The Value of Analytics is a Matter of Perspective

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The last couple of days have seen quite a bit of shot taking at Charles Barkley for his, uh, pointed comments on Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey.  For those unfamiliar with what Barkley had to say

“First of all I’ve always believed analytics was crap.  You know I never mention the Rockets as legitimate contenders ’cause they’re not. And listen, I wouldn’t know Daryl Morey if he walked into this room right now.”

 

“They say that same crap in baseball, and they put these little lightweight teams together and they never win.  They’re always competitive to a certain degree and they don’t win. It’s the same thing in the NBA.”

 

“The NBA is about talent.  All these guys who run these organizations who talk about analytics, they have one thing in common — they’re a bunch of guys who have never played the game, and they never got the girls in high school, and they just want to get in the game.”

 

In his blunt and somewhat disrespectful manner, Barkley has a point.  Games are not won and lost on a spreadsheet.  They’re won with good players between the lines, regardless of sport.  And his opinion isn’t one limited to his own mind.

Chris Sale, Hawk Harrelson, Harold Reynolds in baseball, and today, Chris Long of the St. Louis Rams all have said similar things about analytics.

All of these people have one thing in common…they are either active or former players.  In the mind of an athlete, the end is not the concern.  It’s the process.  Barkley, the Round Mound of Rebound, likely focused on reading where the ball was released, his footwork, where his man was, and attacking the ball to get a rebound.  Chris Sale is worried about his mechanics, throwing strikes, locating his pitches, and getting people out.  Reynolds was worried about his swing or his footwork and mechanics when he was in the field.  All of those are process driven and show a complete disconnect from the results based world of analytics.


Players and coaches who question the useful utility of analytics are not wrong.  In their world, they have to be worried about process.  A player and a coach need to focus on their own job on each individual play and what they are doing in the moment.  There is so much that is outside of their control for the result that it would be a waste of time for them to examine the result of a play.  Film study is not based on the result of a play, but on the process of the play.  The goal is to identify errors in the process and correct them for the next game or next play.  Finding errors in footwork, hand placement, timing, or other execution processes are all done independent of analytics.

Analytics does have a great deal of value, however.  For those of us who live outside the lines all the time, like media and blogger types, the results are what we live and die with.  We’re consumed with inefficiencies and player values, all of which are results focused.

A favorite past time of (some of) those who are intimately enamored with the value of analytics is to mock.  I use Keith Law as an example of convenience and because of the high level of snark he often uses, but he is not alone in the mud-slinging and conjecture about being stuck in an old mindset toward those who are less willing to acknowledge the value of advanced metrics.  It’s actually an adorable microcosm of our society, but that discussion is much greater and entirely afield of this focused topic.

The middle ground is not one that is often taken by anyone outside of a personnel office.  The past Cubs front office is well-known for its unwillingness to use statistical information and evolve into the integration of advanced metrics.  The front office led by Theo Epstein, though, takes exactly the middle ground.  He’s said repeatedly that scouting involves both the old and the new school trains of thought.  That makes perfect sense.  A player’s statistics may look bad.  There could be a number of metrics that anyone can look at and call a player disposable.  Old school scouting can help identify why the results are what they are.

As it stands, Epstein and his front office has been quite successful in identifying players who have less than stellar metrics.  Jake Arrieta is the crown jewel of this discussion.  His metrics in Baltimore were bad.  Nobody ever questioned the talent or the stuff, but his numbers said he wasn’t a good player.  In identifying things in Arrieta’s process, he turned out an elite season in 2014.  It’s a mix of analytics to acquire a player whose value has fallen and old school examination of process to correct deficiencies in process to improve results.

It is always fun when things work out like this…but in the discussion of analytics, just about everyone is kind of right and kind of wrong.  As it is with a number of different discussions, the answer is never one or the other.  In this case, understanding process, identifying deficiency, building cohesion, judging how a player reacts in high leverage situations (that’s right…checking on how clutch a player is), and other aspects all deserve a seat at the table with metrics of result.  Results are driven by the process.  In fact, since every player who achieves professional status in his or her sport is among the elite 3-5% of players, negative results may be most meaningfully deployed as a sign of flawed process.

Don’t tell the “stat nerds”…but that statement may mean the players are right, here.

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About Andy

Sometimes I write stuff about the Cubs. Sometimes it's even good. But don't get your hopes up. Basically, my writing is like the pre-2016 Chicago Cubs.

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