For some people, the word sends an alert to the brain to proceed with caution.
Anyone that uses analytics for any sport has been caught in a social interaction at some point (preferably in real life) where the admonishment of these statistics becomes a sort of rallying cry. You need to only find some old football buddies, talk to them about aDOT and watch a couple of them go cross-eyed. I’ve had similar experiences explaining FenwickClose to some hockey friends.
It wasn’t always like this. For most of my life, I sat down in front of the TV (or in the stands if I was lucky enough) and just enjoyed the sport. Each sport that I watched (hockey, baseball and football in order), I watched for the enjoyment of the sport. Each bone-crushing hit, each majestic home run, each 50-yard screen pass for a touchdown would get the ol’ ticker pumping in my chest.
Things are different now. Bone-crushing hits are seen as a forced turnover, majestic home runs are a function of fly-ball and home run rates (with a dash of park factors), and 50-yard touchdown screen passes are only relevant if they went to the running back I started today in my daily leagues.
This type of thinking was encapsulated perfectly by C.D. Carter, a fantasy football writer who is the author of “How To Think Like A Fantasy Football Winner” and contributor to several publications, in a piece for the New York Times this morning.
In that piece, Mr. Carter talks about how people are dehumanized towards the players themselves through fantasy sports. The tipping point was a couple of weeks ago with the tragic death of the son of Minnesota Vikings’ Adrian Peterson. What is pointed out in the article is that for some people, the circumstances of the death of a child wasn’t the most relevant information, rather whether Peterson would play on Sunday was. How would the death of his son affect his yards per carry? Would he break a wheel route for a touchdown? I’m sure many (myself included) wouldn’t be able to recite the name of the child by memory (it’s Tyrese, by the way), but they’d know how many fantasy leagues they have Peterson in.
The reduction of players to numbers is a function what is necessary to excel at a game that is about numbers. It’s perhaps a sad condition to be in, but here we are.
The thing is, not everyone is like that. While some people saw the six-goals-in-three-games start for San Jose Sharks rookie forward Tomas Hertl as an unsustainable quirk of a small sample size, others saw one of the greatest starts to a career ever by a teenage rookie. Some saw the two shutouts in three games for Colorado Avalanche goalie Jean-Sébastien Giguere and thought how quickly he was going to crash in his regression, others saw a remarkable start to a season for an aging veteran on a young, exciting team.
From Yahoo! hockey writer Nick Cotsonika:
Stats, cynicism, snark are taking fun out of sports. If something is unsustainable, that doesn’t mean it isn’t remarkable. It means it is.
— Nick Cotsonika (@cotsonika) October 22, 2013
Sometimes I want to see the matrix. But yes, I admit it: Sometimes I want to take the pill and enjoy the damn game. — Nick Cotsonika (@cotsonika) October 22, 2013
That’s the dilemma facing some sports observers today: Is it possible to just sit down and enjoy a game anymore?
As I mentioned with Hertl and Giguere, when you look at sports with an analytical slant, you don’t look at the game the same ever again: You don’t see a chip off the glass in hockey, you see an uncontrolled zone exit; you don’t see Golden Sombreros for striking out four times in a game, you see an inevitable string of at-bats for a high-strikeout player; you don’t see running backs gut out third-and-short runs, you see a hit to the yards-per-carry column.
Ellen Etchingham, a free-lance hockey writer whose work can be found on The Score, tweeted about just this the other night:
Confession: learning about stats did ruin some of the ways I initially enjoyed hockey. It also gave me new ways to enjoy it.
— E.E. (@theory_of_ice) October 22, 2013
There is a quality of sensation that changes when you look at the game analytically. Some people love that feeling; many don’t. — E.E. (@theory_of_ice) October 22, 2013
Bottom line, tho, is that if you don’t want to ruin things for people, don’t make a point of attacking stories they love. — E.E. (@theory_of_ice) October 22, 2013
When you look at a game differently, it’s never the same. Not everyone agrees with this point of view. Not everyone even really understands this point of view. And that’s perfectly fine. Recently, James Mirtle talked with Toronto Maple Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk about shooting percentages and creating chances. The most telling quote to me is:
“What’s the average (league shooting percentage at 5v5)? Like 15 or 10 or something?”
The fact that JVR was off by nearly 100% of what the actual shooting rates might be with his first guess (as Mirtle points out, it’s actually about 8%) means it’s a pretty safe assumption that there might not be a lot of players in the NHL who either A) understand or B) put stock in to analytics. His teammate Joffrey Lupul said as much:
contracts aren’t awarded by this CORSI i am hearing all about. They are awarded for an equal value of skill and depth (at a certain position — Joffrey Lupul (@JLupul) July 7, 2013
If you bring certain attributes and you play to win. I’ll take you on my team 7 nights a week. Lets not look at this like Moneyball. — Joffrey Lupul (@JLupul) July 7, 2013
This isn’t Moneyball, or anything close to it. It’s a different way of analyzing a game that is a multi-billion dollar industry, and doing so quantifiably instead of the usual “oh he’s a grinder.” Lupul is right when it comes to negotiating contracts, and we shouldn’t be surprised that was a quote coming from a player. I’m pretty sure if I was in a business that was going to give me over $5M a year to do what I do, I wouldn’t care too much about how I do what I do either, I’d just make sure to keep doing it.
Of course, no one should be told how to enjoy a game, be it from an analytics viewpoint or not. Unless of course you’re doing the wave:
@SlimCliffy Also, it’s still subjective. Some people love the wave. They’re horribly misguided souls, but that’s *my* opinion.
— Jesse Spector (@jessespector) October 26, 2013
But that’s for another day.
The point of all this is that analytics are becoming more and more popular. Mr. Lupul is almost definitely right when he says that contracts are not negotiated on the basis of Corsi. But the four major North American sports are a tens-of-billions of dollars per year industry. There needs to be better ways to critically analyze an industry this big. You can’t keep wasting money drafting, developing and signing players because they are “good grinders” or can “gut out” runs.
I still watch a lot of sports. On an average week, during the season, it’s probably 2-3 football games, 10-12 baseball games and 10-12 hockey games. There are instances where I’m still a fan in the purest sense of the word (thank you, Olympics), but for the most part that is not the case anymore.
Yes, Mr. Carter is right when he says that fantasy football (read: Fantasy sports) can be dehumanizing. Yes, Ms. Etchingham is right when she says that analytics changes the way you watch the games. And yes, JVR and Lupul are right when they say most players don’t give a shit (I grew up in a circle of friends that includes several Major Junior, University and professional hockey players. Nearly to a man, all of them think that Corsi, Fenwick and all other hockey analytics are bullshit).
But Mr. Spector is also right when he says that a fan can enjoy the game however they want, and the way some fans are choosing to enjoy their favorite sport now is radically different than what has been the norm. Despite the rejection by some (The Will To Win!) of these analytics, they are changing how games are presented and analyzed.
- Tyler Dellow, one of The Hockey News’ 100 Most Influential People, is now contributing analytics pieces to Sportsnet.ca.
- Although I don’t have an official count, I can say with confidence I heard the term “FanGraphs” on baseball broadcasts more this season than every other year combined.
- Hockey Night in Canada and TSN hockey broadcasts now mention, even if it’s in passing, “shot attempts” which is another way of saying Corsi “puck possession.”
- I’ve heard YPA used before in NFL broadcasts, but don’t ask me which one.
There’s a lot of “you’re an idiot” “no you’re an idiot” that goes in the analytical vs. non-analytical debate and that’s too bad. No one learns anything that way.
Watch your favorite sport how you want to watch it. That’s your right. But the way the game is being analyzed and presented is changing, whether you realize it (like it) or not.