Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Problem with Per Game Statistics

With so many better metrics available, it’s hard to believe the mainstream sports media still uses per game statistics to evaluate player performance.

ESPN Radio’s Colin Cowherd recently compared Derrick Rose to Allen Iverson. The comparison makes sense on some levels. Both players are shoot first, pass second point guards. Both are incredibly quick and great finishers. Cowherd’s mistake was using per game statistics, which made the players appear closer in performance than they really are.

Cowherd started by saying Iverson had the edge in points per game over Rose in their third NBA seasons: 26.8 to 25.0. This brings up the biggest reason per game numbers fall short: starters vary tremendously in how many minutes they see per game. Iverson played 41.5 minutes per game versus 37.4 for Rose. Using points per 40 minutes to even the playing field, Rose (26.7) has actually scored more than Iverson (25.8).

Rose had a huge edge in assists per game (7.9) over Iverson (4.6) in their third seasons. That difference increases with the more revealing assists per 40 minutes figures: 8.4 to 4.5. Iverson did spend extensive time at shooting guard that year while Eric Snow played point for the Sixers, which impacted his assist numbers. Still, Iverson never came close to matching Rose’s assists per 40 minutes figure in any career season. Rose had also shot for the higher percentage from both two-point (47.2 to 44.0) and three-point range (33.2 to 29.1) in season number three.

Rose had the advantage in John Hollinger’s PER as well, 23.4 to 22.2 over Iverson. Both players have high usage rates – which estimates the number of their team’s plays they use while on the court – of nearly 33 percent. So while they both use a high percentage of their team’s possessions, Rose produces more in those opportunities.

Iverson did have a big edge in steals per 40 minutes in his third season. And while he reached the foul line more often than Rose, they made nearly the same number of free throws per minute due to Rose’s far superior free throw percentage.

Most importantly, Rose is younger than Iverson was in his third season by one year and four months. It makes more sense to compare Rose’s third season to Iverson’s second campaign, which would cause the gap between the players to widen even further. Finally, Rose stands three inches taller than Iverson and weighs 25 pounds more.

While they have some similarities, Rose holds a decisive edge over Iverson at the same stage of their careers. That becomes clear when taking a look beyond their per game statistics.

Iverson was a great player. But in both performance and from a branding perspective, Rose is on track to soar much higher than Iverson ever did.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Sports Statistics as a Marketing Tool

Politicians discovered the power of numbers long ago. One might say “my administration created one million more jobs than any other in history.” Of course, it only takes a few minutes to pick that apart: How many jobs were lost? What was the net increase? What was the percentage increase? What was the average salary of these created jobs? But by the time his statement gets scrutinized, the politician moves on to the next talking point.

The same thing works in sports. In 2009, when Colt McCoy was a top Heisman Trophy candidate, the media repeated this statement over and over: “McCoy has won more games than any quarterback in college football history.” Wins are powerful, the true currency of sports. The stat spread everywhere and stuck in people’s minds, even though it was not a particular good statistic.

McCoy won more football games partly because he played in so many. Longer seasons and conference title games gave him more opportunity to record victories. Yes, he won the most games of any quarterback, but he was one of 22 starters. And many of those former teammates have joined him in the NFL.

Obviously it took a great quarterback to win that many football games. McCoy had to earn the starting job and keep it four years; no easy feat at a top program. He had a major role in 45 wins. Nonetheless, teams win games, not quarterbacks.

The McCoy stat still got extensive airtime on sports talk radio, highlight shows and game broadcasts. As with a smooth-talking politician, there was little opportunity in those settings to contradict it with objective evidence.

This demonstrates the power of numbers. Since few people effectively use sports statistics as a marketing tool, they present a blank canvas to work with. And the timing couldn’t be better with the rise of social media, when you may only get 140 characters to send a clear powerful message.

If even bad stats have value, can you imagine the impact from innovative statistical content? Finding this isn’t easy – as the best information lies beyond the core stats that dominate the mainstream sports media – but it is well worth the effort.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Summary of the MIT Sports Analytics Conference

Here’s a wrap-up of the MIT Sports Analytics Conference held earlier this month, with the focus on items of interest to sports agents.

This year’s conference drew 1,500 people to the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. Representatives from 53 different professional teams attended, according to the organizers. Now in its fifth year, the event has evolved into as much a business conference as an analytics one, with topics about sponsorships and enhancing the game day experience.

Rockets GM Daryl Morey, one of the event’s organizers, pointed out that basketball is a sport that punishes mistakes during the opening panel on developing the modern athlete. He explained how people focus on all the dunks, but mistakes are costly and need to be minimized for success. While players that shoot high percentages and avoid turnovers get little media attention, teams clearly build such contributions into their statistical models and projections.

In the same panel, Morey said that during the NBA Draft process they’re often looking for flaws more than attributes. They identify what problems a player has that they think they can improve upon. This shows why it may be a good idea to address a player’s shortcomings in draft packages and then demonstrate how they will overcome them.

The Baseball Analytics panel also had some interesting exchanges. Tom Tippett, director of baseball information services for the Red Sox, talked about the Carl Crawford contract. Although he lacked the power of most well-paid outfielders, Tippett said that between triples and home runs, Crawford clears the bases about 30 times per year. Tippett said the team also researched how Fenway Park’s dimensions would impact Crawford’s defensive performance.

Both Major League Baseball and the NBA are moving toward having a complete digital record of each game. This creates tremendous opportunities for sports agents and their staffs to analyze and present this data on behalf of their clients.