Behind the scenes at derbycountyblog is a Chicago-based, Derby-raised techie named Burnsy. Working as he does on the other side of the pond, he has been exposed to the full range of American pro sports, which all share a serious addiction to statistics.
Baseball is particularly stat-heavy and I watched a fair few games last season, my interest piqued by the fantastic book ‘Moneyball‘, which outlines how one of the smallest franchises in Major League Baseball, the Oakland A’s, overachieved massively, simply by paying attention to the correct statistics.
By signing players who measured very highly in specific categories, the A’s were able to gain an advantage over other, much richer franchises, who continued to use traditional scouting methods to find athletic-looking, home run-gobbling, physically-strapping young American dreamboats, who generally never lived up to their ‘wonderkid’ reputations. Billy Beane, general manager of the A’s, had been exactly such a prospect in his youth and the fact that his own Major League career foundered partly explains his keenness to explore alternative ideas.
Anyway, one of the key roles in baseball is that of the ‘closer’. A closer is a pitcher who is used at the very end of games in which his team holds a narrow lead. His job is to finish off the game by striking out the last few batters. If he does so and his team win the game, he is credited with a ‘save’.
Top closers can earn just as much as the starter who pitches the majority of the innings and while some commentators suggest that they might be overvalued, a closer is essentially seen as a safe pair of hands who can be trusted to keep his nerve and get the job done in pressure situations.
As Burnsy recently pointed out to me, this is comparable to the role allotted to Jake Buxton this season by his baseball-loving manager, Nigel Clough (at least until Shaun Barker’s unfortunate injury). In situations where the Rams had a result to protect, Bucko, after his own return from long-term injury this December, would be brought on in the final few minutes as an auxilliary defender, tasked with heading, kicking, tackling, marking and generally acting as a sturdy barrier in front of the Derby County goal.
And it’s worked. Every time Jake has been introduced as a sub in a late ‘save’ situation this season, we’ve seen out the game. We haven’t conceded a single goal after he was brought on in any of his eight ‘saves’, thereby going on to win four home games and one away game, plus securing three away draws.
Now think about all the late goals we shipped in the seasons prior to this one…
JAKE BUXTON IN ‘SAVE’ SITUATIONS (2011/12 Season)
WEST HAM UNITED W 2-1
Hull City W 1-0
CRYSTAL PALACE (FA Cup) W 1-0
COVENTRY CITY W 1-0
Burnley D 0-0
Millwall D 0-0
Birmingham City D 2-2
BLACKPOOL W 2-1
Appearances in ‘save’ situation 8
Mins on Pitch 57
(Ave mins on pitch 7)
Yellow / Red Cards 0
Goals Conceded by Derby during ‘save’ situations 0
Points Protected 18*
* FA Cup tie win counted as three points
Of course, the Forest game doesn’t count as a ‘save’, as Buxton was introduced to replace the injured Barker, not to protect the result.
Clough was quick to heap praise on Buxton after his goal in the Forest victory – the scoring of which cost him a kick in the head, although this only seemed to injure the kicker Steve Davies and didn’t even put a dent in Bucko.
Buxton has come across brilliantly ever since his arrival at Derby. After a career spent in the lower leagues, he has absolutely no airs and graces and has always carried himself with an air of humility not usually associated with the modern-day footballer (although Clough does seem committed to signing the right sort of character, constantly referring as he does to the ‘honesty’ of the current squad).
You can tell that Buxton understands and appreciates how privileged he is to have gained the opportunity to earn a good wage through his football and that he is prepared to push himself as hard as possible on behalf of the team.
A couple of years ago, I was on a train from one place to another, chatting to a mate, when the old fella sitting opposite us ventured to add a comment. I think we were talking about the local wildlife at the time and he had some knowledge on the subject.
Anyway, the gentleman was a Forest fan, but extremely pleasant with it and we settled into a friendly discussion of all things East Midlands. He mentioned that he knew Buxton slightly, as the player, accompanied by his girlfriend (and dad, if I remember correctly) often came down to the local working men’s club. Basically, the upshot was that he held Bucko in very high esteem as a lad and enjoyed giving him a ribbing if Derby had lost their last game.
Footballers, certainly at Derby’s level, have become so well-paid and itinerant that the idea of the scorer of the winning goal in the East Midlands Derby being spotted down at the local having a drink among people who’d been to the game seems almost absurd. But there you go.
Tommo made the point after the Forest game that the Eire international Liam Lawrence, who has had a good career and is now with Cardiff City, started life at Mansfield Town, like Buxton and the recent Rams’ debutant Tom Naylor. The next time a Lawrence emerges from Mansfield’s youth system, with the way our scouting system works now, it seems reasonable to believe that Derby will know all about him from the start, very possibly giving us an advantage when it comes time for that prospect to move on.
In any event, Buxton has proved himself to be a worthy signing by ‘Non League Nigel’ and I hope that he continues as the sturdy Yeoman Closer of Pride Park for many seasons to come.
Joy Division – Isolation (from the album Closer, of course)