Thursday, June 13, 2013

Stat Culture Gone Wild (And How It Can Mesh with Tradition)

When I was growing up, I loved numbers. Before I was a writer and a history buff, I loved math. Maybe it was my Dad's influence as a civil engineer but math came very easy to me.

As I became a sports fan who read everything I could, I became obsessed with statistics. Reading the box scores, seeing who scored what, who were the all-time leaders - all of that was a part of my education. It continued that way all through high school and part of college.

Then I became a journalist. Suddenly I had to learn a whole new set of rules because when it came to interviews, I couldn't just pull up stats and use them. Not when I heard folks question about the flow of the game or key moments. I'd sit in press conferences or postgame interviews thinking I had to take it to another level.

That's when I learned to study the game closer. Watch for moments. Watch for changes in tempo. Watch how players move. Watch and learn how a coach manages the game. Go beyond the box score and be an observer.

This has been my education the past seven years. Yet at the same time, stat culture has grown in its influence on front offices and fans. For better and worse, it's changed how sports is discussed.

Numbers can reveal a lot more but they can also miss a lot. In quantifying everything, you tend to overlook those intangibles. The draft combines measure height, weight, speed and strength but they don't tell the whole story of how great an incoming player can be. Also, consider the Memphis Grizzlies' sending Lionel Hollins his walking papers after getting them to the Western Conference Finals.

We don't know all that factored into that schism but from what we do know, the battle of traditional coaching vs. advanced stats was a big reason. The Grizzlies' ownership favors that approach so much, they hired John Hollinger - the face of advanced stats in basketball - as their Vice President of Basketball Operations.

I couldn't read his ESPN Insider columns but what I did read from Hollinger, I felt like he was trying too hard to quantify the game I've loved since I was 10. His worst offense was trying to measure clutch by numbers and somehow arguing that Kobe Bryant or Chauncey Billups weren't clutch as we thought.

He got hired by the Grizzlies in December and six months into his job, the team has chosen him and his movement over the coach who brought them their greatest success. It's a shame.

Hollins made the Grizzlies a respected team in the West. He's made his players better. He's made Zach Randolph achieve his potential better than any other coach Randolph had. And what thanks does he get? His contract status was dangled during the playoffs and he was let go in an embarrassing manner.

No tears for Hollins though. Chances are, he'll be hired and coaching another team before the end of the summer.
The battle between tradition and new school just played out in front of us and as a result, a fine coach will be coaching somewhere else. That's the new math so I guess folks are being subtracted if they don't factor into it. Baseball has seen it for a decade but in basketball, it's made more and more headway.

I respect folks who break down film to show how many possessions teams get per game, how often teams use the pick-and-roll, etc. Zach Lowe does a great job of it at Grantland. Guys who use advanced stats typically watch the game just as close for different reasons.

It works wonders in baseball. But in basketball? I'm not sure. All I know is it's created a divide among fans that I don't think benefits us long-term.

Relying too much on stats means also we read about stats that are irrelevant. I saw a stat ESPN pulled counting the number of dribbles Kevin Durant had with and without Russell Westbrook. Is that even necessary?

I love this show on ESPN for a few reasons. It's one of the few with minorities hosting it and it usually does a great job bringing in athletes to share their perspective along with the numbers. Yet it's also very much a product of the times.

ESPN isn't guilty of starting this but they capitalized on it in annoying way without the filter to judge if that stat is relevant or contextually sound. Case in point - Them saying LeBron James has more MVP's than Michael Jordan did at 28 years old. Their ridiculous QBR rating for quarterbacks, which reminds me how tricky passer rating is to begin with.

Or consider ESPN hoops writer Chris Palmer.

Problems with that? 1) Larry Bird's era didn't utilize the 3-point shot as much as folks do now. 2) LeBron has played more playoff games with the expansion of the 1st round from 5 to 7 games. As for the MVP stat? Remember that at 28, LeBron has played 10 years while Michael Jordan played seven.

See how that changes things? All those numbers/stats floating around but rarely do folks explain or promote a context within it. In the Twitter era, that's not only dangerous but irresponsible. Numbers never lie but they can be manipulated for an agenda.

A decade ago, Oakland A's GM Billy Beane revolutionized a game already heavily numbers based to focus on deeper numbers with his Moneyball philosophy. Thanks to Hollinger, it's affected basketball. Plus/minus is a great hockey stat where scoring is minimal so you need to gauge effectiveness somehow. In basketball? It can be misleading when fans don't really understand how it's used.

A hidden truth in all that advanced stats genius? It works wonders in the regular season but has yet to produce much success in the postseason. Go see how many times the A's reached the ALCS under Beane since 2000 or the Houston Rockets under Daryl Morey since 2007. I respect what Beane and Morey have done but for it to be accepted as gospel needs more - wait for it - statistical evidence.

The great Buck O'Neill, a former player/coach/scout/baseball ambassador, once made a comment in the above book about modern scouts using radar guns. I think it's comparable to how careful we have to be going all the way with numbers.

"Young scouts point their guns, write down the numbers. Are they watching? Really watching. I wonder if they're looking for life. Because that's the secret, man. Miles per hour, that don't mean nothing. Does the fastball have life? Does it move? Does it dive? Does it rise? Bothers me. Too many scouts not watching for life. Life passing them by."

That's sums up what I feel. It's fine that a pitcher can throw 90 mph, a hoopster can score 20 a game or any athlete can show great physical gifts. You can throw out any number that'll make you say wow.  But what about those X-factors too?

Does a pitcher have location? Does a quarterback have touch or instinct to go along with a strong arm? Does a hoopster move as well without the ball as with it? Do they do little things to go along with the obvious things we can quantify? Do we recognize aura when we see it? Genuine aura of greatness when somebody often makes the difficult look easy and smooth?

That's how you watch sports as you get older. I didn't know it when I was younger but having covered it and listened to older folks, I understand it now. Trust your eyes, train your eyes and use numbers to correlate or amplify what you see. 

Stats can help us critically evaluate somebody's performance and, along with watching the game closely, study X's and O's. But an overemphasis on numbers should never take precedence over feeling the game, knowing it as poetry, studying its rhythms and understand chemistry and personal touch. Some things can't be measured and we need to consider those qualities as well as what numbers tell us.

Ed. I'm adding this a day after I wrote this because I realized something. Stats have become like horoscopes for sports fans and that's my problem. Look at numbers, make grand assumptions, run on that assumption instead of letting things play out. The same reason I hate horoscopes is the same reason here - don't let numbers define how you watch sports. Let it be part of the equation along with other valuable things.

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