In 2003, Michael Lewis wrote a book (recently turned into a movie) that revolutionized Major League Baseball (MLB), titled, “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.” The book chronicles how the Oakland A’s, a small market team was able to use advanced statistical analysis to compete with MLB franchises with far greater resources. The crux of their strategy was identifying players that were undervalued by other franchises and then strategically adding those players to their roster.
While the sport of Team Handball does not lend itself to in-depth statistical analysis, the subtitle to the book, “The art of winning an unfair game” immediately hit home to me as an American fan of the sport. And the “unfair game” that is so self-evident is the challenge of identifying, convincing and training athletes into world class team handball athletes. Team Handball in this country has paltry resources, practically no exposure and accordingly, a very, very thin talent pool to draw from. How can the sport even begin to compete against other sports in this country like basketball and football for athletes? Seriously, by comparison Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s have it way too easy in my opinion.
But, while it’s a difficult challenge it’s not entirely impossible. Team Handball is a great game, fun to watch and play and with the carrot of being an Olympic athlete, the U.S. has found some diamonds in the rough. In most cases these athletes have been crossover athletes that decided to give Team Handball a try after their collegiate or high school athletic careers were finished. Indeed, targeted recruitment of such athletes is the only viable solution if you want to improve national team performance in the near term. I, and others, have repeatedly argued that it’s a short term solution with some major limitations and significant long term drawbacks, but that’s not the focus for this particular commentary. The focus instead is how to make targeted recruiting work as well as possible. In other words, how can USA Team Handball apply some Moneyball like tactics to get the best players possible?
Two Basic Axioms
Before, I delve into the details I’ll first postulate that there are two basic axioms in regards to the types of athletes USA Team Handball wants to recruit for national team consideration:
- USA Team Handball wants to recruit the best possible athletes to devote themselves to the sport
- USA Team Handball wants those athletes to commit themselves to the sport at the youngest ages possible
I think that few people would argue with the validity of these two premises. The first one surely needs no further explanation. And as far as the second axiom goes the desire to recruit athletes as young as possible relates to the time involved in learning the finer points of the game. It can take several years to take raw athletic talent and turn it into handball talent. The younger a player starts that process the sooner he/she will develop into a world class talent that can contribute to the national team. And, in turn the more years that player will likely be able to contribute.
Defining the X and Y Axes
Taking the two basic axioms into account it’s possible to graphically depict those two factors (age and raw athletic ability) along an X and Y axes:
X Axis (Raw Athletic Ability): For illustrative purposes, I’ve depicted raw athletic ability from 0-10. Defining a “10” is relatively easy. Think Cam Newton, Lebron James or any number of professional athletes that if they chose to play team handball would be can’t miss world class players. (OK, maybe there’s no such thing as a “can’t miss player,” but you get the picture.) Defining the numbers down, however, is more challenging and way wide open for debate. For the purposes of discussion I decided to limit the pool of athletes to include only those that take their sporting endeavors fairly seriously. In other words a “1” in this instance is not someone that doesn’t play any sports, but perhaps an athlete who was a minor contributor in high school. Athletes from “5-9” are pretty good athletes, many perhaps the best athletes on their high school teams, but just not quite good enough to play collegiate sports at the highest level. Athletes from “9 to 9.8” are closer to the top of the pyramid and were granted scholarships to Div 1 NCAA schools. Athletes in the “9.8 and higher” category are of the “can’t miss” variety and go on to pro careers. I’ll be the first to state these numbers are arbitrary and the lines could be drawn differently. In particular, if you want to really define the athlete population more accurately, the delineations that I start at “5.0” could start at “9.5” or even higher. Additionally, many athletes develop sport specific skills that trump their limited raw athletic ability and allow them to compete in college.
Y Axis (Age): Defining the age of athletes is pretty definitive. Unless, we’re talking about some Latin American baseball prospects, we know exactly how old athletes are. There certainly can be some debate as to how much the age of an athlete matters, but there can be no debate that it matters. For the purposes of discussion I broke the chart out into 4 distinct blocks of 4 years. Conveniently, this delineates two fairly well defined periods of athletic endeavors for many athletes in the U.S.: High School and college.
The Non Candidates
As you look upon the X and Y axes several areas where USA Team Handball should not focus for target recruited can be readily identified. I’ve grouped these would be potential candidates into the following categories:
Insufficient Athletic Ability: The largest area of the chart is composed of athletes that simply do not have the raw athletic talent that will ever allow them to be productive and contributing members to USA national teams. This may seem a rather cold indictment that doesn’t take into account an individual’s motivation and determination, but it is a reality for many, many athletes. To be sure it’s not always easy to delineate where the line is. While it may be easy when an athlete is a “1”, it’s not so easy when an athlete is a “6.5” and a real hard worker.
High School Athletes (with collegiate aspirations): This area is composed of the top tier of high school athletes and virtually every future U.S. National Team players (with the exception of dual citizens) will spend their ages 14-18 playing high school sports other than team handball. While it certainly would be desirable to get these athletes playing team handball seriously at these ages it is currently nearly impossible to do so. Perhaps some pilot programs could be started, but it will be challenging to do so in the near term in significant numbers.
Collegiate Athletes: This area is composed of athletes that have made collegiate teams and continue to play their primary sport from ages 18-22. In most instances these athletes are on the higher end of the raw athletic ability scale (9-10). The logic being that college teams are somewhat cold-hearted in their approach. (i.e., they don’t waste limited scholarships on athletes with lower ability when they can get athletes with greater ability and potential.) Again, while it would be nice to get these athletes to play team handball, they are largely unavailable until age 22 or so. Perhaps it might be feasible if our residency programs could offer full ride scholarships and regular competition, but barring that it’s very unlikely a scholarship athlete would choose to abandon his/her current sport.
Pro Athletes: This tiny sliver of athletes represent the elite of the elite. It goes without saying that prying any of these athletes away is by and large Fantasyland.
Too Old to Start: This area is composed of athletes that could have been great candidates for USA national teams, but have reached an age whereby it is increasingly unlikely that they will develop the requisite handball skills before their athletic skills decline or “life issues” result in them moving on to other endeavors. It’s certainly debatable as to where this line should be drawn. I’ve assessed that for high school cross over athletes that line should be drawn at age 23-24 and that for college cross over athletes it should be around age 25 or so. Arguments can be made to draw those lines at younger or older ages, but lines should be drawn somewhere.
By the process of elimination there are then two small boxes where USA Team Handball should focus its efforts for targeted recruitment:
Post High School Cross Over Athletes: This group consists of talented athletes who have not made collegiate teams in their chosen primary sport. In many instances this was because they simply were not good enough to obtain a college scholarship. Accordingly, these athletes will tend to fall a little lower on the scale of raw athletic ability. While it would be preferable to get athletes further to the right of the scale those athletes will be harder to come by. This disadvantage, however, can be offset by the younger age that they start focusing on team handball. With more time to work with its possible that they will be able to offset their lower raw athletic ability with greater handball skills and technique.
Post College Cross Over Athletes: This group consists of exceptional athletes who either weren’t good enough for a professional career or play a sport with limited professional options. Historically, this is where USA Team Handball hasn’t gotten most of its top national team athletes. Given enough time to develop and train these athletes the USA was able to field national teams that were competitive.
Theory vs. Reality
While I doubt that USA Team Handball has ever drawn lines on a graph or identified hard cut lines in terms of ages or athletic ability National Team rosters decisions have undoubtedly been made along these lines in the past. All too often, however, circumstances related to a very thin talent pool have moved the lines too far to the left or the top of the chart. In other words, USA Team Handball has often had rosters with too many athletes that were either too old or didn’t have sufficient athletic ability. Comfortably ensconced in middle age I’ll declare that I myself, might very well have been in both categories during my short stint on the U.S. National Team. For sure, I was in the upper left hand corner of the post high school crossover box.
And looking at today’s national team player pools I’ll generously assess that both the men’s and women’s teams are rife with players in that upper left hand corner of the crossover high school and college boxes. Throw out the dual citizen athletes and it paints a pretty bleak picture. And, if you add in that reality that Rio 2016 is a long shot at best and the more realistic focus is Tokyo 2020 then only a handful of athletes in our current player pool even have a realistic chance of being Olympians some day.
All of this points to a dramatic need to move from the upper left corner of the chart to the bottom right hand corner. Younger and better athletes. Duh, a no-brainer. Easier said than done for sure. In the next installment I’ll delve into some Moneyball Handball analysis and recruitment tactics, however, that just might make it possible.