Archive for 23 September 2011

Is Data Ruining Sports?

Who would you rather have: Tris Speaker or Ty Cobb?

Jason Whitlock says that this question cannot be discussed; it can only be answered, thanks to the popularity of the book-turned-movie Moneyball, and sabermetrics, the advanced statistics that baseball fans and writers can now apply to the game as a lens through which to understand and contextualize the game. (Cobb had a better career OPS+, 168 to 157, so I guess he was better.) - Let's see a movie about a baseball genius who leads his team to winning one playoff series in 14 years

Whitlock argues that data is sapping the fun out of the sports. Little Timmy can’t enjoy the game of basketball anymore because nothing is left open to interpretation; there is a “right answer” to every question. Kobe versus MJ. Wilt versus Russell. Jason Whitlock believes it’s not even worth discussing anymore; some pencil-necked geek will inevitably come up with an empirical correct answer.

The problem with Whitlock’s argument is that it absolutely cannot be proven without resorting to data. On what basis does he believe that sports are being ruined for fans? What led him to this conclusion, other than his own personal distaste for advanced statistical measures? Here is some data to suggest that Jason is wrong.

If fans can’t enjoy sports anymore, because of data, how come ESPN keeps seeing excellent ratings for football, baseball, and basketball? When the Yankees played the Red Sox on August 7, it was the most viewed baseball broadcast on ESPN since 2007. The Patriots-Dolphins on Monday Night Football last week “delivered a 10.3 overnight rating, the second highest opening-game rating since ESPN started airing MNF in 2006.” Why are people watching instead of just watching the players’ statistics change in real time, since data has ruined sports?

If fans can’t enjoy sports anymore, because of data, how come attendance in the NBA has not slipped? It has stayed essentially level—around 21 million, near the cumulative total max capacity of all NBA arenas for 41 home games per team—since at least 2004, which is as far back as my NBA attendance data goes. Mr. Thompson and I did some rudimentary analysis of trends in NBA data. Fans aren’t staying home, and they’re not why the NBA is locked out. They’re having fun and enjoying the beauty and the drama of sports. (Data cannot tell you with certainty whether Kobe is going to hit that fadeaway at the buzzer to beat the Spurs; it can only tell you what the odds are.)

If fans can’t enjoy sports anymore, because of data, why is Major League Baseball reporting revenue increases year over year? As MLB reported after last season, the past seven seasons (2004-2010 inclusive) “are the seven best attended seasons in MLB history.” This coincides with the Moneyball era nicely, as the book was published in 2003. MLB revenue in 2010 approached $7 billion for the first time, putting it at around a 6% increase over 2009.

See, in order to prove that Moneyball and Sabermetrics have ruined sports, you’d need to show the world that they are having some sort of quantifiable negative effect. Jason absolutely cannot do that. His argument boils down to fear of needing to defend a position with more intelligence than “well, I just like Kobe Bryant better than Michael Jordan.” The reason people hate data, in sports just as in business, is that it raises the level of conversation and forces them to think more critically about the world.

Jason says we like data because we lack the ability to understand sports viscerally or strategically. I’m not sure what he means. (Oh no, I’m so buried in my data that I can’t tell what defense the Patriots are playing! Is it the 4-3 or the 3-4? Is that called a “blitz?” I can’t tell because, you know, I’m too nerdy to understand football.) This argument is ridiculous. It’s the same thing we hear in analytics for certain dyed-in-the-wool creatives who feel that data is an insufficient way to understand their “art.”

He says, “I saw Player X, and I know he was good, so therefore he’s good.” I’m afraid that’s unrealistic, Jason. See, you have biases. There are things you prefer in players, but that others might not. Errors or flaws you might not see, but that others do. You might see Brett Favre’s greatest game but miss his 20 game-ending interceptions because you were out getting coffee. This is even more likely to be true if your teams or your favorite players (or, if you’re in marketing or UXD, your favorite content/layout/design) are involved. You need data in order to look at the world on an even plane. You think that’s where the fun ends. I’d say that’s where the fun begins.

Ty CobbLet’s go back to Speaker and Cobb. Their advanced statistics are remarkably similar. You could legitimately make a case for either one. Sure, Jason; I suppose a nerd could come to you and say that Cobb had a higher OPS+, and that therefore there is no argument to be made for Speaker. Baseball fans don’t think that way. Speaker won four World Series with the Boston Red Sox; Cobb never won a World Series. Cobb was a terrible leader—perhaps the worst in sports history. His teammates utterly despised him. Yet, baseball fans are far more likely to know Ty Cobb. He was one of the first five inductees in the baseball Hall of Fame, and one could legitimately argue that he was the greatest natural hitter of all time. He is one of two players to accumulate more than 4,000 hits over his career. Despite all of this, there is a strong argument to be made that Speaker, even with his lower OPS+, would be a better player to build around. There is plenty about sports that cannot be quantified, Jason. Data just makes us think a little bit more about the nuances of the games we love.

Here’s another, more current example: Justin Verlander of the Detroit Tigers. A whole bunch of people believe that Verlander, by far the best statistical starting pitcher in baseball in 2011, should be the American League Most Valuable Player. Verlander has a Wins Above Replacement (WAR) of 8.5, which means that if you were to imagine that Verlander were replaced by an average starting pitcher, the Tigers would have won 8.5 fewer games. That is a massive number of wins to attribute to a single player. It’s the best in the league. If you define “value” in baseball as “wins,” you can definitely see how Verlander might be the MVP. But there are plenty of intelligent, knowledgeable Sabermetricians (myself included) who would accept the argument that the MVP should be someone who is on the field every day, playing in nearly every game (whereas starting pitchers only see action every fifth game). It’s a topic of conversation and debate on sports radio regularly. Fans love discussing it, even fans like me who know how statistically dominant Verlander has been. Where would the Yankees be without Curtis Granderson this season? Or the Red Sox without Jacoby Ellsbury at the top of their lineup? You can make legitimate cases for any of these players, each of whom (surprise!) excel in various statistical categories. Could it be that there is more to the MVP race that pure statistics? But Jason, I thought you said that there were no discussions allowed anymore!

I think Jason Whitlock is scared. He is scared that Hall-of-Fame voting in professional sports will someday be reduced to plugging numbers into a computer and seeing who the best players were. (This would guarantee someone like Todd Helton a spot in Cooperstown.) I don’t think anyone, even the great Bill James, would advocate such a hard-line stance. Eric Peterson made this point earlier this month, and I think it was prescient of him to make the distinction, since we’re going to be hearing these anti-data arguments more often as data usage grows, in both sports and business: we like to be data-informed, not data-driven. It’s important for me to know that Ryan Howard’s numbers don’t justify his massive contract, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t want him clubbing home runs for my team. (Perhaps that’s the difference between me and the seemingly data-driven Billy Beane, who still hasn’t won the last game of the season.) When I have data to help me understand what I’m seeing, I can put things into context. I can “relationalize” teams, players, and individual plays in new and exciting ways. Yes, Jason, data helps me and many others enjoy sports more than if it were completely up to our eyes.

I think Jason is also is scared that he can’t articulate why he loves John Elway other than “I like him.” I’m not sure why you’re scared, Jason. It seems easy to defend the fact that, even though Peyton Manning has eight more points of career completion percentage, and Tom Brady has a better postseason record, and Dan Marino has more yards, your boy Elway was a winner. He was a better leader than most of those quarterbacks, numbers be damned. Leadership matters, Jason, and it’s not quantifiable, so you’ve got your argument. You’ve got your discussion. And that doesn’t even touch on the physical aspects of Elway’s game that made him special (such as his arm). I could counter by talking about Tom Brady’s decision making, which also isn’t a statistic. (It isn’t just completing the pass that matters; it’s completing the best pass to the best possible target. This will never show on the stat sheet.) At that level—the Montana/Young/Marino/Manning/Brady/Elway level—you’re splitting hairs anyway. We nerds can say, “objectively, so-and-so is the best of all time.” You’re welcome to make a point that isn’t accounted for in the numbers. I don’t see how that should impact your enjoyment of the game or of discussions about the game, other than to make you think.

Maybe you don’t want to be forced to think. If that’s the case. . . tell me, who is ruining the vibrant discussion of sports, you or me?

BYU-Utah: The Morning After

I can’t remember ever waking up so aggravated by a sporting event. Maybe in 2003, when The Aaron Boone Moment happened, I was in a funk for a few days, but I have no memory of it.

Seven turnovers. Eleven rushing yards (better metric: 0.5 per rush). 54 points surrendered; 40 in the second half. 481 yards of offense allowed to a team that, early in the game, had us thinking BYU might not give up more than a handful of first downs all night. And, in some ways the most disappointing number: maximum of five tweets per quarter per media entity. More on that in a minute.

It was a hideous performance on every level. I won’t attempt to break down the game itself, because a.) I’m not smart enough and b.) it doesn’t deserve to be broken down. Here are my thoughts.

1. What do we make of the Utes? It’s clear that BYU—on this night, at least—is not “who we thought they were.” So what did I learn about the Utes? I learned that Norm Chow is miles ahead of Brandon Doman at the moment. I learned that Kyle Whittingham, as always, is a master at game preparation and in-game adjustments. Nobody seems to get more out of his talent. We learned that Jordan Wynn appears to be “tougher” than Jake Heaps. Other than that, I’m not sure what conclusions we can draw because I don’t know what a beatdown of this BYU team means.

A few BYU fans gave me grief because I tweeted that Utah could go 11-1 with their schedule. These are the same fans who have been railing on the Pac-12 for their every loss, and calling the conference overrated. If that’s the case, then you need to allow for the possibility that the Utes could dominate the Pac-12 South. I never said that I think it will happen. Even in the lesser of the two Pac-12 divisions, even having dodged Stanford and Oregon (both of whom would, realistically, dominate the Utes), it’s likely that one or multiple Pac-12 teams will trip up the Utes. But, again, nobody gets more out of his players than Kyle Whittingham. I don’t love that fact, but it’s true. And it means that, given the schedule ahead of them, there is a definite chance that Utah goes to the Pac-12 championship game this year. Every year, BYU fans predict a certain number of wins for the Utes and every year it seems Kyle exceeds that prediction. Look at the teams they play. Toughest matchups? Washington and Arizona State (both at home); Cal, Arizona, and Pitt on the road. While the odds are that they’ll lose a couple of those games and maybe more (Wynn might be tough, but his arm still stinks), every single one is winnable on paper. I wouldn’t be shocked if they lost all five of those games. But they don’t have a team on their schedule that makes me think, “That’s a definite loss.” So, if you’re not a fan of my rational, unbiased opinion on this, here’s some advice for you: “I don’t like this, therefore it is not possible” is not a viable outlook on life. With that schedule, 7-5 is possible, as is 11-1.

2. What do we make of the Cougars? As you’d expect after a 54-10 drubbing, I have more questions about this team than I do about Utah. How do I feel about Bronco Mendenhall? What is going with Brandon Doman? At what point does inconsistency become simply “who you are” as a football team? Is Jake Heaps a bust? How long can we keep using the “he’s only a sophomore!” excuse? Why does he seem scared in the pocket? Why won’t he accept accountability? How can we get more from the running game? Should I be angry at the defense for looking incredible and then apparently folding in the second half (and making John White IV look like Marcus Allen), even though the offense asked far, far too much of them?

I’m still sorting out my feelings. Let’s go back to how I felt this morning.

I don’t mind losing. I’ve lost big games before, and I’ll lose them again. It’s certainly frustrating, but I can accept failure when you come prepared to play the game and get beaten.

That didn’t happen last night—at least, that didn’t happen for 60 minutes. BYU apparently came prepared to play for about 30 minutes defensively and about 15 minutes offensively. (It’s likely that the defense burned 60 minutes of intensity within 30 minutes due to the offense’s inability to hold on to the football.) The rest of the time they seemed flat and almost disinterested. I’m pretty sure that, at this level, fans expect you to play the full four quarters.

I honestly don’t mind turnovers when the opponent makes a great play. A helmet on the ball. A fantastic break on a pass by a defensive back. A bone-crushing hit. Too many of the turnovers by BYU last night were unforced mistakes. That doesn’t mean BYU “gift-wrapped” the game or that Utah “got lucky.” As a wise friend and fellow BYU fan asked last night, “At what point is a team not allowed to claim they emphasize discipline and execution. Is it after the 4th turnover?” Mistakes are part of who you are, but they also mean you’re not a great football team. The group that showed up last night was certainly not great. It bothers me that so many of BYU’s mistakes didn’t need to happen. If this is who they really are, then we’re in for a very, very long season. I genuinely hope that’s not the case.

3. Why could media outlets only tweet five times per quarter at LaVell Edwards Stadium last night? This is just embarrassing. What are we, the Gestapo? When you’re appearing on national television, and “exposure” has been your battle cry since you announced the move to independence, why would you impose some inane rule limiting the number of tweets that journalists can post during the game?

The worst thing about this is that people have an image of BYU, for better or worse, as a backwards place filled with pointless rules and laws just like this one. I never once felt like my freedom was restricted while I was there, but that’s the way a lot of people perceive BYU and things like this serve to validate such misconceptions.

BYU is a place apart. I think people get that following Jimmer’s run and the Brandon Davies thing. Just as some people at Notre Dame might complain about Brian Kelly’s colorful language in an era when few others care, some aspects of the BYU program are unique and won’t make sense to everyone. But those things are based in the philosophy guiding BYU. Limiting tweets from the press box has nothing to do with that mentality. It’s baseless, arbitrary and weird.

Beyond that, it simply detracts from fans’ ability to enjoy the game. Those of us who were not at the game might have enjoyed some of the insight that journalists can provide in real-time via Twitter.

I guess BYU got exposure from the move, but it’s not the kind of exposure that I’ll bet they had in mind when moving to independence. Instead, you’ve got Darren Rovell, who has 121,000 Twitter followers, calling out the university during the game. The Salt Lake Tribune’s Brian Smith said he was “shocked and appalled.” You and me both, Brian.

The game made me a little embarrassed by my team. The tweet rule made me embarrassed by my university.

I don’t ever want to wake up that frustrated again.