My Trip to MIT's Sports Nerd Conference

Image credit: 

[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.

March 10, 2010 - 6:32am
webby
submit to reddit