Michael Lewis’ classic book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game tells the story of the 2002 Oakland Athletics. The film version was written by known creative liberties-taker (and my personal writing hero) Aaron Sorkin and stars perpetually-eating-onscreen Brad Pitt as Oakland General Manager Billy Beane. In the film/book, Beane and his newly minted sidekick Paul DePodesta (called “Peter Brand” and portrayed by Mr. Homie Superpowers himself Jonah Hill) tried to find a way to overcome their moribund situation.
The 2002 Oakland A’s were saddled with baseball’s lowest payroll by ownership. Beane, who had achieved some success (including a 100+ win season in 2001), thought it was time for him to cash in his clout for more salary dollars for roster construction. Ownership shot him down faster than a short guy at a Victoria’s Secret red carpet event. They were set to lose high-ticket stars Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi to free agency. Clubs with deeper pockets would undoubtedly come calling and outbid the Bay Area pauper franchise. It came down to what Ice Cube would call a game of “big bank take little bank.”
So Beane and “Brand” set out to find a way to acquire talent at a lower price that could recreate the statistical output of Giambi and Damon.
I’m not going to write a full column on analytics, OPS, WHIP, etc. But I will summarize the moneyball philosophy: finding and exploiting market inefficiencies that your competition is ignoring.
The 2022 Illini (now ranked No. 14 in the first CFP rankings of the season) didn’t have high expectations coming into the season. After years of incompetence and recruiting whiffs, the program stood at the precipice of what looked to be a slow, steady rebuild. They hired a coach from the old school Big Ten power running and defense academy. They prioritized in-state recruiting over all else. They went about rebuilding relationships in the state of Illinois school by school. But this process was supposed to take multiple years. Year two of the Bret Bielema regime wasn’t supposed to be the juggernaut. So how did this team confound market expectations?
Here are three market inefficiencies the 2022 Illini have taken advantage of.
Junior college recruiting has become an afterthought with the advent of the transfer portal. Why take a JuCo player when a fourth-string kid from Alabama who was recruited over is now available? Bet on prospect pedigree, right?
Well, not always. Junior college players have most likely been getting real time game action. They aren’t buried on a bench. And while the competition level may not be Power 5, you can evaluate physical traits via film, coachability via background, and culture fit from visits and conversations.
The Illinois offensive line had to overcome the losses of Vederian Lowe and Doug Kramer to the NFL. Enter junior college offensive linemen Zy Crisler and Isaiah Adams, and the Illini had replaced both starters. Crisler was considered a raw prospect, but Bart Miller has refined his technique and Tank Wright has refined his physique.
Adams was seen as a more surefire prospect. He is already getting looks from the NFL. While losing Adams is a real possibility, another year in Champaign, possibly at left tackle, could do wonders for the Ontario native’s draft stock.
At the time of this article, Illinois is recruiting multiple junior college offensive linemen. Dez’mond Schuster has already committed to the Orange and Blue. Keyshawn Blackstock and Izavion Miller have both taken official visits to Champaign. Blackstock would be another tremendous get, and flipping Miller, the top-ranked JuCo offensive lineman according to 247, from the University of Mississippi would be massive. And speaking of flips…
Flipping prospects from smaller schools has been a successful recruitment method the Illini have utilized. Gabe Jacas was committed to Tulane before the Illini offered and closed his recruitment. Jacas has become a star in his true freshman year at Illinois. The fact that he has two guaranteed years left as a student-athlete should be terrifying to the rest of the Big Ten.
Kenenna Odeluga was Bielema’s first commitment from the Chicago Catholic League. Coach Bielema and crew lured the business major from the University of Pennsylvania, home of the prestigious Wharton School of Business. Odeluga, from Mount Carmel High School, had his first career sack against Nebraska, and has seen his playing time start to increase. He figures to be a regular presence at inside linebacker for Ryan Walters’ defense.
Late prep signings are often considered risky because they’re 100% evaluations. They’re not the obvious 4-star kids every program craves. These are system fits, like baseball players with a knack for hitting four seam fastballs late in counts, or NBA players who hit over 50% of their three-point field goals when facing closeouts. These players drive fans nuts because they’re not the speed burners and physical freaks (well, besides Gabe Jacas).
Devon WItherspoon was an unranked player from Pensacola, Florida. He committed to Illinois less than a month before training camp started in 2019. I’d say that worked out pretty well.
Witherspoon is currently the No. 1-ranked corner in college football, according to Pro Football Focus. He is a Bednarik Award semifinalist and has been seen as high as top-10 overall in 2023 NFL mock drafts. His signing is one of the great gifts left by the Lovie Smith regime. His progression is one of the great gifts bestowed upon Illini fans by this coaching staff.
Tahveon Nicholson went the prep school route prior to enrolling at Illinois. He was undersized, but feisty. Then-secondary coach Keynodo Hudson had a penchant for uncovering defensive backs who were “feisty” if undersized. Hudson once said of Nicholson, appropriately nicknamed “Taz” that he “likes to stick his face in the fan.” In 2020, Taz was a February signing for the Illini. He now starts opposite Devon Witherspoon in the nation’s best secondary.
Matthew Bailey worked out for the University of Illinois after a track meet. He was nursing an injury and not at his best. But the coaching staff encouraged the Quad Cities native to continue working and training, and good things would come. Those good things came when Bailey worked out for the coaches again, and this time landed an offer just one week before signing day. Bailey has been one of the most impactful true freshmen on the roster, with two interceptions already for Ryan Walters’ ballhawking secondary. Things should only get brighter for Bailey as Kendall Smith and Sydney Brown move on from Illinois.
Let’s address the elephant in the Moneyball room.
Yes, the Oakland A’s found a way to win by acquiring players other programs didn’t value. But the film leaves out some very important benefits the 2002 Oakland A’s had. On the way to MLB’s longest modern winning streak (until DePodesta/Brand’s former team, the Indians, broke the record in 2017), the Athletics had AL MVP Miguel Tejada playing on a salary ⅓ of the departed Giambi.
They also had three top of the rotation young stud starting pitchers on rookie contracts. The “Big 3” of Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, and Barry Zito combined for 57(!) wins. And for those of you who believe pitcher wins are irrelevant, think of it from an organizational standpoint. Having three guys that young on whom you can rely on for 60% of your starts takes a lot of the guesswork out of baseball.
So while this formula has worked this season, Illinois needs to also win some of the more daunting recruitments. Illinois lost Austin Brown to Wisconsin last year. Both Antonio Doyle and Antonio Johnson went to Texas A&M. Kody Jones chose Michigan. Dallan Hayden chose Ohio State, despite his brother’s history with Bielema.
You’re not going to hit on all of those prospects. You’re likely not going to even land a majority of them. But each recruiting class needs those Isaiah Williams-level guys to compliment the scouting excellence and under-the-radar finds.
This year, we all know the two biggest available names: Jyaire HIll and Malik Elzy. Both are in-state impact players. Elzy recently decommitted from Luke Fickell’s Bearcats, and Hill is still uncommitted. Both would be headliners in a class that already features in-state star running back Kaden Feagin.
Closing these recruits is like closing the Big Ten West: it will require this coaching staff to showcase the mettle, confidence, and execution that has made this season special thus far.