CLOSE

My Trip to MIT's Sports Nerd Conference

[Image credit: John Marcus.]

On Saturday, I had the pleasure of attending the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference—or the Sports Nerd Conference, as my girlfriend referred to it—at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. In its fourth year, the conference brought some of the sports industry's most innovative thinkers together for a forum on the expanding role of analytics in projecting player performance and informing in-game decision making.

The conference wasn't only for stat heads, however; it also featured panel discussions on such topics as international expansion, social media marketing, and the future of sports journalism. As a former psychology major who has only recently delved into the world of advanced analytics as they relate to sports (and only then in an attempt to gain an advantage in my fantasy drafts), this was refreshing. Here's a brief, stats-light summary of three of the three analytics-related panel discussions I observed.

Baseball Analytics

ESPN.com baseball writer Rob Neyer moderated a group that included three current front office executives (St. Louis Cardinals assistant general manager John Abbamondi, Arizona Diamondbacks director of baseball operations Shiraz Rehman, and Boston Red Sox advisor Tom Tippett), as well as former Red Sox general manager Dan Duqette, and John Dewan, who founded Baseball Info Solutions in 2002 after a career as an insurance actuary.

MIT-Sloan5

[Image credit: John Marcus.]

Neyer opened the discussion by referencing a phenomenon described by Wellesley political scientist Craig Murphy in a recent New Yorker profile on Paul Krugman. Murphy noted that sixteenth century maps of Africa were misleading, but they included pertinent information about the continent's interior, including the location of major rivers. As mapmaking became more accurate and cartographical standards for what information was included on a map rose, secondhand travelers' reports were discarded and lost. As a result, the maps included less information than before. By the nineteenth century, the maps were filled in again, but for a period the sharpening of technique caused loss as well as gain. Neyer used the example to illustrate the challenge facing today's baseball executives, who have more statistical information at their fingertips than ever before, but continue to struggle to make sense of it and use it effectively.

"There are so many teams that we meet with that don't understand how to use the data that's out there," said Dewan, who consults with several MLB clubs. Abbamondi indicated that knowing what stats not to look at it in terms of predictive value is just as important as knowing what stats are useful. That goes for information used by the front office to make personnel decisions and information that is passed on to players with the intent of giving them an edge. With a little research, anyone can discover what Albert Pujols' batting average is on Tuesdays with a 3-1 count on natural grass against a pitcher whose last name starts with the letter B. That may be interesting information to know—or not—but it probably won't affect how Pujols or Joe Blanton approach their next encounter on a Tuesday at Busch Stadium. "The last thing you want is the hitter's mind cluttered," Abbamondi said.

The panelists discussed defensive analytics at length, including the concept of catcher defense, which attempts to quantify a catcher's ability to block pitches and manage a game. Catcher defense helps explain why Jason Varitek, who is a poor fantasy option, is an underappreciated contributor to the success of the Red Sox. "Defensive evaluation is taking its proper place in overall player analysis," said Tippett, who provides analytical support for Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein.

Neyer asked the panelists what they would like to know about baseball that they don't already know. "How to make sure the Yankees never win another World Series," Tippett said, eliciting cheers from the Red Sox fans in the room. Duquette wanted to know how to produce 20-game winners. Rehman echoed something Abbamondi mentioned earlier in the discussion about finding an accurate way to measure a player's makeup or personality. To a scout, Abbamondi said, good makeup is often synonymous with politeness. If a player says "yes, sir" and "no, sir," the scout is more likely to report that the player has good makeup, even if this tells the front office nothing about that player's work ethic, desire, and motivation. As they continue to look for ways to identify the next superstar, teams are focused on finding predictive psychological measures for young players.

Emerging Analytics

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick's controversial decision to go for it on 4th and 2 from his own 28 with 2:08 remaining and his team nursing a six-point lead against the undefeated Colts last November was a hot topic on at least two panels, including this one, which was moderated by Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Kate Fagan.

Kevin Faulk was stopped short of the first-down marker after catching a pass in the flat from Tom Brady, allowing the Colts to take over on downs. Peyton Manning led his team to a game-winning touchdown and Belichick was criticized afterward. Aaron Schatz, a Brown graduate who wrote the Internet column "The Lycos 50" before working as a disc jockey and founding FootballOutsiders.com, a site that uses innovative statistics to analyze football, defended Belichick's call.

MIT-Sloan2

[Image credit: John Marcus.]

"Statistically, it was the right decision," said Schatz (pictured), who admitted he is a Patriots fans. While the statistical models used to come to that conclusion are not perfect, Schatz made the case that the decision was not stupid. But that's exactly how many media members reacted. As Schatz pointed out, broadcasters referred to subsequent decisions by NFL head coaches that they perceived as boneheaded as "Belichickian" for the remainder of the season.

Schatz and San Francisco 49ers Executive VP of Football and Business Operations Paraag Marathe had some interesting things to say about the NFL scouting combine. Marathe compared evaluating rookie football players by having them "play track and field" at the scouting combine to evaluating rookie baseball players by having them play ping-pong. Marathe and Schatz both emphasized the importance of evaluating players in the context of the scheme that they play in and the abilities of the players around them. Football analytics has lagged behind baseball analytics, they said, in part because it is inherently more difficult to evaluate one player's ability without accounting for what the 10 other players on his team did on a given play. If a running back breaks a 25-yard run, for instance, was it because he made a great cut, his fullback made a great block, or his offensive line cleared a huge hole? Perhaps it was for all three reasons.

Like the baseball executives who spoke before him, Marathe discussed the growing emphasis being placed on measuring players' personality traits. Marathe and Schatz said a poor score on the infamous Wonderlic test administered to prospects at the NFL's scouting combine might raise a red flag for teams—if only because it could indicate that the player doesn't take his draft prospects serious enough to find someone to help him prepare for the test—but that psychological traits related to dedication, motivation, and self-efficacy are more predictive of future success.

What Geeks Don't Get: The Limits of Moneyball

Michael Lewis, who wrote Moneyball and The Blind Side, moderated the feature panel, which featured ESPN.com columnist Bill Simmons, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, Indianapolis Colts general manager Bill Polian, and New England Patriots president Jonathan Kraft. After Lewis introduced the panel, Simmons congratulated the audience of more than 1,000 on breaking the "Most Dudes in a Conference Room" record. He was only partly kidding.

MIT-Sloan3

[Image credit: John Marcus.]

The goal of the panel was to unmask some of the inefficiencies of sports analytics and identify how numbers don't always tell the whole story in sports. Simmons proceeded to explain that the onus should fall on the people dispersing all of this new statistical information to explain it in a way that the casual fan can understand. Polian, who has been to four Super Bowls as an executive with the Bills and Colts, said that geekdom provides wonderful tools for teams to find the next undervalued player, but requested that stat heads "speak English, please."

Belichick's decision came up again, with Polian, Kraft, and Simmons, who wrote a column criticizing the move, engaging in a fascinating back-and-forth. Kraft said he was convinced it was two-down territory for the Patriots on third down and Polian indicated that he did, too, "without question." The Patriots were beat up defensively and the Colts had moved the ball at will in the second half, their thinking went. If Indianapolis got the ball back, they were going to score. Simmons said he thought the decision to go for it made sense, but that the events preceding the decision—calling a timeout after throwing an incompletion on third down—and the fourth-down play call didn't come from a position of strength. "It seemed panicky to me," Simmons said. "That's my opinion." "I disagree," Kraft said bluntly (pictured below, on left, with Polian and Simmons).

MIT-Kraft-Polian-Simmons

[Image credit: John Marcus.]

The discussion turned to basketball and it was no surprise that when asked to name the biggest inefficiencies in basketball, Cuban mentioned referees. Cuban and Morey stressed the importance of finding players with the right psychological makeup to complement their skills on the court, but they had differing opinions on the value of a player who the stats indicate performs well in the clutch. Cuban said that part of the reason the Mavericks traded for Jason Kidd was that, statistically, he performs better in clutch situations than at other points in the game. Morey expressed concern about the sample size for measuring a player's "clutchness," and said he didn't factor clutch statistics into his personnel decisions.

Toward the end of the session, Polian raised an important question: Once you identify a tendency using analytics, can you make it better? If you have the answer to that, or you have developed a personality test that can predict athletic success, there's a job in professional sports waiting for you.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Hulu
arrow
entertainment
10 Things We Know About The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2
Hulu
Hulu

Though Hulu has been producing original content for more than five years now, 2017 turned out to be a banner year for the streaming network with the debut of The Handmaid’s Tale on April 26, 2017. The dystopian drama, based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 book, imagines a future in which a theocratic regime known as Gilead has taken over the United States and enslaved fertile women so that the group’s most powerful couples can procreate.

If it all sounds rather bleak, that’s because it is—but it’s also one of the most impressive new series to arrive in years (as evidenced by the slew of awards it has won, including eight Emmy and two Golden Globe Awards). Fortunately, fans left wanting more don’t have that much longer to wait, as season two will premiere on Hulu in April. In the meantime, here’s everything we know about The Handmaid’s Tale’s second season.

1. IT WILL PREMIERE WITH TWO EPISODES.

When The Handmaid’s Tale returns on April 25, 2018, Hulu will release the first two of its 13 new episodes on premiere night, then drop another new episode every Wednesday.

2. MARGARET ATWOOD WILL CONTINUE TO HELP SHAPE THE NARRATIVE.

Fans of Atwood’s novel who didn’t like that season one went beyond the original source material are in for some more disappointment in season two, as the narrative will again go beyond the scope of what Atwood covered. But creator/showrunner Bruce Miller doesn’t necessarily agree with the criticism they received in season one.

“People talk about how we're beyond the book, but we're not really," Miller told Newsweek. "The book starts, then jumps 200 years with an academic discussion at the end of it, about what's happened in those intervening 200 years. We're not going beyond the novel. We're just covering territory [Atwood] covered quickly, a bit more slowly.”

Even more importantly, Miller's got Atwood on his side. The author serves as a consulting producer on the show, and the title isn’t an honorary one. For Miller, Atwood’s input is essential to shaping the show, particularly as it veers off into new territories. And they were already thinking about season two while shooting season one. “Margaret and I had started to talk about the shape of season two halfway through the first [season],” he told Entertainment Weekly.

In fact, Miller said that when he first began working on the show, he sketched out a full 10 seasons worth of storylines. “That’s what you have to do when you’re taking on a project like this,” he said.

3. MOTHERHOOD WILL BE A CENTRAL THEME.

As with season one, motherhood is a key theme in the series. And June/Offred’s pregnancy will be one of the main plotlines. “So much of [Season 2] is about motherhood,” Elisabeth Moss said during the Television Critics Association press tour. “Bruce and I always talked about the impending birth of this child that’s growing inside her as a bit of a ticking time bomb, and the complications of that are really wonderful to explore. It’s a wonderful thing to have a baby, but she’s having it potentially in this world that she may not want to bring it into. And then, you know, if she does have the baby, the baby gets taken away from her and she can’t be its mother. So, obviously, it’s very complicated and makes for good drama. But, it’s a very big part of this season, and it gets bigger and bigger as the show goes on.”

4. THE RESISTANCE IS COMING.

Just because June is pregnant, don’t expect her to sit on the sidelines as the resistance to Gilead continues. “There is more than one way to resist," Moss said. “There is resistance within [June], and that is a big part of this season.”

5. WE’LL GET TO SEE THE COLONIES.

A scene from 'The Handmaid's Tale'
Hulu

Miller, understandably, isn’t eager to share too many details about the new season. “I’m not being cagey!” he swore to Entertainment Weekly. “I just want the viewers to experience it for themselves!” What he did confirm is that the new season will bring us to the colonies—reportedly in episode two—and show what life is like for those who have been sent there.

It will also delve further into what life is like for the refugees who managed to escape Gilead, like Luke and Moira.

6. MARISA TOMEI WILL APPEAR IN AN EPISODE.

Though she won’t be a regular cast member, Miller recently announced that Oscar winner Marisa Tomei will make a guest appearance in the new season’s second episode. Yes, the one that will show us the Colonies. In fact, that’s where we’ll meet her; Tomei is playing the wife of a Commander.

7. WE’LL LEARN MORE ABOUT THE ORIGINS OF GILEAD.

As a group shrouded in secrecy, we still don’t know much about how and where Gilead began. That will change a bit in season two. When discussing some of the questions viewers will have answered, executive producer Warren Littlefield promised that, "How did Gilead come about? How did this happen?” would be two of them. “We get to follow the historical creation of this world,” he said.

8. THERE WILL BE AT LEAST ONE HANDMAID FUNERAL.

A scene from 'The Handmaid's Tale'
Hulu

While Miller wouldn’t talk about who the handmaids are mourning in a teaser shot from season two that shows a handmaid’s funeral, he was excited to talk about creating the look for the scene. “Everything from the design of their costumes to the way they look is so chilling,” Miller told Entertainment Weekly. “These scenes that are so beautiful, while set in such a terrible place, provide the kind of contrast that makes me happy.”

9. ELISABETH MOSS SAYS THE TONE WILL BE DARKER.

Like season one, Miller says that The Handmaid’s Tale's second season will again balance its darker, dystopian themes with glimpses of hopefulness. “I think the first season had very difficult things, and very hopeful things, and I think this season is exactly the same way,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “There come some surprising moments of real hope and victory, and strength, that come from surprising places.”

Moss, however, has a different opinion. “It's a dark season,” she told reporters at TCA. “I would say arguably it's darker than Season 1—if that's possible.”

10. IT WILL ALSO BE BLOODIER.

A scene from 'The Handmaid's Tale'
Hulu

When pressed about how the teaser images for the new season seemed to feature a lot of blood, Miller conceded: “Oh gosh, yeah. There may be a little more blood this season.”

nextArticle.image_alt|e
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero
arrow
technology
Researchers in Singapore Deploy Robot Swans to Test Water Quality
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero

There's something peculiar about the new swans floating around reservoirs in Singapore. They drift across the water like normal birds, but upon closer inspection, onlookers will find they're not birds at all: They're cleverly disguised robots designed to test the quality of the city's water.

As Dezeen reports, the high-tech waterfowl, dubbed NUSwan (New Smart Water Assessment Network), are the work of researchers at the National University of Singapore [PDF]. The team invented the devices as a way to tackle the challenges of maintaining an urban water source. "Water bodies are exposed to varying sources of pollutants from urban run-offs and industries," they write in a statement. "Several methods and protocols in monitoring pollutants are already in place. However, the boundaries of extensive assessment for the water bodies are limited by labor intensive and resource exhaustive methods."

By building water assessment technology into a plastic swan, they're able to analyze the quality of the reservoirs cheaply and discreetly. Sensors on the robots' undersides measure factors like dissolved oxygen and chlorophyll levels. The swans wirelessly transmit whatever data they collect to the command center on land, and based on what they send, human pilots can remotely tweak the robots' performance in real time. The hope is that the simple, adaptable technology will allow researchers to take smarter samples and better understand the impact of the reservoir's micro-ecosystem on water quality.

Man placing robotic swan in water.
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero

This isn't the first time humans have used robots disguised as animals as tools for studying nature. Check out this clip from the BBC series Spy in the Wild for an idea of just how realistic these robots can get.

[h/t Dezeen]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios