Sports Stats Heaven (Part 1)

by Roland Minton on March 7, 2014

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The Sloan Sports Analytic Conference (SSAC) is sports stats heaven. At the 2014 conference in Boston on February 28 – March 1, “The Man” showed up in many guises (Bill James, Nate Silver, Malcolm Gladwell, Phil Jackson) and we heard from Boston’s sports nobility (owners of the Red Sox, Celtics and Patriots; Celtics coach Brad Stevens). Co-sponsored by MIT’s Sloan School of Management and ESPN, this conference has grown into a major event. SSAC provoked many of this week’s ESPN “controversies.”

There is definitely sports celebrity-watching to be done at SSAC. There is also insight into the direction that major sports will take in the next several years, as many panels focus on the state of the art and future of sports. There are numerous statistical revelations, and important warnings about the use and misuse of statistics derived from the incredible new data sets available. In other words, the two days are spent near the cutting edge of innovation in sports. SSAC is energizing and inspirational.

My favorite panel was the first one of the conference. The topic was “In-Game Innovations: Genius or Gimmick?” and the panel consisted of George Karl, Kevin Kelley, Nate Silver, Bill James and Daryl Morey. Let me get the little kid stuff out of the way: Bill James!!!! For people of my age, he started all of this with his Baseball Abstracts in the early 1980s. He is quick and funny, if not especially voluble. How can innovative organizations get rid of the label of not being able to win championships? His answer: “David Ortiz.” He also said that “in all sports, coaches overuse strategies to create an illusion of control.” A little more hero business: Nate Silver!! The author of The Signal and the Noise and creator of 538 is as sharp as they come. He identified the standard American sports draft procedure as “socialism” (the NBA lottery took criticism in later sessions as the motivator for bad teams to “tank” at the end of the year). He asked “what is the optimal amount of randomness in a sport?” Do we really want total parity, or are dynasties good for sports?

Daryl Morey is General Manager of the Houston Rockets, an MIT graduate and founder and organizer of SSAC. The Rockets are known as smart users of basketball analytics. In the discussion of innovative teams not winning, he noted that “most of the traditional teams also don’t win in the playoffs.” George Karl is a long-time NBA coach. He is known for innovative, up-tempo offenses. After his team went 57-25 but lost in the first round of the playoffs in 2013, he was fired (in case you’re wondering how that topic came up). He believes that the future of the NBA is “no-position, quick-decision, transition players.” When I realized who the last panelist (Kevin Kelley) is, I wanted to text my students from May term 2013. We had discussed Kelley, an Arkansas high school football coach with multiple state championships and the ultimate in innovative strategies. Basically, Kelley’s teams don’t punt or kick field goals; they go for it on fourth down. They go for two after touchdowns; they almost always try onside kicks. His team was once up 28-0 before the other team ever touched the ball. The numbers show that the small change in field position provided by high school kickers does not compensate for giving up the ball. So Kelley doesn’t! He has worked with academics to try to factor in the emotional factor of making, or getting stopped on, a fourth down try.

Those are some of the highlights from that panel. This was the first of 18 that I attended. While not all were as provocative as this one, SSAC informs and provokes. They publish papers and videos online – check it out! Further blog entries from me can be found at www.roanoke.edu/mcsp/minton/ssac.html.

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