I recently finished reading Moneyball. Yeah, I'm 10 years late to the party. For those who haven't read it, here's a brief synopsis: Professional baseball has not properly valued players' skills, and Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics took advantage of these inefficiencies to create one of the most successful regular season teams in baseball history. Michael Lewis did a fantastic job with the book, telling the entertaining story of what went on during those years and the pushback they got from the baseball establishment.
Lewis' book was released in 2003, and baseball has undergone a pretty significant transformation in the decade since. Everyone embraces "sabermetrics" now. Blogs like FireJoeMorgan.com have helped bring to light the idiocy of the old way of thinking. The book, along with Billy Beane and the Athletics, helped transform the way we consume baseball.
So what does this have to do with Oregon football? As I watched the National Signing Day coverage unfold last Wednesday, I kept thinking about Moneyball. I kept thinking about inefficiencies in the system.
For a lot of years, you couldn't discuss Oregon recruiting without talking about how recruiting star rankings don't mean anything. Max Unger! Patrick Chung! Two star players we turn into All-Americans! Who cares if we're only top 25 in recruiting!
Now, the narrative has changed. Oregon can pull in only a top 20 class? But our facilities! Our success! Why aren't we top 10 in recruiting?!
When I first started writing for this blog, I was one of the main proponents for improvement in Oregon's recruiting. Recruiting is very, very important. It's incredibly difficult to succeed in college football when you're bringing in two- and three-star players. In the early days of the college football blogdom, while sites like Sports Illustrated were cataloging all the star-ranking disasters, writers like Matt Hinton were writing about how the star rankings win out. He's been writing this piece for many years. Here's this year's iteration. Long story short, teams that bring in five-star players are more likely to win football games.
This shouldn't be all that surprising. Talent in football is important. The typical scouting system does a pretty solid job ranking talent in high school football players. The narrative goes: The more talent you have, the better chances you have of winning football games.
That's a nice narrative, but it's incomplete. This narrative has not progressed in years. Well, look at that, recruiting stars do a pretty decent job correlating to success on the field! That was something that needed to be communicated five years ago. It's not that useful anymore.
And that brings me back to Moneyball. One of the main points of Moneyball was the mitigation of risk. In this specific case, led by Billy Beane, Oakland pretty much refused to draft high school players. Their risk was too great for the reward. Recruiting is very similar to this process. And what's been at a premium for as long as college football has existed? Raw physical talent.
In recruiting, every coach in the country is trying to bring in the most physically talented players possible, under the assumption that will bring them the greatest chance of winning football games. This isn't just the case in college football. Look at every single sport in existence. The NFL, NBA, and MLB value physical specimens over actual production (something that Moneyball covered extensively). A player like Jake Locker (OREGON BIAS ALERT) can be taken in the top 10 of the NFL draft while showing pretty much nothing in college. While he's not a disaster at the pro level, it's incredibly doubtful that he ever lives up to his draft position. Seriously, Titans, I watched him for four years; I could have told you this. But his talent was too much to pass up.
So as we watch National Signing Day coverage, just like every other draft, it's all about that raw physical talent. It's not that surprising that that's what people value. First, it's fairly easy to judge. The players who are 6'4", 260 pounds, and run a 4.4 40-yard dash have a pretty good chance of being very successful. Second, it's been a pretty decent way of telling who will and will not be successful. Teams with a ton of talent typically do very well. Teams with less talent don't do as well!
This is a very, very easy narrative. It's mostly backed up by stats. But it's simplistic. And as Oregon fans, it's time we moved past that.
As I mentioned before, recruiting is about minimizing risk. Talent is a great way to minimize risk. If you're going to give yourself a chance at success, the simplest way to do that is amass the most amount of talent possible. As noted in Hinton's latest article, five-star teams beat four-star teams 66% of the time. As he's noted in the past, roughly 25% of five-star athletes become All-Americans.
It's very easy to conclude that talent does matter. But just as readily obvious is that it is not all that matters. When presented with more information and examples of outliers, you shouldn't ignore those outliers. You should ask why those outliers are happening. Unfortunately, this isn't the case.
In his review of Florida State and Auburn's run at national titles, SBNation Recruiting's Bud Elliot places a large emphasis on traditional recruiting success. He calls recruiting a "numbers game." But he says that it's a numbers game that "one favoring the team that hoards stars." Bud is right that it's a number game. But it's a numbers game that attempts to minimize risk and maximize the potential for success. Bud, and most others that cover recruiting, focus only on one area to minimize that risk. And when National Signing Day rolls around, that is the only aspect of recruiting that is covered to any serious extent. We focus only on raw physical talent despite its obvious limitations.
If we want to talk about minimizing risk, we must move beyond the narrative that's been repeated for as long as we've known recruiting. It's not simply how much talent we can amass, but how can we increase the likelihood that a three-star athlete will succeed? How can we increase the chances of success for a four- or five-star athlete?
The percentages used by traditional metrics look only at star ratings. How many other metrics are there? How many metrics do you think the Oregon coaching staff is using? As a group, they personally evaluated 1,000 prospective student athletes this year. They're obviously not looking at just raw physical talent.
As Rob Moseley noted in his behind-the-scenes Signing Day article:
One member of the media asks Helfrich about Oregon's character evaluations, which are so extensive they're becoming the stuff of legend in recruiting circles. Helfrich said the staff evaluates recruits on eight criteria not related to football - social-media presence and academics are among factors they consider - and they're not afraid to eliminate an athletically talented prospect because of character concerns.
According to 247Sports, Oregon gave out only 111 offers to prospective student athletes during the 2014 recruiting cycle, far less than any comparable school. By contrast, Alabama gave out 184 offers and USC gave out 148. This tells me that Oregon believes there are inefficiencies in the traditional recruiting system. They are not looking just at five groups of players and their chances of success. With the right data, you can easily control for a number of different character traits combined with physical skill, maximizing the chances of success where traditional metrics give an incomplete picture.
As Oregon has become more successful on the field, many Oregon fans are looking for more traditional success in recruiting. In my opinion, there is no reason to expect that. At Oregon, we've built our program on innovation. For years, we've brought in undervalued players and turned them into stars. Under Chip Kelly, we used scheme and speed to confound the conference. Some fans are asking where the next great innovation lies. It's in recruiting. It's in evaluating players and finding those players that give the Ducks the best chance to be successful long-term. If this correlates to the traditional star rankings, so be it. If not, who cares?
As an Oregon fan, I want my team to succeed on the field. I don't need validation from an outdated system to prove our place among the college football elite. Our record over the last five years does that by itself.
Now, this isn't the easiest thing. As noted above, evaluating high school players based on their physical talent is comparatively easy. Amassing physical talent has been and will be the easiest path to success for many teams. As sports fans, we want to win everything, even something as ultimately meaningless as the recruiting rankings wars.
Unfortunately, I feel that Oregon will perpetually be lagging behind in the traditional recruiting wars and in the battle for physical talent. Based on geography alone, Oregon will never consistently compete with the traditional recruiting powers. But that doesn't mean that Oregon won't be more successful on the field.
Oregon will continue to do what they do best: innovate. They will work to find what others are not valuing and exploit that to the highest degree. They have to. Or else they won't stay near the elite in college football.
But don't despair, Oregon fans. If Moneyball taught us anything, it's that you don't need to follow the pack to be elite. If anything, if you have built-in disadvantages, that's exactly what you shouldn't do.