Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Sloan Conference Unites Jocks and Nerds

No, it’s not the classroom. Nor is it a locker room. The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference is a home to both jocks and nerds.

Last weekend, representatives from the two parties met in Boston to discuss the relationship between numbers and sports. I mingled with team owners, statisticians, coaches, athletes, students and even TV personalities, and I listened to discussions such as “A Data-Driven Method for In-Game Decision Making in MLB” and “The Changing Nature of Media Rights.”

Panelists spoke honestly and openly about the advances and shortcomings of analytics across all industry outlets, including player assessment, injury prevention, business growth models and even Vegas odds-making. Bill James, the godfather of sabermetrics (a fancy word for baseball analytics), graced this year’s opening seminar themed “In-Game Innovations: Genius or Gimmick?”

James, who is famous for coining Pythagorean expectation and on-base percentage, wisely stated, “Everything that we now consider genius was once thought to be gimmicky.” He encouraged statisticians to continue to innovate and instructed teams to instill their faith in the analysts’ advice.

While practices may be unconventional and the results delayed, James reiterated one thing: trust the process. One attendee knows exactly what it means to trust the process. Kevin Kelley has called for a punt just a handful of times as head coach of the Pulaski Academy high school football team.

Kelley cites advanced statistical analysis to back his method. These win-probability calculations are well respected among other SSAC attendees, but ridiculed by those outside of the numbers-driven community.

Bill Belichick, head coach of the New England Patriots, is yet another believer in sports analytics. Like Kelley, he is still questioned over a controversial fourth down call he made in 2009. With two minutes left, his offense needed two yards to convert on their own 28. The attempt failed, and the Colts scored a touchdown to beat the Patriots 35-34.

While Kelley’s games might not be broadcasted (at least not in prime time), Belichick’s play-calling is consistently witnessed by millions of NFL fans. Despite finishing the season 10-6 and making the playoffs, the defining moment of the 2009 Patriots will forever be the fourth-and-two failure.

What the general audience fails to realize is that historically, teams convert in the same scenario 60 percent of the time. If a coin is flipped ten times, heads is expected to appear on five of those trials. Similarly, if Belichick had the same fourth-and-two opportunity nine more times, the Patriots would have converted on six of those nine additional attempts.

This trust in numbers is what those at SSAC not only recognize, but also reward. Belichick is praised as a mastermind of sports analytics. At this year’s conference, Owner of the Patriots Jonathan Kraft attested to Belichick’s foresight in drafting now-starting quarterback Tom Brady in the sixth round of the 2000 draft.

When the ownership, coaching staff and players are committed to analytics’s cause, they are doing as Bill James once did. Hopefully one day they will be remembered as geniuses, not gimmicks.

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