I recently read ‘Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game‘ by Michael Lewis. It’s brilliant. Regardless of whether you know anything about baseball, read it.
Essentially, it’s about a small club, the Oakland Athletics, working out how to buy good baseball players who have been written off by richer clubs. It all stemmed from the statistical research of a guy called Bill James, who started off writing the 1970s equivalent of a blog and ended up working as a consultant for the Boston Red Sox, under the new Liverpool owner (and self-made billionaire) John W. Henry.
Various pieces of circumstantial evidence – Nigel Clough is a big baseball fan and often references Prozone, the owners are American and two of them run baseball franchises (Tom Ricketts at the Chicago Cubs and Jeff Mallett at the San Francisco Giants) – lead me to assume that the Rams are using stats when it comes to assessing the players’ performance – and indeed new signings.
With this in mind, I’ve decided to start working stats into my Derby County Blog output, with the ultimate aim of using them to strengthen any assertions I make.
My first trawl through the numbers seeks to find out which players had the best season when measured by Points Per Game earned when they started. There is a limit to how much influence one player can have on a match, but I still felt that it would prove to be a useful exercise. And I was quite surprised by the results.
P W D L F A GD PTS Pts per Game
SEASON TOTAL 46 13 10 23 58 71 -13 49 1.065
Frank Fielding (GK) 16 8 2 6 26 21 +5 26 1.625
Kris Commons (FW) 25 10 4 11 39 35 +4 34 1.360
Tomasz Cywka (FW) 20 8 3 9 29 27 +2 27 1.350
Dean Moxey (LB/FW) 20 7 4 9 28 21 +7 25 1.250
Robbie Savage (CM) 37 12 8 17 48 52 -4 44 1.189
James Bailey (CM) 32 10 7 15 46 49 -3 37 1.156
Paul Green (MF/RB) 36 11 8 17 46 55 -9 41 1.139
Dean Leacock (CB/RB) 22 7 3 12 34 36 -2 24 1.091
John Brayford (RB) 46 13 10 23 58 71 -13 49 1.065
Alberto Bueno (FW) 25 7 5 13 36 44 -8 26 1.040
Shaun Barker (CB) 42 11 10 21 52 64 -12 43 1.024
Gareth Roberts (LB) 24 5 6 13 24 39 -15 21 0.875
Daniel Ayala (CB) 16 3 5 8 16 27 -11 14 0.875
Jamie Ward (FW) 13 2 5 6 14 22 -8 11 0.846
Stephen Pearson (MF) 19 4 4 11 21 34 -13 16 0.842
Stephen Bywater (GK) 22 4 6 12 22 32 -10 18 0.818
Steve Davies (CF) 14 2 5 7 15 26 -11 11 0.786
I was originally only going to count players who had started at least 15 games, but a supporter requested that I run the numbers for Jamie Ward, who started 13 times (the fan was surprised by the low return, having assumed that Ward improved our fortunes). As Steve Davies started 14 games, I thought it only fair to include him too.
The most obvious point raised by these figures is that the team leader on Points per Game earned (I am aware of how American I’m sounding) was Frankie Fielding. Astoundingly, given how rotten we were for great swathes of the season, we won exactly half of the games that Frank played in, giving him the best win ratio of any of our players. And then look where Stephen Bywater comes – second to bottom, with an astoundingly poor four wins out of 22.
The fans have instinctively embraced Frankie and the stats back up what we have seen in him. His agility leads to some great saves, so far (fingers crossed) he has been relatively error-free and he is clearly able to communicate well with his back four. Meanwhile, Bywater’s off-field capers – Twitter / ‘art’ – are reflected in his poor figures in what turned out to be a sorry season for him, both with Derby and Cardiff, where his costly error of judgement led to a crucial goal in the play-offs for Reading.
It’s unsurprising that Kris Commons finishes near the top. His 13 goals basically kept us out of League One, leading to a major change in Clough’s public tone during the early part of the season, from one of ambivalence towards the little Mansfield Scot’s abilities and fitness to proper love. Unfortunately, it turned out that Commons’ terrific spurt of form coincided perfectly with the optimum time for him to make a lucrative transfer to a league where he will spend his peak years looking awesome against a bunch of pub players. He might even get a chance to rifle in another beauty against Manchester United one day, in the Champions League (group stage).
But look where Tomasz Cywka finishes in the rankings! Third, tucked in just behind Commons, but well ahead of the pack. This, I had not anticipated.
It’s a difficult one to explain. Cywka featured regularly in that brilliant run in October and November, but only scored in two of the victories, bagging a brace against Watford and one in the 3-2 win against Scunthorpe. After we beat the Iron, Cywka’s next five starts ended in defeats, most notably the Forest debacle at the City Ground – during which he was atypically substituted – before the infamous 1-1 draw at Portsmouth, when Clough singled the Pole out for blame in the aftermath. But Cywka had played a part in the good run and doubtless, the wave of fan sympathy that came his way after ‘Cywkagate’ reflected that fact.
Dean Moxey, of all people, finished fourth, with Gareth Roberts, his left back replacement, trailing well below him on the list. Fuel to those who felt that ‘the Mox’ was a long-term solution in that position, perhaps (I’m not among them). Certainly given Roberts’ age and the injuries that affected him last season, Moxey’s release to Crystal Palace means that a good replacement will have to be found sooner rather than later – in this window, according to many fans, although a good young loanee with a view to perm at any point this season could be acceptable in my eyes.
Of the few players who played the majority of the games, Robbie Savage comes out on top. Interestingly, in the nine games he didn’t start, Derby won only once – and he wasn’t there for the aforementioned defeat at Forest. This proves the importance of his experience in midfield and shows just how vital it is that another holding midfielder is brought in to fill the void he leaves. At 36, Savage might not have looked up to much as he scuttled around the pitch like an arthritic crab, but when he wasn’t there, we didn’t win.
Watching Savage’s bold attempts to defy the ravages of age last season put me in mind of the one Baseball Ground night when I saw Paul McGrath play. The poor bloke could hardly walk, let alone run, but nothing ever got past him. I can’t remember who we were playing that evening, but I think we won – and I remember the ‘Ooh Aah Paul McGrath’ chants coming from the Pop Side, after the one time McGrath almost erred, misplacing a backpass so badly that he was forced to shuffle painfully and as fast as he could to clear the ball into the stand, preventing the striker from taking advantage of his rare mistake.
Shaun Barker and John Brayford can’t really be blamed for not finishing near the top. In fact, the question you have to ask about those who finished above them on half a season’s games is, can they maintain that sort of effect on the Rams’ fortunes for a whole season? Commons turned down the offer he was given and Clough has decided that Moxey couldn’t – but Fielding and Cywka will both be around for another go next season.
Poor Steve Davies finishes bottom of the table. In his defence, he wasn’t available for selection during the good months (October and November), although in itself, that says something – due to injury, he wasn’t able to make much of an impression on our season. By the time he was fit, the team had already developed its winophobia. Davies wasn’t able to do much to change that, although he did score the crucial second goal in the win against Swansea. His smart finish at Pompey earned us a point and he was also on target in the 2-2 draw with Coventry City.
Alberto Bueno’s ultimately milky season with Derby is reflected in his mid-table finish. And Stephen Pearson finishes right near the bottom, just above Bywater. Rams fans have spent years wondering where his best position is and exactly what it is he adds to the team – on these numbers, the answer is, ‘usually nothing’. Contract extension, or lucrative move away for Pearo? Cloughie, it’s over to you…
Finally, it’s worth noting that the stats only reflect games that players started, rather than sub appearances. However, it’s also worth mentioning that there was only one occasion when a Derby substitute came on and scored in the entire season – Shefki Kuqi, scoring the fourth in the 4-1 win against Watford. The lack of players making a game-changing impact from the bench – or squad depth, in other words – is something that still hasn’t been fully sorted out for 2011/12. We await further developments with interest.