09 November 2012

"The Rangers Way" | Step 1

by Shane Nicholson | CRO Executive Editor

Cool pic, yeah? That's Rangers playing on a baseball diamond in Vancouver, BC back in 1930. I stumbled across it poking around for something at work the other day.

When I was growing up there were three stats on the back of a baseball card you labored over, studied as if your life depended upon it: Avg. | HR | RBI

Little else mattered, because everything else was completely subjective. This guy got his shirt dirty diving for balls, that guy didn't. This guy hustled, while that guy seemed to walk up the line on a ground ball. That was about it when it came to "in-depth analysis" of the National Pastime.

And then things started to shift a bit. All of a sudden OBP was part of the stat package on your TV broadcast. And then OPS.

*GASP* OPS - Nothing more than the sum of two basic statistics (on-base percentage + slugging) and yet for what seemed like a lifetime it was the bane of the older generation of analysts and ex-players. It was Sabermetrics: the newfangled way of telling you who was good and who was not.

Thing was, OPS was as simple as any of those original three on the back of my bubble gum cards. It was a counting stat. You added one number you already knew to another you already knew and presto you got OPS. It was nothing new, nothing advant garde in terms of analysis. It was just different, it represented change to people adverse to change in the most staunch ways possible.

In reality, there was movement coming, led by Bill James and some other SABR members, and it started way back in the early 80s, even if no one was paying attention.

James introduced Runs Created, which was an aggregation of sorts that threw a bunch of the core stats (perhaps most importantly the previously overlooked OBP) into the mix and popped out a number that gave you something more resembling a player's true offensive output.

From that, RC/27, which measured a given player's offensive output with the same system as if he were the average hitter in a team. Even now, not a full generation later, these stats seem like child's play.

James moved on and gave us Win Shares, which could quantify a player's contribution of the course of a season, and then for his career. We had a way of objectively ranking all of the players in Major League history.

And then suddenly a whole generation of fans raised on James' writing and methods arrived on the scene, calculators in hand. Whether it be Voros McCracken - who developed a method to separate the ability of a pitcher from the defense behind him and now analyzes football for peanuts and pence - or Nate Silver - who's moved on from baseball to projecting Presidential elections with deadly accuracy - Sabermetrics burst into the forefront of the sport.

We went from a simple three-part split to a mix of abbreviations and acronyms: Rpos, RAA, WAR, 162WL% and so on down the ever growing stat line. Michael Lewis wrote 'Moneyball', the A's won division titleson the cheap, and people understood there were more ways to look at the game than the same way they had for the last 130 years.

Well, most people. The old guard wasn't pleased. The only way to represent the quality of a given player, they said, was grit, hustle, determination, and whatever else their subjective eyes could turn out in a given broadcast or article. They struggled on, determined to tear down this new world built up around their insular shell. It's not a comfortable place to be in, surely.

And there is some truth to what they say. Even James admitted in his Win Shares system that not everything a player does could be represented by a number, at least not at the time he published his lauded and updated Baseball Abstract in 1999.

But with all that in mind, they still watch, and they're still in broadcast booths and press boxes. They're still engaged. Yeah, they hate the "pocket protector" class and "teenagers in basements" that have cluttered their game briefs and newspapers with all sorts of newfangled devices, but they're still watching and enjoying it all the same. They just have something new to bitch about.

So what's all this got to do with Rangers?

This is where we sit, and for the most part football at large. We know Messi is the best player in the world, possibly the best we've ever seen.

Why? How do we know?

A lot of it come down to what we see on the television, those moments that make our jaws drop and tens-of-thousands of people rise to their feet simultaneously.

But how to we quantify that production objectively? How do we look at Messi and break down the parts of his game, define what makes him great beyond his incredible first touch or his ability to seemingly will his way past opponents?

Perhaps Messi is the exception, the Babe Ruth of football analysis. But the numbers are still there, the film and Opta stats are there. There is something to be drawn from, something that one can look at beyond the incredible close control, what appears to be a magnet in the ball drawn to his foot, and say, "This, right here. This is what makes the difference."

Rangers sit in a very fortunate place, despite what our critics may say. We can set about establishing new benchmarks of greatness within our side, a new ethos in our style of play, and do it with little fear of slipping up in our league for the next (we think) three years. Outside the odd cup tie with the noisy neighbors there is nothing preventing us from laying down a brand new way of playing, a new way of looking at the game, with little fear of proper embarrassment.

Many of us watched Ajax dismantle Manchester City a couple weeks back, and nearly toss the same egg on their face again at the Eastlands. For over four decades and many more generations of sides Ajax have sustained a philosophy of football second to none in the world. They are the envy of any club looking inward for progress.

But the Ajax system, the Ajax way is one unique to their own. The very name is synonymous with beautiful direct football, and a method of developing world class talent year after year, generation after generation. We will not decipher that code. Many clubs have tried, nearly all (if there even is an exception) have failed.

What we can do is create a new way forward, find the objective measurements that exist within football that are yet to be exploited. They are there, absolutely and without question. It's simply a matter of utilizing resources correctly to gain an advantage for the club for years to come.

We are spending somewhere around £7 million a year on wages as a third division side. What has been the grand payoff? Two unspectacular cup exits whilst sitting at the top of a league that we should expect to have wrapped by early Spring.

Now is the time to establish that new way forward. It is the foundation of my frustration with Ally's side and methods and tactics this season that we aren't. Last year was an exception in our proud history; this year and the couple still to come are as well, but for a completely different set of reasons. A set of reasons we should be exploiting to create The Rangers Way of football.

I wrote a while back about the club needing to cut a brave new path forward in how it broadcasts and markets itself to the world at large. Looking at similar "new age" philosophies to how we go about our business on the training ground and on the pitch should go hand-in-hand. 

For once - perhaps what will be our only chance ever - we can concentrate on philosophy over results. The results will come: we have far too many resources and excess talent for our level for them not to.

But Rangers must prioritize looking at new ways, pushing our reportedly massive cash reserves into areas that will build a sustainable and exciting brand of football for generations of Bluenoses to come.

And don't worry about the old guard: they'll barely take notice of how it's being done so long as the product on the pitch is something worth watching.

Shane is the founder and Executive Editor (fancy title) of the CRO. He can be found on twitter at @ofvoid and via email: shane@thecoplandroad.org