If teams are silly and give excessive weight to IPL stats, then it may be possible for teams to pick up some bargains with the big name stars who under-performed. The converse also applies.

Working out the balance between batting and bowling will also be important. The top bowlers seem to be worth between five and ten runs a game, relative to an average bowler. How much is a top batsman worth? More importantly, what about the middle-level players? I haven't answered this question, though the guys at Rediff might have.

Things to think about.

I wonder how much of Rajasthan's success is due to their selection of a couple of Australians who didn't leave halfway through the tournament - Warne and Watson, for example, seem obviously to be much better signings in IPL terms than, say, Brett Lee or Brendon McCullum (who were guaranteed to miss significant periods of the competition).

To be fair, a lot of people were saying at the time of the draft that Rajasthan had chosen wisely - but their system of selection, admittedly, owes little to Billy Beane.
That's an interesting point about signing players available for the whole tournament. I'm not sure how much difference the shuffling of players made to the other teams. Punjab went several games before playing Marsh, and Pomersbach only came in late.

a lot of people were saying at the time of the draft that Rajasthan had chosen wisely
Really? I wasn't really paying any attention at the time, but the consensus seemed to be that Jaipur had done very poorly. Certainly the bookies had them coming last.
Soulberry from TCWJ said at the start of the competition, that "Anyone underestimating [Rajasthan] may have another thought or two rushing in at breakneck speed"

That was one of the examples I was thinking of. I can't find links to any others at the moment, but I do remember a kind of 'dark horses' tag being applied to the side (especially once it became clear that Warne was leaving Hampshire, and so would have no other cricketing priorities).

Obviously, I'd like to claim prescience, but in all honesty, I don't think anyone (including the bookies) really had a clue how the tournament would pan out.
Well at the start of the tournament, right after the auctions everyone had written off Jaipur. Everyone had said they had done poorly at the auctions, they had no big Indian cricketers, they had weak foreign ones, etc etc.

Their odds were at the lowest as well as DB pointed out. But then Deccan's were at the highest.

This will tell you where the Royals' strategy came from:
Fair enough AP.

Yeah Q, I had a read of that article before writing this post, but I ended up not quoting from it.

"Statistics and records were carefully assessed, we spoke to several state-level coaches before picking them."

I read that first bit and it sounded like they'd gone to domestic stats tables and picked the ones with the best averages and strike/econ rates.... earth-shattering!

I was just having a look at the Deccan players' stats to look for any obvious differences. The IPL was, I think, much closer than we realise. Deccan were only about ten runs a game away from zero net run rate, which in typical circumstances would be about a 7-7 record. Deccan had the worst bowling overall, but you wouldn't guess it from reading the individual players' returns - RP Singh was poor, but otherwise they were only one bowler short. Styris did a lot better than I thought he did.
Thats believable DB cos Deccan had a lot of close matches.. they lost many in the last over, some of the last ball...they lost many by less than 10 runs...

But given their strength on paper, they were expected to maul the other teams - that didn't happen.

Another team on the wrong side of close finishes was Mumbai.

making the playoffs does not equate winning the World series.

In the last 10 years, except for the Marlins in 2003, every WS winner was a big market franchise.

The other thing to note is that that the A's play in the AL West ( other teams include Seattle, Texas and Anaheim).Except Anaheim of recent vintage, all teams are small market.

Also, within the last 5 years, there was the instance of the Padres(I think) clinching the NL West with a win percentage less than the eventual wild card team.

With the IPL, with the home and away format for all team and a salary cap in place, how much of the Moneyball stats come into play?

I wouldnt exactly compare the A's with the Rajasthan team as ....they did have a great star and captain as Warne. They are two different games altogether...and baseball is run a lot from the dug out...
Homer, as Billy Beane says, the playoffs are a crapshoot. If one team, in the long run, beats another two games out of three (which in MLB would be a huge difference between the sides), then they'd still lose about one in six best-of-seven series. With closely-matched teams (as you get in the playoffs), it reduces to not much more than a coin toss.

If you adjust each team's win/loss to allow for the different divisions they're in (ie, scale the results in their own division so that they effectively play each team in their league the same number of times), then Oakland still did really well in the early 2000's - up in the top few spots in 2001, 2002, 2003. And this despite a budget in the lower third of the major leagues.

So Oakland really did do very well, it wasn't just because they're in AL West. So, the fact that the IPL is a proper double-round-robin isn't important in making the comparison.

The salary cap (while it stays in place) means that there shouldn't be a big gap in finances between the big and small teams in the IPL. But it's certainly possible that a team might not want to spend money all the way up to the cap - Rajasthan didn't.
UTP, you're point about running baseball from the dugout raises another difference between Warne's team and Beane's. Beane (or his underling analysts) did actually have input into his team's tactics - there was to be little base-stealing, no sacrifice bunting. They gave instruction sheets to the coaches on the ground as to what they should do in given situations.

These were based on detailed analysis of these particular plays in the past. (Some of the analysis has been improved since the publication of Moneyball. Sacrifice bunting is actually useful, for instance, because sometimes the fielder makes an error and the hitter gets on base. It also forces the field to come in a bit if there's a possibility of a bunt.)

Warne didn't go in for that sort of analysis at all. I thought that he'd been hypocritical when before the tournament he said that "I don't need a computer". The Rajasthan team clearly had a guy with a laptop. But what did they use it for?

We asked our video analyst to prepare highlights of our players taking catches and hitting sixes, with music.
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