The Impending Sports Analytics Doom

How the latest obsession with statistics and data are sapping the drama from our sports world.

Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.

Sloan Sports Conference, hosted by MIT.
(Photo courtesy of Sloan Sports Conference)

Following the dramatic conclusion of the Super Bowl a couple of months ago, the sports world exploded into a frenzy of overreaction. Most notably, the final sequence of events, in which Seattle’s offense elected to throw the ball on 2nd & Goal, as opposed to handing off to “Beast Mode,” was scrutinized for days. Probabilities of scoring on each play (based upon play call) were analyzed. All of the variables were accounted for: the players on the field for both teams, the Patriots success stopping teams in similar situations throughout the year, the length of the grass, the likelihood that Gisele Bundchen’s prayers would be answered by the “Football Gods.” Okay, I’ll admit those last couple of examples are probably an exaggeration. But you get my point; the analytics guys had about two conniptions apiece trying to make sense of the insanity that was the last 30 seconds of the Super Bowl.

“Instead of talking about the storyline of the event, we find ourselves fixated with coaching decisions, and probabilities that one result happened over another.”

The well-known sports analytics website, FiveThirtyEight, even published an article days after the Super Bowl, in which they used a mathematical model to understand Tom Brady’s place among the NFL’s greatest Quarterbacks. The equation adjusted for home-field advantage, weather effects and strength of schedule. That’s not the focus of this article, and if you’d rather review your knowledge of college statistics, I’d recommend you click here: FiveThirtyEight.

Rather, this article is an appeal to remember why we fell in love with sports in the first place. Last time I checked, I did not grow up trying to imitate a manager making the pitching change gesture in game 7 of the World Series, or pretend I was a general manager encouraging the coaching staff to foul the opposing team any time they had a lead of 3 or more with less then 7.3 seconds left (an approximation). Rather, I batted right-handed (I’m a natural lefty) during baseball games in the yard with my Dad; trying to inside out a home run to right field a’ la Derek Jeter, hence earning his nickname “Mr. November.” In pick-up basketball games, I would channel my inner J.J. Redick, launching 3-pointers and holding my hand in the air after a swish, in classic J.J. arrogance.

The point of these childhood anecdotes is that I idolized moments. Sure, I had my favorite teams and players, but the thing I cherished most was the storylines that sports gave us. I relished watching Stephen Curry go bananas for two weekends in the NCAA Tournament and I can still remember how devastated I was when Redick and the Duke Blue Devils were bounced by LSU in the Sweet 16. I never particularly cared for either team, but in each instance I felt I was watching something unfold that I might never forget.

And this, in my opinion, leads us to precisely the problem in the current iteration of high level sports: it’s too scripted. In any sport, you would be hard pressed to find a manager, and more broadly, an organization, that has not prepared for any and all possibilities. Take it from me as a Yankees fan – I’ve watched Joe Girardi over-manage games for years – making pitching changes to get the right match-up and calling on pinch-hitters because their splits are more favorable.

The issue with this is two-fold. First, I would contend that building a team in this way limits the actual ability of each individual player. If you make a pitching change every time a pitcher is facing a certain hitter late in a game, that player never truly learns to cope with adverse situations. By the same token, if you never let a basketball player try different roles on the court, you never really give them the opportunity to grow as a player. Sometimes you have to take a step back, to take two steps forward.

More selfishly, the obsession with analytics prevents us from truly being captivated by the moment itself. Instead of talking about the storyline of the event, we find ourselves fixated with coaching decisions, and probabilities that one result happened over another. One may not think this is a big deal. However, to me, it’s enormous. Consider some historic moments that would have been taken from us in an analytical sports world. Do you think for one second that Kirk Gibson would have been called upon in the 1988 World Series by Tommy Lasorda to hit off Dennis Eckersley? Probably not. More recently, Grady Little would have certainly pulled Pedro Martinez in the 8th inning of Game 7 of the ALCS with the Red Sox leading the Yankees 5-2. Sure, that move backfired on Little and the Red Sox, but it only made it more compelling when they came back the next year down 3-0 in the series. Most importantly, I’ll always remember my Dad opening the door to my room after Aaron Boone’s dramatic game winning home run, and simply saying, “Yankees win, now get to sleep.” I hadn’t even seen the ending, but I’ll never forget that moment. That’s the joy of sports.

About Ryan McCormick

Ryan is an avid sports fan, and is willing to play or watch just about any sport ever created. He grew up playing baseball which helps explain his particular enjoyment of the sport, and love of the Yankees. As an Economics and English major in college, he developed a strong interest in writing, especially creative pieces. Ryan currently lives and works in New York City.

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