Lessons for Football, in Baseball

When first seeing this title, many of you would probably assume I’m going to be writing about Moneyball again, rehashing the most dead horse maybe in history. I won’t be, so keep reading.

The MLB Trade Deadline is one of the most fascinating times in the MLB calendar, certainly the busiest for front offices and reporters as well. Teams have played roughly 100 games out of 162, and have the chance to decide whether or not they believe they can contend for any titles based on that sample size. Some teams get caught in limbo and have to make a gamble, but every team is forced to make a decision either way. This decision, whether to buy or sell, can shape the entire future of a team.

First, we need to explain how baseball works a bit. There will probably be some things worth skipping if you’re a baseball fan. I will denote these sections with ‘**’ before and after each section, so feel free to jump past explanations if you don’t need them.

Visual (and deeper) look at each league within the baseball pyramid. Taken from u/Dustmopper on r/baseball

*Baseball is set up in (kinda) 4 tiers, ascending: A, AA, AAA, and the MLB. The A’s are minor leagues. Basically youth development tiers, where prospects can hone their craft, or less-good, older professionals can still earn money in the sport. AAA is often made up of veterans whose team play nearby the MLB ballclub, they can be called up quickly in the case of an ‘emergency’ like the Syracuse Mets who play only a couple hours from the New York Mets in Queens. The other two tiers are frequently your ‘wonderkids’ so to say, 16–25 years old, maturing and adapting to professional ball.

During the trade deadline, teams will consider their MLB team, standings, statistics, and their prospects, and make deals to further the future of their team. Free agency is way more frequent in baseball than football though, so you frequently will trade for rentals. (Players who have a contract expiring at the end of the season). They can be resigned during the off-season, of course, but the contract traded is only for the remaining time. That should cover everything mostly, if I was vague feel free to ask. Let’s get to the point now.**

(The Guardian)

Football has something similar, a December transfer window. In this case though, free agency isn’t really a thing and clubs are forced to work on money resources much more. (Although I think player swaps should become used more often, and I find it curious that they aren’t.) Similar principles apply, think Aubameyang to Arsenal or the Sancho rumors to United. They get a cheaper price for a player whose contract was running down.

The main difference, and I find this part the most fascinating, is that football clubs essentially cannot go into rebuild. Relegation forces teams to always be on their game and playing good *enough* or they take a massive financial hit. Despite that, I think there’s a lot of things that we can take from baseball, complete with anecdotal evidence. Let’s get straight into it!

Choosing Your Moment to Strike:

One of my classic pessimistic remarks is that I don’t love signings of aging players. And I don’t. The problem with my own judgement here though is not about age as much as it is the point in a club’s development. Let’s take this time to bash myself here: Manchester United, you’re up first.

Raphael Varane and Jadon Sancho, while age wise and maybe even developmentally, there’s a wide gap, they’re both a part of the same transfer policy: Let’s win now. When I saw Varane being linked, I groaned. “A player OVER 25?” Yes John, a player over 25. By signing Varane, United have quite obviously signaled that they believe their team is now good enough, or almost good enough to begin competing for what I would imagine is *all* trophies, not just one or two. Thus, warranting signing a player who is on the aging end rather than the developing end of the spectrum. My personal question would be whether or not that’s true and whether or not that’s under Ole, neither I think are true but my opinion on United is NOT the point here…

From Real’s perspective, it is equally smart. Varane will not be aging any less, and they get some money out of a player who is still good enough to compete, despite their squad not being at that level as a whole. (Debate a wall if you disagree, idc.)

(Sky Sports)

This is a prime example of picking your moments. United, of course, has a great crop of youngsters coming through but let’s focus on their current team. Maguire can captain the team for the foreseeable future, Rashford and Sancho are approaching peak performance, Greenwood is coming into his own, Shaw, Pogba, and Varane should all be right around their peaks as well. This is a move with a lot of intent, and it makes a lot of sense. Real on the other hand realized that their squad isn’t up to snuff anymore and were willing to part with a key piece, and now have some funds to reinvest. Let’s say they buy a guy like Kabak. See what I’m getting at?

Time for a baseball example, where we travel to the NL Central to see this in action. The Milwaukee Brewers have taken the league by storm this season with one of the best records in the MLB, despite finishing below .500 last year. The Cubs, last seasons division winners and 2016 World Series Champs on the other hand have struggled to a 50–54 record. Recognizing their situation, the Cubs front office made a ballsy, and painful, decision. Reset.

Rizzo, Bryant and Baez pictured from right to left. (MLB.com)

This will be explained more in the next section so I won’t be as thorough, your context will come. The thing I want to show here is that the Cubs have recognized their deficiencies, despite still being a very good ballclub and shifted their mind to rebuild mode. This, while largely due to expiring contracts, is in my eyes also influenced by the capabilities the Cubs front office staff see in the Brewers. Their expectations seem to be that regardless of what happens during free agency, catching the Brewers will be a tall task. Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff are both elite pitchers, and both under 28 years old with a lot of **team control** left. Their position players are a similar story too, with MVP caliber players like Christian Yelich and strong major leaguers like Willy Adames. This is exactly what picking your moment looks like.

It starts with a very easy question. “Can we win now?” If the answer is no, ask yourself “Are we close to winning now?” If that answer is still no, your moment is not now. Wait in the tall grass for now. If your answers are yes, go for it! Leverage those prospects and turn them into a strengthened roster.

**Baseball players play at the top level for a lot longer than footballers, I don’t really have a fantastic explanation for it beyond the fact that athletic demands are just different. Furthermore, there’s a bizarre distinction between a minor and major league contract. Minor league players can be in the major leagues for awhile before receiving their due money, which comes either through a court ruling, or a contract extension. “Team control” refers to the time before arbitration, the process that ensures players are paid what they’re due. It’s like if Jadon Sancho was paid like an Under-23 player because he’s still young. It’s a very big part of baseball because of the luxury tax. It means teams can have multiple all-star caliber young players while paying them $500,000 a year vs. the $20,000,000 veterans at the same level may be making.**

Rebuilding:

One of the foundations behind the trade deadline is the idea of a rebuild, and how it’s carried out. The main feature is trading away major league pieces for minor league ones, with a look into the future, and an emphasis on scouting. You may remember a scene in Moneyball (I’m sorry I know I said I wasn’t going to talk about it) where one of our lovely protagonists Jonah Hill discusses liking very arbitrary players in the minor leagues who he believes can transform into quality major leaguers. This applies to football as well, although, again, it’s harder.

(Sky Sports)

In the case of football rebuilds are much more reminiscent of a club like Arsenal, or even better, Crystal Palace. I actually really admire CP’s thought process here. They held their position under Hodgson for a very long time and were able to soak up a lot of Premier League cash before eventually reinvesting it into the squad under Vieira. It remains to be seen what happens with their signings, will they act like Dortmund and develop to sell or similarly maintain? But regardless, Crystal Palace is doing a football rebuild well. On the other hand, in baseball, we have the Chicago Cubs, who are doing a baseball rebuild well.

After drastically underperforming expectations in the NL Central and stacked up against a monster in the Milwaukee Brewers, the Chicago front office decided to have a fire sale on many of their key pieces that won them a World Series in 2016. Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, the list goes on. In return though, the Cubs have managed to pull major pieces out of other club’s farm system (minor leagues) and put together quite the future.

These things are very similar, selling players who are 26–28 and quality, to reinvest into younger ones, is done very frequently. On the other hand though many clubs, specifically the big ones, don’t always do this well or even at all. Let’s take Barcelona for example. Despite their financial struggles, which were never going away, they attempted to continue bashing their head against a wall with big red letters spelling out ‘success’ spraypainted on it. In the end, misguided attempts to ‘rebuild’ the team with signings like Coutinho and Griezmann actually did more damage to the team than good because the focus was wrong. Clubs like Dortmund give an example on how to make a financial rebuild, and probably a model I would emulate as a Barcelona staff. Otherwise, clubs like Crystal Palace are making low cost-high upside moves that I would also be keen on.

Under Koeman this seems to be changing a lot, and that’s good, but I wanted to hit on these points here a bit. Club culture plays a major part, Barcelona is used to, and expected to have sustained success. Bartomeu unsurprisingly leaned into that, while Perez is still doing the same thing with Real (a bit) by trying to sign Mbappe. Albeit a drastically less problematic scenario.

Pedri’s signing and development is a signal of this new emphasis. (Getty Images)

Rebuilding has a few core ingredients that are important to its functionality. Infrastructure, Intake, Improvement.

The first, and the most important in my eyes in football, is an investment into quality staff. This touches every single area of the team, and is what I’m calling infrastructure. I don’t think the concept of too many chefs in the kitchen applies to sports, and I don’t think baseball teams do either. The size of recruitment and coaching staffs’ are proof to this. A large infrastructure can only be bad if your staff sucks, but my readers would never make a bad hire, so I’m not worried.

Intake is the next step, using your *fabulous* infrastructure, it’s time to bring in our new, young, and raw prospects who need development but are promising. Being able to sift through the rubble and find the guys you really want and believe you can mold into the player you want.

The final area is improvement, which plays mostly into what I alluded to at the end of the last section. Once again, using your *fabulous* infrastructure, it’s time to develop athletes using our even more fabulous coaches. Whether that results in quality professionals or sellable commodities to fund the next phase of rebuild, development of players is a critical step.

Long Term Planning:

I also think that with clubs it’s important to be creating a vague, but long term vision. For football, recruitment should involve recruitments of managers too. Why would you bring in a manager whose strengths don’t suit the squad at all? And yet, we see it far too frequently. This is where a General Manager becomes a vital part of baseball teams. They, along with the rest of the front office, create a long term vision with contingency plans in the event that one of their ideal situations doesn’t work out. A word you hear frequently in baseball, and really all American sports, is patience. See through your vision, and sometimes, fail!

But plan, plan and plan. Doing things on a whim is going to be tough. And I don’t mean planning out transfer targets for one summer. A long term plan of success isn’t just important, it should be mandatory.

I don’t dispute whether or not clubs have them. If you think these clubs just act on a whim each season, you’re far from the truth. I have a problem with them though, and my problem is multi-faceted.

First: I think clubs aim too low, and are afraid to fail. In football, this is totally logical. What happens if Crystal Palace fails to stay in the Premier League last year because they tried something new? In my eyes, this is a more business problem. Clubs are a business, and an investment. Potentially hitting relegation means a loss of cash. Retaining the status quo is safer and smarter. How does that phrase go? Shoot for the moon, land among the stars or something? Yeah, do that. Aim higher and keep innovating yourself.

Second: It seems teams are too willing to pivot from their ideas, or rather, compromise some of their ideals. Just think about managerial hires around your own personal clubs. Do their playing philosophies line up with the past and next manager? Do they line up with the players signed previously? Bundesliga teams tend to do this really well, while I think Premier League teams (who have a higher expectation of success) are willing to pivot quickly. In fact, Nick Cox, head of Manchester United’s academy, talks about this on the Training Ground Guru Podcast. After being asked about his time at Watford and how it comes to his time at United, Cox discussed how working with less resources earlier in his career forced him, and his co-workers, to innovate. This complacency is easy to fall into, and I applaud Cox for intentionally fighting it!

We got a bit off topic here from the original goal of planning, I’m just riffing here. My point is: baseball teams plan a lot into the future, and I think football clubs could do better. Let’s look more at that, with the Rays.

Succession Planning, Beyond the Office.

The Tampa Bay Rays are one of my favorite teams in all of sports, not because I have any sentimental attachment, but because they do things right and succession plan. With one of the lowest payrolls in all of baseball, they manage to win. (Currently second place in the AL East with a 62–41 record, with their best pitcher out injured.)

Rays GM, Erik Neander, spoke to The Athletic about how they manage to do it, and what their priorities are as a club. My favorite section says this:

To hear Neander tell it, these divergent poles, the clinical and the compassionate, steer the Rays. They are the guideposts of a franchise that prizes agility over stability, a roster with a low payroll and high turnover and a front office that requires perpetual motion to stay ahead of it’s rivals from bigger cities with deeper pockets. They form something of an organizational creed: “You can care for players, you can put everything you have into helping them be as good as they can be,” he says. “And then, when the time comes, make a difficult decision.”

While he touches on some things I’ve already talked about, the more important part is the way he touches on their ability to constantly turnover players and, quite unusually, staff. It stems from his first sentence: “you can put everything you have into helping them be as good as they can be.” You care for everyone to the best of your ability, and in turn, players will be ready when their number is called. (And so will staff, like Neander, who started with the Rays in 2007 as an intern!)

Clubs should not be afraid to innovate and attempt new things, both in baseball and in football. The first question that I would always ask is simple. “Do you believe in this thing?”

Yes? Then fuck everyone else. You don’t need to explain yourself to disbelievers.

A few resources I used here:

The Tampa Bay Rays Player-Centric…https://theathletic.com/2657763/2021/06/22/the-tampa-bay-rays-player-centric-ruthless-paradox-you-cant-knock-it-because-they-win/

Nick Cox exclusive: ‘Even at Manchester… https://theathletic.com/2424233/2021/03/09/nick-cox-exclusive-even-at-manchester-united-childhood-wins-every-time/

TGG Podcast: Nick Cox https://trainingground.guru/articles/nick-cox-youth-development-the-man-utd-way

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