Thursday, March 7, 2013

What can and can't sports analytics do?

Andrew Sharp at SBNation has a great article called Paralysis by Analysis in which he details his visit, as a confessed analytics skeptic, to the the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.  This conference, to guys like me, is like making the Hajj to Mecca for the world's muslims.  It has to be done, but everybody knows its damn expensive, so Allah (or in my case, Nate Silver) understands if it doesn't work out.

It got me thinking, along with a negative comment left by a reader this week, that some folks are misunderstanding what I'm trying to do, and what sports data and statistics analysis can do and can't do.

What can't sports analytics do?  It can't predict what's going to happen on the next play, series, inning, snap, or whatever.  It can't explain WHY something happened. And it can't take the place of a coach's experience.

What can sports analytics do?  It can provide insights into aspects of the game that are not readily apparent to someone watching, coaching, or browsing the box scores. It can serve as an early warning to coaches and managers about potential problem areas and trends before they manifest themselves in the box score (at which time it's probably too late).  And it can function as a way to evaluate players and coaches in a (mostly) objective manner.

The negative comment I mentioned above said this:  

After all of that it means really nothing...You still cannot prevent these kind of mistakes, and you surely will never be able to look at these graphs and charts, and decide before the next play "the fumbles a coming, better tell so and so to hang on to the ball".....Pretty much a big ole waste of time.....
The comment was directed at the first part of a two-part piece on fumbles that I wrote earlier this week.  I appreciate the commenter's feedback, but I think he's missing the point.  Or maybe I failed to help him understand the point.

That piece wasn't about saying "this play will result in a fumble".  It was about digging into the limited data available to identify relationships between separate events that might be exploitable.  What I found was that fumbles on punt returns occur far more often than they should if they happened at the same frequency as punts.  They don't, and that is an exploitable nugget of information.  A coach could take that to heart and realize that he needs to place more emphasis (read: time, practice, and coaching) into the act of catching and returning a punt.

Whether the analytics are the low budget work I'm doing or the amazing technology gathering and analysis that companies who went to the Sloan conference are engaging in; we are trying to do the same thing...uncover the hidden information in the game so coaches and players and make better informed decision.



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