Dutch double play: Soccer club, Billy Beane team up
ALKMAAR, Netherlands (AP) — Like Billy Beane, Robert Eenhoorn knows all about baseball expectations. The Dutchman was a high draft pick who never made it big on the field — losing his job, in fact, to none other than Derek Jeter.
And like Beane did with the Oakland Athletics, Eenhoorn oversees a team that does more with less. Despite a small budget, Dutch soccer club AZ Alkmaar has a knack for identifying and developing young talent and then selling them for big profits, all while competing with top teams like Ajax.
The plucky club north of Amsterdam relies on data analytics to outperform its competitors. They must be doing something right because Beane — portrayed by actor Brad Pitt in the 2011 film “Moneyball” — recently purchased a nearly 5% ownership stake.
“You have to be willing to think differently,” the 52-year-old Eenhoorn said in an interview with The Associated Press. “We give our people at least room to be innovative.”
AZ — or “Ah-Zed” to English-speaking Europeans — has been punching above its weight. They had beaten Dutch powerhouse Ajax twice last season but were in second place on goal differential when the season was declared over because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Most clubs use data science these days but rarely do they enlist Beane himself. The A’s executive vice president of baseball operations began advising AZ in 2015, shortly after Eenhoorn took over as CEO.
The partnership took root over breakfast in Arizona the prior year. Eenhoorn, in his role leading the Dutch baseball association, would customarily visit spring training camps. AZ, wanting a successful sports executive from outside soccer, had offered Eenhoorn the job. Beane encouraged him to take it.
“At that time I didn’t know that he was so into football,” Eenhoorn said.
Eenhoorn took the job, took Beane up on his offer to consult, and began relying more on analytics.
AZ has a stellar youth academy that values cognitive abilities and personality traits in addition to soccer skills. And the philosophy is the kids get first-team minutes. Guus Til, a young midfielder, was sold before last season to Spartak Moscow for a reported 16 million euros ($18.8 million).
Current youngsters like striker Myron Boadu, forward Calvin Stengs and midfielder Teun Koopmeiners have drawn interest from around Europe. Boadu scored on his debut for the Dutch national team.
They’ve also done well recruiting. AZ paid about 500,000 euros ($588,000) for Vincent Janssen in 2015. The striker then had a career-year, scoring 31 goals in all competitions. After the season, AZ sold him to Tottenham for a reported 22 million euros ($25.9 million).
It’s allowed them to be competitive with the Dutch big three of Ajax, PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord.
“AZ is working in the most data-driven way of all the four clubs,” said Jesper Gudde, who manages data scouting at SciSports, whose clients include clubs around the world. “It’s on a very high level on performance, definitely. They keep it quite to themselves. It’s their intelligence and their property.”
AZ last won the Dutch title in 2009 under coach Louis van Gaal, but the squad was older and had less market value.
The challenge now, Eenhoorn said, is going deeper into European competitions. There are also new expectations in the Dutch league.
“Everybody starts at zero and you have to prove it again,” he said.
AZ started this season with three consecutive draws. The club announced the news about Beane in September.
Beane already had a minority stake in English second-division club Barnsley. He’s also listed as a co-chairman of RedBall Acquisition Corp., which raised $575 million in its initial public offering. RedBall’s SEC filing lists acquisition examples as sports franchises “including European football clubs.”
Soccer analytics are complicated, but Eenhoorn studied economics and “was used to looking at numbers” from his baseball career.
Eenhoorn as a kid played “honkbal,” as it’s called in the Netherlands, and then at Davidson College in North Carolina. The New York Yankees selected him in the second round of the 1990 MLB draft — picking Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada in later rounds.
A shortstop, Eenhoorn was light-hitting but superb defensively. At Triple-A Columbus, rising star Jeter took over and Eenhoorn moved to second base, although the Dutchman saw time at both positions in the majors.
The night before Jeter’s major league debut in May 1995, Eenhoorn played shortstop against — who else — the Oakland A’s.
“I’ve learned so much also from being in the Yankees organization from ’90 to ’96 that I probably use unconsciously every single day,” he said.
With Eenhoorn as technical director, the Netherlands twice beat the Dominican Republic in the 2009 World Baseball Classic and won the Baseball World Cup two years later.
Beane and Eenhoorn communicate frequently.
“Even when I played, I was always very interested in, OK, why do people make certain decisions,” Eenhoorn said. “So, I think we have the same interests and of course I can’t compare my career as an executive with Billy’s career, but I’m a couple of years younger.”
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