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Calling all freaks & geeks: we need a statistical revolution.

September 12, 2009

I’m calling for all freaks and geeks out there: we need a statistical revolution in the association.

I have been a numbers guy all of my life. Yes I’m Asian. Yes I was good at math. Yes I fed into that stereotype. In case you were wondering: I’m actually a good driver, not socially inept, don’t know karate, and I don’t gamble… but I do like rice.

Back to the math. For those of you who are good with numbers and like sports, then you know what kind of affinity I have for numbers IN sports. Statistics tell stories that are often missed when watching a game. I’m not a believer in a straight-up analysis of a game via box scores, but then again I don’t believe a proper analysis can be done without the box score.

Michael Lewis’ book, “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game”, (http://www.amazon.com/Moneyball-Art-Winning-Unfair-Game/dp/0393057658) opened up my eyes to believe that someone out there was keeping crazy ass statistics that I always wanted to know about and see. But more importantly, I wanted to know which statistics we should emphasize when evaluating a player’s worth, and which stats we should let fall to the wayside.

In comes Bill James (http://bosoxinjection.com/) and Billy Beane (http://swinginas.com/) with the concept of SABERMETRICS (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sabermetrics). Simply put, sabermetrics uses objective statistics as an assembly of tools to evaluate players’ performances… and their worth. One of the best examples in the book: for ages we have used the statistics of ERRORS to judge fielders’ abilities. Bill James asks why we use these stat because it is 100% subjective: someone is determining if a play SHOULD have been made when in play? Lewis gives us a guided yet restricted tour of both of their minds. Now the reader (aka, sports fans) knows that there are in fact stats that we don’t get to see but that really matter. It’s not just about HR, hits, and runs. It’s more than that. You think people talked about on-base-percentage before this book? Beane and James were the few and proud. You think anyone knew what VORP was before them? You think anyone would have wanted a guy that walks as much as he hits? James and Beane would have coveted him before anyone else.

Baseball is a statistically driven sport. We know that. It is an individual sport that is masked as a team sport: the more selfish a player is in baseball, the better his team does. For instance, if a player wants all of his statistics to be higher, that will inevitably help his team win. If a player wants more hits, runs, RBIs, walks, homeruns, stolen bases, and a higher OBP, these are all things that are making not only himself better, but also his team. This scenario doesn’t happen in real team sports. If you’re on a soccer team and you try to pad your stats by taking every shot in hoping that a few of them actually strike the back of the net, you are by no means automatically helping your team win. In almost every case, this would cause your team to probably lose. This is the same set of circumstances in basketball: if you try score every point for your team or just play defense to steal the ball, you are not helping your team even though you would be playing selfishly to boost your stats.

So if basketball players are not as easily evaluated through statistics as baseball players, does that mean no one does it? Does it mean we just stick to the simple points, rebounds, assists, blocks, steals, fouls box score to see how good a player is?

No way.

In comes Daryl Morey (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daryl_Morey). He’s an MIT geek that is also a wiz with algorithms and numbers. He also just happens to be the GM for the Houston Rockets– a town that LOVES its team and has been put on the shelf since the days of The Dream Shake (http://www.thedreamshake.com/). Morey is helping to rebuild this franchise using LOADS of statistical analysis. The NYT had a great article in February about Shane Battier: “The No-Stats All-Star” (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/15/magazine/15Battier-t.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all). It was written by none other than our dear friend Michael Lewis. The article gives us another guided yet restricted tour (sound familiar?) of Morey’s workings as a new generation of General Managers in the NBA. Morey is into math, numbers, and intense statistical analysis. That doesn’t mean he dismisses good ole scouting, but he’s been able to find ways to manipulate numbers to find ways a player can help his team win. More important, Morey knows what to look for in different players. He knows how to assemble a team with parts so that the combined parts can work together cohesively and hopefully successfully. Did you know that Battier gets a packet of every player he will guard the night before the game? Did you know that the packet includes a statistical breakdown of the opposing player’s shooting numbers/percentages from every single inch of the floor for the season, past few seasons, and career? As a premier defender in the NBA, Battier doesn’t shut down players by guessing their style of play. Battier does it by forcing players to take their worst shots– statistically. Battier forces Kobe to put the ball on the ground and go to his left because it’s one of lowest percentage shots. What else does Morey do? He keeps oodles and oodles of statistics on Rocket players that WE WILL NEVER SEE. In the interview, we learn about a habit of Battier’s that is shared by other players in the league:

Just after that, the half ended, but not before Battier was tempted by a tiny act of basketball selfishness. The Rockets’ front office has picked up a glitch in Battier’s philanthropic approach to the game: in the final second of any quarter, finding himself with the ball and on the wrong side of the half-court line, Battier refuses to heave it honestly at the basket, in an improbable but not impossible attempt to score. He heaves it disingenuously, and a millisecond after the buzzer sounds. Daryl Morey could think of only one explanation: a miss lowers Battier’s shooting percentage. “I tell him we don’t count heaves in our stats,” Morey says, “but Shane’s smart enough to know that his next team might not be smart enough to take the heaves out.”

So now it’s time to call out all freaks and geeks out there that share a passion for sports: FIND ME THESE NUMBERS. Hell, make me numbers. We need more statistically nerds who are deathly with their numbers to make more stats up. I want more things like PER and Defensive Efficiency… I want an online database of crazy basketball statistics so we can drool over players that other teams have dismissed for whatever reason. Guys like Perk would be a BEAST in these kind of defensive statistics wars. The NBA is in dire need of a statistical revolution, and I’m hungry for more revealing tools in order to evaluable players.

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