Thursday, March 3, 2011

Get Your Geek Out of the Box

Organizations that have taken use statistical analysis often do so with a “toe in the water” approach. They hire a well regarded blogger to do a project to see if the information might prove useful. This usually takes the form of some sort of player projection system. The front office then huddles around the results and decide if the analysis points out anything useful to them. If so, they may even bring the analyst in on a full time basis to provide them with information. The analyst then gets a desk in the team offices and, equipped with a high powered computer and the newest version of Excel (and maybe R or Stata) they get to work mining data for useful insights.

This is often the end of the story though. The analyst works diligently and adds value to the organization, providing useful information and everyone is happy. But the organization is not maximizing the value of the analyst, because all the useful insights into player value and game strategy that the analyst may bring to the table are put into a special geek box. All of the other coaches and personnel folks open the box on occasion, look at the information, and even utilize, but then they put it back in the box and do not see it again until the next time they choose to open the geek box.

This leads to a situation in which, when the non analyst wants some information, they either have to go find the geek box or find an alternative geek box. It is often, particularly for coaches out on the road, easier to find information that looks like the information from the geek box online from sources like ESPN or HoopData. So when a coach wants to know something about their opponent, they may turn to alternative sources – outside of the organization. 

The reason the geek box is a problem is that it creates multiple versions of the truth within the organization. Consider the situation in which an analyst has, through careful analysis, developed a metric that isolated a RBs contribution from their offensive line’s efforts. Occasionally the general manager opens the geek box and sees that, while his team has a strong running attack, their RB ranks near the bottom of the advanced metric. The head coach has been too busy to open the geek box and instead saw quickly on ESPN that his RB is in the top five in the league in yards per rush. There are now two very different impressions of the team’s RB floating around. Now, instead of the GM and coach meeting to discuss how to solve their RB problem, they are headed for conflict as to whether to offer a big extension to the RB or not.

The solution to the geek box problem is an enterprise wide approach to analytics. This is the opposite of the toe in the water strategy, it is the canon ball off the high dive approach. It puts all of the various forms of information that sit within the organization – scouting, statistical, medical etc in one place, integrates it all, for anyone within the organization to easily access and utilize. Now, when a scout is on the road and wants to have a more complete view of the player they are about watch, they instantly have the all of the relevant information on the player, and it is the same information that the GM and coach are looking at, so when the three individuals are doing their analysis, they are starting from the same place.

Making information more accessible to all, and keeping everyone on the same page has significant benefits to the organization. My bias is of course to point out the benefit of having the statistical information easily available to all, but the truth is it goes both ways. As analyst, we look to inform the rest of the organization, but we can also learn a great deal from seeing the information that everyone else in the organization is looking at, so when we have conversations, we are starting from the same place as well.

It is time to take the geek out of the box and have a full enterprise wide approach to information in sports organizations.

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