MIT/Sloan Panel Sports Analytics Conference Discussion

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Here is the video of the panel at the MIT sports analytics conference I referred to in my post about how Bill Polian doesn't get it. The discussion is educational throughout, and despite my criticism of Bill Polian, he has some very wise things to share. The participants are Mark Cuban, Jonathan Kraft, Daryl Morey, Polian, and Bill Simmons, with Michael Lewis as the moderator. It's over an hour long and worth your time. I've embedded it below, but first let me share what I took to be the most interesting points:

1. Sports analytics are here to stay. Get used to it. As an owner, GM or coach, get informed or pay the price.

2. In baseball, it's all about measuring individual ability. In basketball, it's about measuring how various combinations of lineups work together. In football (until this year), it was about financially squeezing under the cap. In all sports, it's about finding the "undervalued asset."

3. Teams are aware their formulas and methods aren't going to stay secret very long. Analytical staff come and go and take expertise with them.

4. Bill Polian thinks the Holy Grail of football analytics is figuring out how a player who thrives in one system (a 3-4 for example) would fare in another system, say Tampa-2. And how much should he be paid when going from one system to another?

5. Polian says a former player or "military officer" with analytical expertise is needed to be credible within the football culture.

6. Analysts need to write in simple terms. The onus is on them to explain what they're doing. "Speak English, please."

7. Mark Cuban wants standardized league-wide enhanced play-by-play data. A lot of the expense in analytics is in generating the level of detail in the data needed for sound analysis.

8. Football player evaluation has to be far more subjective due to the nature of the sport. (I'll have more to say about this soon, but in short I believe the best outcome is in a fusion of subjective evaluation by experts --filtered, standardized, validated and exploited with statistical analysis.)

9. Regarding the 4th down analysis Polian says (getting fairly worked-up), "There is ZERO out there that's any good." It's completely "worthless" because football is so "technical" and "team oriented." Plus, different teams have different systems, according to Polian. This is a non-sequitor wrapped in an error shrouded in a fallacy. Mr. Polian is a smart guy, and I bet if I had 10 minutes in front of a white board with him, he'd buy in.

10. Everyone seems aware of the dangers of making conclusions from small samples.

11. Many teams that are using advanced stats hide it or deny it for PR reasons.

12. Team executives who are reluctant to embrace analytics aren't necessarily dumb. They're just wise. It's not always good to embrace things you don't fully understand. Not everyone should be expected to have the technical background needed to get this stuff. Just ask the investors in complex derivatives from Wall Street.

13. Right now is a special time. Teams can create an advantage with good analytics, but one day, once everyone has caught up and all teams have the best methodologies, they will all be back on the same level playing field. (Now is the time to take advantage.)

14. Both Kraft and Polian were very focused on how important it was to find players who "fit their systems." (I would bet this notion is far overblown. Show me some data.)

15. Bill Parcells is not terribly bright. (See Kraft's comment near the 36:45 mark.)

16. Exploitation of referee/umpire tendencies may be the next big thing, if it's not already. I'm sure that's all done behind closed doors. Cuban's comments make it clear this is particularly important for the NBA in which outcomes are so susceptible to one or two calls. (The NBA has a huge sample size to work with too.)

17. Psychological testing is big for the Patriots and Colts, and probably many other teams.

18. Polian and most everyone except Rockets GM Daryl Morey (the one guy with an analytical background) believes in "clutch."

19. Polian said something interesting about player selection. "The best of us are batting .550."

20. No one believes in injury prediction.

It seems to me that sports executives ignore the advances of statistical analysis at their own peril. But I believe it's a two-way street. Analysts should listen and learn. A lot of what the old-school guys say is still bunk, but there are nuggets of wisdom to be found.

My thanks to reader James for providing the link.