March 16, 2010

UnCensered: Money Baller Seeks Competitive Edge

by Joel Censer | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

Salisbury men's lacrosse coach Jim Berkman evaluates prospects at the Quaker Lax Classic in the fall. Is there a "Moneyball" concept for lacrosse?

© Kevin P. Tucker

I just finished Michael Lewis’s 2003 bestselling book Moneyball. I know, I’m about seven years behind the curve. But I still have a block for a cell phone and Third Eye Blind’s 1996 self-titled album playing in my car, so I guess you could say I come around to things a bit slower than everyone else.

Anyway, I loved the book. The concept is fascinating: how were the Oakland Athletics, a major league baseball team with one of the league’s smallest budgets (less than a third of that of the Yankees), able to make the playoffs three years in a row in a league where teams that spend the most usually dominate?

Lewis makes a convincing case that the team's success came from relying on extensive statistical models that helped the front office figure out what was undervalued in the baseball player market (at the time, a player’s ability to get on base and drive in runs), and exploiting it.

And in 2002, much to Lewis’ delight, Oakland’s rag-tag group of guys, many of whom had been dismissed as too old or too slow, but who could get on base, hit for power and were cheap, went on to win 103 games before eventually falling in the divisional playoffs.

I know what you’re thinking.

Joel, I’m reading this blog to learn more about the fastest game on two feet. If I wanted to think about baseball statistics, I would’ve painted my room gray and watched it dry.

But frankly, I couldn’t stop thinking about our sport while reading the book. What lacrosse skills are overvalued in the recruiting process? Do coaches or Inside Lacrosse’s recruiting rankings value attributes or talents that don’t necessarily influence winning? What statistics currently compiled during lacrosse games really measure the success of a team?

Because lacrosse is a more fluid, team-oriented game than baseball, can these statistics capture the real value of a player (Lewis touches on these questions more directly in his article on basketball player Shane Battier)? Alternatively, what skills are undervalued by college lacrosse programs? What kinds of talents can a mid-major school specifically recruit to be more competitive with teams that often get their picks of the litter?

These are just several of the questions that could be asked and, hopefully, answered if statisticians structured massive amounts of raw empirical data generated during lacrosse games.

And if I had to speculate about what types of players are undervalued by college lacrosse coaches in the recruiting process, I would probably guess the Canadians. Lacrosse Magazine Online editor Matt DaSilva stole my thunder a bit when he wrote yesterday about how Canuck finishers are changing the game. Despite their unmatched talent at finding open space, cleaning up rebounds and finishing off-ball -- all skills they develop by playing indoor box lacrosse, where they have to work in tighter spaces and shoot on a smaller goal -- many of this year’s most prolific Canadian scorers have been under-recruited, playing at mid-major schools like Hofstra, Stony Brook, Delaware and Robert Morris.

But similar to how the Red Sox and Yankees eventually began adopting the Athletics' quantitative approach, the “bigger market” schools seem to be noticing the Canadians’ effectiveness around the cage. As DaSilva aptly pointed out, Georgetown freshman Travis Comeau from Alberta has emerged as the Hoyas’ fourth attackman, while freshman Zach Palmer plays on Hopkins’ first midfield.

Skills and traits that are overvalued? Probably an attackman’s ability to dodge. (I can count on one hand the number of guys who can consistently draw a double from behind. An attackman’s efficiency has more to do with his finishing ability in unsettled situations.) A player’s height would probably be another trait vastly overvalued in recruits (although the size and subsequent reach of the UNC defense is making me rethink this position a bit).

Still, as Moneyball teaches us, we should at least concede that without any empirical evidence, we can never be completely sure about anything. We’re simply stabbing in the dark. And, unfortunately, because lacrosse is a non-revenue sport, the likelihood that some Harvard or MIT graduates will start breaking down lacrosse tape is remote.

Odds and Odds

* Love the mid-week UNC-Princeton match-up. I know I put Princeton at No. 2 last week, but I thought UNC just looked too good against Duke -- rangy defenders, horses at midfield (if only sophomore midfielder Jimmy Dunster could finish!), and Bitter and co. at attack. I think Princeton could win, but a long mid-week road trip down to Chapel Thrill certainly doesn’t make it any easier.

 * I like Mike Manley, Duke’s stud defender, but thought playing Bitter straight up was a terrible mistake. The only time I’ve ever seen Bitter really contained was last year against UVA after he embarrassed Kenny Clausen (see video below). The Cavs then put a lefty on him, took away any inside roll opportunities and forced him upfield.

* Don’t let the baby face fool you. UNC’s Thomas Wood is deadly finishing from the right wing.

* I know Syracuse’s Josh Amidon scored four against the Hoyas. But save the one lefty hitch he had, the rest were in transition. I’m not sold on him being anything more than a finisher in settled offense at this point.

Joel Censer is a 2008 graduate of Haverford College, where he was an All-American defenseman and helped lead the Fords to the second round of the NCAA Division III tournament. He loves lax and wants to know what your "Moneyball" concept is. Comment below and check LMO each week for more "UnCensered" musings.


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