Monday, March 30, 2015

Radio hosts on TSN 1260 need to learn there is no luck in sports. #advancedStats

advanced stats ruining sports radio in #yeg
There is no luck in sports.  Anyone who has played any sport at a high level will tell you athletes make their own luck in the off-season when nobody else is around.  While losers are out at the clubs with the ladies, winners are in the gym lifting weights and practicing game skills.  There are no lucky teams in sports either.  Winning and losing is a product of dedication, sacrifice, doing everything you can to make your team better.  Calling it luck is insulting because it reduces all the hard work, blood, sweat and tears to random chance.  Lucky is what advanced stats nerds used on the tsn1260 in #yeg to describe teams like the Calgary Flames this year.  It is the phrase which makes me change the station because you lose all credibility to me when you call a team like the Flames lucky.  Lucky in reference to hockey is just the areas in which advanced stats do a poor job of describing in quantitative ways, not that you would ever hear an advance stats nerd say that.  Instead an advanced stat nerd, unable or unwilling to admit the limitations of their data will use the word lucky to describe teams that have success despite poor corsi, fenwick, possession stats etc.  They will ignore what they don't know as if it has no effect on the larger picture even though chaos theory says small things, tiny little variables which are beyond our ability account for can have a big effect.

I am not against advanced stats.  I do believe there is a place for them in all sports, especially when you consider the money being thrown around.  I am just against the way some folk will talk about them as if a player or team's worth can be determined solely by the areas numbers describe well.  You see it in twitter where some media folk will cite two or three statistics and say this player should play over another with less impressive stats.  It is illogical because you shouldn't be speaking in absolutes when it comes incomplete data.  How do you know one player with poor stats hasn't worked hard to improve and is killing it in practice whereas the player with better stats is dogging it in practice?  

Every sports team I was on had a stats person.  One year it was Wayne, who did a very interesting Maria Carry impersonation ending with a mini-mini-skirt and legs no man had business having as they were better than most women's.  In college we just called the stats guy, Stats.  Stats folk usually were not all that athletic but wanted to be a part of a team atmosphere.  Who can blame them as there is and will never be anything that will ever match the comradely, hard work and the journey that is a sports season.  The trials and tribulations of success and failure through shared experience bring people closer together.  Even on the exterior, as a stats person, it is a pretty cool experience.  Yes, Charles Barkley is 100% correct in that most stats guys never get the girl or the opportunity to  play the game.   When I discuss advanced stats nerds I am not talking about the people at the end of the benches entering the data into a computer or on a score sheet. I am talking about those who look at the raw data and derive insight into a player or team based on quantitative data.

When I think about advanced stats I see a future where all stats are uploaded in real time from the lowest levels to the highest through rink and jersey gps systems.  All sports are very much behind when it comes to using modern technology to actually determine if the ball crossed the goal line or the puck went in the net, the location of the puck to player, the velocity of the shot, and/or pass. The roles of the guys and gals who collect the raw data will change as clever developers will generate vast amounts of data instantly.  You want to know the corsi or fenwik of some kid in the WHL you will be able to pull up an app on your iphone, search the player and then see his current stats.   The reason this will happen is because even the best scouts rarely get it all right.  Giving them extra data to really help find those gems in the later round may reduce misses.  A GM could say to a scout, "this player seems to have a positive effect when he is on the ice based on the numbers, I would like you to take another look visually."  When you are giving million dollar contracts you kind of want decent hockey players.  Advanced stats can help find those who fall through the cracks, or give more confidence to the eyeball test where you see a player in person and then look at the stats after to confirm what you saw or vice versa.

I see advanced stats more as tool for a general managers than for a coach or player.  Any coach worth their salt is going to know from hours of observation in practice and previous games which players do well in which situations.  If you don't know your players better than the limited quantitative data available then you won't be coaching long.  Those who play and coach the game should be focused on the processes needed to achieve success not the after the fact data. It is the actions of hustling back on defense, making the right pass or play instead of going for glory in a tight game, getting your body in a good position to shoot the puck, etc... which both coach and player have to work together to focus on.  Every sport and every position, from player to team has a series of steps needed to climb in order to find success.  The idea is you work on those steps in practice, and on your own so when game time comes you play the game on instinct.  Instead of thinking the game, you feel and react allowing for muscle memory of years of practice to take over.  The last thing that should be on a players mind is I should shoot so my corsi looks better.  Similarly the last thing on coaches mind should be which players do I keep on the ice to have a good corsi.  Yes, advanced stats is a good measurement of progress, but again the end result is not what the player or coach should be focused on.  Winning teams and players don't scoreboard watch.  They focus on process of being successful whatever that may be.  

None of what I described above in the processes needed for success  are described well by advanced stats.  These are areas advanced stats say nothing.  There is no data describing a player's practice habits.  How hard is that player with a low corsi is trying to get better.  They don't tell you if the player did that last set of clean and jerks or did they go over to the bench press.  When their friends want to go out partying how many times did that player say no I got to get some sleep so I can be ready to go tomorrow.  Advanced stats say nothing of a person's upbringing, mental make up and will to win. An athlete and a team is very much like an iceberg.  What we see as fans on the ice, the part which there are advanced stats for is just a small part of a bigger picture thus one should be careful not make too many blanket statements.

To be fair some in the advanced stats world do talk about the limitations of quantitative data.  Unfortunately it is mostly lip service as the next moment the same people will still talk as if the numbers are the end all when it comes to who is playing good, who should play in the next game, who should play at certain times, and even if a goalie should play back to back games.  Dallas Eakins for example came across very much as a coach by the numbers coach.  It was why Eakins never played Yakupov at the end of games or when the game was close.  The advanced stats said it wasn't wise and thus Eakins destroyed Yak's confidence.  Eakins was just following the numbers.   He didn't understand that you can't develop a player and coach by numbers.  Inexperience leads to mistakes which leads to poor statistics, leading to less playing time resulting in young players not developing.
Some have argued Eakins is the reason people in Edmonton are against advanced stats.  I argue that even though Eakins made advanced stats tough to stomach most people likely kept an open mind.  It isn't like Eakins is the first coach to talk statistics when discussing the success or failure of a team.

Other than the idiotic luck statement which drove me to turn off the radio, it is how much the hosts and guests were using advanced stats when discussing the Oilers that made me keep it off for entire shows.  Instead of having one or two advanced stats people a week it was often 3 or more a day across multiple shows.  Radio hosts or media types instead of talking about qualitative observations which require depth of knowledge and understanding of the game, discussed corsi or time of possession numbers.   Often these numbers were talked about by multiple hosts and guests, none offering any insight into the processes needed to improve them, instead using the numbers to suggest what coaches or GM's should or shouldn't do.   Advanced stats were talked about so much without anything new being said, it make radio unbearable at times..  I found myself yelling at the radio, screaming for someone to offer something new and insightful.  One radio host who I shall not name stated he didn' see any improvement in the Oilers under Nelson, likely because those improvements fit under the category of not described well by quantitative data.    Instead of being able to watch a game and make a qualitative observation, this radio host couldn't see past the stats page.  Back in the day before the number craze, a team looking better on the ice didn't have an asterisk next to it pointing out the raw data hadn't improved.  We use to as fans, media and those playing or around the game believe what our eyes told us, whereas now even if a team looks good on the ice, it isn't good enough unless that data supports it..  You will still have advanced stats nerds and those on the tsn1260 jump all over the data to dampen any excitement or hope a person might have from the eyeball test.  Perfect example is how some advanced stats folk refuse to acknowledge the positive effect Todd Nelson has had on the team.  They ignore the fact the team under Nelson is working harder and playing for each other, our offensive talent is actually playing like offensive talent and not grinders and the  positive development of the players the Oilers have invest high draft picks and money.  All that matters to an advanced stats nerd is that Todd Nelson doesn't have as good stats as Dallas Eakins, the coach that made Oiler hockey unbearable to watch. This inability to believe what one sees, and the need to always try to find something negative in the data was the final straw for me.

For the advanced stats nerds it isn't enough to win hockey games, you need to have good statistics when you win or your team just got lucky.

What is your view of advanced stats?

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