Moneyball, the 2003 book by Michael Lewis about how the Oakland A’s searched out undervalued players using unconventional (at the time) metrics to gain a competitive advantage, first spotlighted the increasing trend towards sports analytics. Since then more teams have taken the plunge and are now using sports analytics to improve their product both on and off the field. This was particularly evident by the attendance figure for the fourth annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, at more than a thousand strong, and more than twice as big as last year’s meeting.
The conference schedule had four parallel tracks, with three panel discussions and a research paper presentation going on at any one time. The only exception was the early afternoon panel entitled “What Geeks Don’t Get: The Limits of Moneyball,’’ which was the only event in its time slot. Moderated by Michael Lewis, the panel included Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, Jonathan Kraft, president of the Kraft Group, which owns the New England Patriots, Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets, Bill Polian, president of the Indianapolis Colts, and Bill Simmons, columnist for ESPN. Morey was also co-organizer for the conference.
Despite the title of the session, which might lead one to believe that sports analytics has reached a plateau, the overriding theme of the panel was that there was much more that analytics could accomplish and much more that could be learned. Not that the geeks are taking over, either, but rather they are being absorbed by forward thinking sports teams — and woe to the teams that either don’t follow suit, or are slow to do so. It was clear from the team representatives on the panel that they thought they had a competitive advantage over teams who had not embraced analytics. They also thought that they could tell which teams were not using analytics from their play on the field or on the court.
The fact that there was no baseball person on the main panel was indicative of the fact that sports analytics has gone beyond the sport of its infancy, baseball, and has thoroughly infiltrated basketball and football as well. In fact, in addition to a Baseball Analytics panel, there were also panels on Basketball, Coaching and Emerging Analytics, the latter including representatives from football (both the American version and, interestingly, soccer).
The Baseball Analytics panel was moderated by Rob Neyer of ESPN, and included John Abbamondi, assistant general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, John Dewan, owner of Baseball Info Solutions, Dan Duquette, owner of Duquette Sports Academy and former general manager of the Boston Red Sox and Montral Expos, Shiraz Rehman, director of baseball operations for the Arizona Diamondbacks, and Tom Tippett, director of Baseball Information Services for the Boston Red Sox. The team representatives all indicated that they are heavily into analytics, but that it is blended with traditional scouting to give overall ratings of players. Collecting and synthesizing the data in an easily understandable and accessible way is also a challenge.
When asked what advancement in analytics they would most like to see, both Abbamondi and Rehman said they would like to be able to better quantify a player’s character, or what they called his “make-up.” (Similar themes were evident on other panels, where the increasing importance of psychological testing was stressed.) John Dewan and Dan Duquette mentioned catcher defense as an area that needs a lot of additional study.
Everyone also agreed that there is more work to do on evaluating defense throughout the rest of the lineup, and that Sportvision’s new Field F/X systems that are being installed in major league ballparks will fuel a revolution in the way fielders are rated. These camera systems will record the positions and motion of the batted ball, runners and fielders. John Abbamondi said – facetiously, he later admitted – that he wasn’t sure it was a good thing that every team would be getting all of this new information, because it might level the playing field. But as is true in almost any endeavor, some people will be able to use the information more effectively, and thereby obtain a competitive advantage. The teams that are at the forefront of analytics now have a head start in that race, but they certainly can’t become complacent.
Another area in need of advancement is that of understanding pitcher durability, especially being able to predict and promote it. Dewan wants a formula that could predict pitcher injury, and Duquette wished that there was a good way to produce 20-game winners. The ability to better project career tracks, for both pitchers and position players, was mentioned by Tippett.
In addition to the team connections of many of the panel members, many other teams were represented — among baseball teams, the Indians, Mets and Pirates had attendees. But basketball had the biggest contingent – by my count, twelve NBA teams had representatives at the conference.
The coaching analytics session was moderated by Ric Bucher of ESPN and included Brent Barry, former NBA player and currently with NBA TV, Avery Johnson, ESPN basketball analyst and former head coach of the Dallas Mavericks, Kevin Kelley, head coach and athletic director at Pulaski Academy High School, Buck Showalter, ESPN baseball analyst and former manager of the Yankees, Diamondbacks and Rangers, and Nate Silver, developer of the PECOTA forecasting system.
Johnson discussed how he had started as a more traditional coach until he was quickly converted to an analytics-savvy coach by Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. Showalter commented that not only is it important that analytics people convey their information in an understandable way, but they must also convince managers and general managers that they are credible. Having more analytics-leaning owners such as Cuban would certainly speed up the process, as would the continued success of teams using analytics.
Another problem mentioned was how a manager can convince players to accept stats that can help team performance. (I would have added: how do you convince players to not believe stats that aren’t especially useful in helping team performance, such as saves or batting average, particularly when those stats might still be viewed as important come contract time?)
The conference wasn’t just about sabermetrics and its cousins in other sports. There were also panel discussions on the business and ethical aspects of sports, such as Developing the Athlete’s Brand, International Expansion, Innovations at Arenas and Stadiums, Social Media Marketing, the Future of Sports Journalism, and Performance Enhancement.
So it’s safe to say that the geeks are here to stay, but they’ll make the biggest impact if they can learn to communicate with the more traditional leaders in the field and convince them that they have something to offer. Judging from this conference, that day is rapidly approaching.