Poeter in Motion

Are the Moneyballers for real?
There’s a figure being bandied about by the Bush administration and its supporters – 62,041,268. That’s the number of voters who ticked George W. Bush on their ballots in November’s presidential election. It’s the most popular votes ever won by a presidential candidate in the United States – as the anchors and pundits on Fox News hasten to tell us.

Pretty impressive stuff.

Except it really isn’t. Not when you consider that Nos. 2 and 3 on the all-time vote-getting list are John Kerry and Albert Gore, Jr. Not when you stop to think that the NUMBER of votes a candidate gets is far less important than the PERCENTAGE of votes a candidate gets. Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and a mystery fourth president all got more than 60 percent of the popular vote at one time or another. Bush? He got 50.73 percent in 2004, putting him just behind Franklin Pierce (50.84 percent in 1852) in the historical rankings.

Which just goes to show that it’s one thing to throw out big numbers, and another thing for them to signify much of anything at all.

(The mystery fourth president who got more than 60 percent of the popular vote? Warren G. Harding, with 60.32 percent in 1920. Which just goes to show that playing the percentages ain’t always the right way to go, either.)

Numbers, it turns out, are only as good as the people crunching and interpreting them. So it is with guarded optimism that we should view the rise of Paraag Marathe.

Paraag who? Which-what Marathe? The young 49ers executive is not a household name, that’s for sure. And most households are going to have trouble spelling his name even if he becomes one.

If you haven’t got the news bulletin, Marathe, 27, is the young man at the forefront of turning the 49ers organization into a “Moneyball” outfit. He’s got an MBA from Stanford and a lot of ideas for using statistical models to do everything from drafting better players to selecting the head coach most likely to succeed with a dismal club like San Francisco.

The Stanford whiz kid and assistant director of football administration Terry Tumey were the only two people who sat in with Niners owner John York during recent interviews of head coach candidates. Some folks don’t like how much influence the kid has. Marathe’s draft analysis has already led to friction with the old-school crowd in the organization – most notably with Bill Walsh and John McVay, whose evaluation of the 2003 NFL draft clashed with Marathe’s.

When then-GM Terry Donahue shot down draft-day trade proposals from Walsh and McVay, on the basis of Marathe’s differing analysis, the two legendary members of the 49er brain trust parted ways with the Niners shortly thereafter.

No question, Marathe has his detractors – both inside and outside the organization.

There are those who just don’t believe “Moneyball” is for real. We can safely stick those folks in the “obsolete” bin. Better statistical analysis than is used by most professional baseball teams exists, and those who employ it gain a significant edge in winning.

We’re past arguing that one. But if we must, two words: Theo Epstein. Plus five more: Red Sox win it all.

But there are other detractors who say what Billy Beane did with stats in baseball has nothing to do with what’s possible in football, because you can’t quantify football performances with numbers the way you can with baseball.

This set of critics has a point. Football is not baseball. Peyton Manning is the Barry Bonds of football, numbers-wise. But you’d be an idiot not to want Tom Brady as your quarterback with the game on the line, despite the fact that Manning has much better numbers than Brady. Whereas Bonds’s numbers and Bonds’s impact are one and the same.

Still, just because nobody has figured out a way to turn football into sets of numbers the way we have with baseball, doesn’t mean it can’t be done. And whoever does it first is going to have a significant edge over the competition.

That’s where Marathe is supposed to come in. If you’re a 49ers fan, you better hope he finds us that edge, because Lord knows the old-school way hasn’t been working for us very well in recent years.

Let’s just hope the kid’s statistical models don’t land us Warren G. Harding at quarterback.

Damon Poeter is the Sports Editor of the Gilroy Dispatch. E-mail him at [email protected]

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