Monday, June 20, 2011

Sports Analytics: Should Fans Care?

I have not posted for while but the passing of Father's Day yesterday has inspired me. The main reason that Father's Day could have this effect on me is that I am occasionally and forcefully reminded that most of the world does not care one lick about sports analytics, and can even be offended by sports analytics. This reminder was given to me by, of all people, my own grandfather. My grandfather is a rather opinionated man (as any 91 year old has a right to be) and likes to occasionally make proclamations about the world, and how I am personally functioning in it.

His most recent proclamation was that people like me are ruining sports. The normal argument about how advanced statistical analysis is bad for sports rests squarely on the idea that it is not an effective tool. As my grandfather is never one to take the road well traveled, he instead took the opposite tact - sports statistics is too effective a tool. Yes, sports statistics is ruing sports, because the analysis takes all of the uncertainty out of sports. We are too good at what we do.

I thanked him for the complement, but it reminded me of some work I had done with Matt Futterman at the Wall Street Journal. In this analysis, I looked out how predictive baseball standings were on June 1 of whether a team would make the playoffs. Turns out the answer is very predictive (teams below .500 on June 1 has only a 9% chance of making the playoffs). This seems to be in line with my grandfather's argument, fans of teams that are below .500 in MLB now might as well give up. Which leaves me with the question: Did a simple correlation calculation suck all of the fun out of the baseball season for a large chunk of fans?

In my defense, I would like to offer two ideas that, regardless of how well statisticians can predict outcomes, should inspire fans to want more, not less analysis.

The first idea is that all leagues collect and report statistics. These statistics are used all of the time by writers and announcers to tell stories about a player or a team or a season. The problem is that many of these statistics are misleading, incomplete, or just plain wrong. For example, one of the most convoluted statistics in sports is the NFL QB Rating. If a QB completes a 4 yard pass on 3rd and 3, he has made a good play - keeping his team's drive alive, but his QB rating is likely to go down (I say likely as the exact calculation depends upon the QB's performance up to that point in the game), while if a QB completes an 8 yard pass on 3rd and 10, the team has to give up the ball, but the QB's rating probably went up. Having watched the two plays you may know that one QB made a good play, while the other didn't, but if you didn't watch the plays, and just looked at the reported QB ratings, you might get the wrong idea about the performance of the two players. Since we are going to be given numbers to look at and they are going to be used to tell stories, better to have the right numbers.

The second idea has to do with one of the many reasons we love sports: the incredible. Whether it be an incredible play, and incredible game, or an incredible season, the truly spectacular and unexpected moment is a unique aspect of sports. We rarely, if ever, have the truly spectacularly unexpected in any other form of entertainment. What good analysis does, is allows us to recognize again and again, how truly uncommon a moment was. The statistics can give us context for understanding how rare something we just saw, really was. Returning to baseball, the Pittsburgh Pirates are currently 2 games below .500, which means, at best, they have a 9% chance of making the playoffs. But what if they went on a run, maybe picked someone up at the trade deadline, and made the playoffs. The analysis allows us to understand how unlikely and special that would really be, and to appreciate it 4 years from now and remember how special that Pirate's team that beat the odds really was.

I would not try and argue these points with my grandfather, we have plenty of other battles to have, but I would suggest that most fans can appreciate, and in fact desire more and better analysis. When the writers and broadcasters embrace new statistics and analysis, then fans can understand the games they love better, and identity and appreciate the truly spectacular in a deeper and longer lasting manner.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting this. It answered lots of questions which I had.
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