BOSTON - The overriding story, of course, was how big the numbers have become. Here it was, the Seventh Annual MIT/Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. And it’s astounding how much this thing has grown.
A quick history: In 2007, Darryl Morey (now Houston Rockets GM) and Jessica Gelman (now vice president for marketing at the Kraft Sports Group) thought it would be fun to put together a little conference to talk about sports analytics. At the time, it was a pretty out-there idea. They connected it with MIT, for obvious reasons.
There were nine panels. The keynote speakers were J.P. Ricciardi, since fired as Toronto Blue Jays GM, and Jamie McCourt, since divorced from Frank McCourt, who subsequently took the Dodgers into bankruptcy. About 100 people showed up.
This year? More than 2,700 people attended. Everyone was there, from Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban to political Nostradamus Nate Silver to Moneyball author Michael Lewis (and, for the record, I was on a panel as well). There were more than 100 speakers (including two named Brian Burke, one a senior advisor for the Toronto Maple Leafs, the other the founder of Advanced NFL Stats). There were more than 75 panel discussions, including such provocative titles as these:
Yes, the clear and principal story of the conference is how analytics are advancing and changing everything you can imagine about sports — from stuff on the field to the fan experience to TV coverage to this column. Every single team in professional sports has access to previously unimaginable information and statistics, and all of them are making at least a token effort to understanding it. Some teams are a lot more with it than others, of course.
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The hottest trend is called “Big Data,” where cameras and various software programs can collect and break down in breathtaking detail literally each second and each action of a sporting event. You can determine precisely how proficient basketball players are at setting screens and what football formations yield the best results and how fast you need to hit a ground ball for it to become a base hit.
But the little story was as fascinating as the big one. Many people are still fighting back against the numbers — even at the SLOAN SPORTS ANALYTICS CONFERENCE.
“KYP!” ESPN commentator and former NFL head coach Herm Edwards said at a panel discussion called “Football Analytics.” “Know Your Personnel. That’s what it comes down to. The numbers are the numbers. But you better know your players.”
“This isn’t a video game,” former Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said as he explained that coaching isn’t about numbers as much as it is about getting players to play their best.
“You can’t measure that,” ESPN baseball writer Buster Olney said when talking about the idea that former Tigers pitcher Jack Morris would “pitch to the score.” The pitch-to-the-score concept theorizes that Morris, being a bulldog of a pitcher, would pitch his best when the game was close and ease up when the game was out of hand.
This kind of pitching, you might expect, would have led to numerous one-run victories and fairly clear patterns. Instead, several detailed game-by-game review by several analysts showed there is little to no evidence that Morris pitched to the score at all. Olney said that you can’t trust the numbers on that because pitching to the score might only involved one or two pitches in any particular game.
And so on.
Point is, even at a conference about using the numbers and analytics in new ways, there is significant backlash against using the numbers even in the current ways.