The Idiosyncrasies of (Sports) Statistics

December 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

This recent article on ESPN cites the following:

How improbable was Sunday? According to Elias, teams trailing by at least 24 points at halftime were 5-617 entering Sunday night. Make it six.

For context: On 11/24, the Patriots were losing to the Broncos by a score of 24-0 halfway through the game. They ultimately rallied back to win the game.

No doubt, this was an exciting match. But calling the Patriots’ odds of victory at 5-617 is absolutely bunk.

To illustrate: Suppose that of those 622 games (5 + 617), 617 teams were losing at halftime by a score of 9,001-0. (Not an easy score to accomplish in the NFL…but bear with me.) Those 617 teams all lost handily — that’s an impossibly difficult comeback to mount! Further, suppose that the remaining five teams were each down 24-0 and all five of them came back and won their games.

In that fantasy scenario, it’s still technically correct to say that “teams trailing by at least 24 points were 5-617.” But you can see why the statistic is horribly misleading — in fact, without changing the world, you could also say “teams trailing by 24 points came back to win every single time” and be just as correct.

Back in our real-world Broncos & Patriots scenario: It’s worth pointing out that the Broncos scored its 24th point with over 6 minutes remaining in the 2nd quarter. So the Patriots actually had 36 minutes (15 minutes per quarter, plus the aforementioned 6) to mount their comeback, rather than 30. That’s 20% more time!

This sort of idiosyncrasy happens in sports ALL. THE. TIME. A slightly different example: In baseball, when the announcer says “Derek Jeter has gotten a hit in 3 of his last 4 at bats” you can all but guarantee that Jeter got an out in his 5th-to-last plate appearance, and the announcer could have said “Derek Jeter has gotten a hit in 3 of his last 5 at bats.” (Otherwise, of course, he’d have just said “Jeter has gotten a hit in 4 of his last 5 at bats” because that’d have made a more compelling point!)

Though I find this tends to happen in sports most abundantly, because sports fans find statistics like this to be fascinating, it’s just as applicable anywhere. When you hear something like “Facebook missed its earnings projections two quarters in a row,” you can make a strong bet that three quarters back, the company met or exceeded its benchmark.

Choose your own lesson, depending on how optimistically you view the world:

A. This is just a fun way that stats work. You can tease your friends about how harmlessly inaccurate the Derek Jeter statistic is and how dopey the announcer is for declaring it, and not put too much thought into things.

or

B. Be very careful of the biases and values of your sources — because even statistics that are based in fact can be warped to deceptively convey a very biased opinion.

Islanders Jerseys

October 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

In 2010, I wrote about a trip to Pittsburgh and the divine experience of an entire sports city sharing the same uniform colors.

It looks like the Islanders, anticipating sharing a stadium with the Brooklyn Nets, are making a move in that direction.

Which is cool….but.

This would also mark the sixth new set of uniforms worn by the Islanders…since 2007. Which, I mean, why even have jerseys at this point.

Rick DiPietro & Sports Injuries

March 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

The Islanders recently waived longtime goaltender Rick DiPietro. He’s infamous for a massive, overbearing contract and a litany of debilitating injuries.

My initial reaction: “FREEDOM.”

 

Rick’s: “They ripped my heart out, stabbed it, set it on fire.”

I have a really strange relationship with athletes who suffer from chronic injury problems. Probably aided in no small part by a lengthy history of playing fantasy sports. I don’t think I’m in the minority here, either.

So here’s the thing: For the longest time, I’ve actively disliked professional athletes who get injured frequently. I’m sure I’ve even used the word hate before.

I used to hate Fred Taylor. Former All-Star running back for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Nicknamed “Fragile Fred.” I like Josh Hamilton, but I hate how he’s pretty much guaranteed to miss time during the baseball year.

And of course (at least, until I started reflecting during this post), I absolutely, positively despised Rick DiPietro.

I’m led to the following thoughts:

  1. It’s weird that a propensity for injuries, in the context of professional sports, is seen as somewhat of a character trait, or even a flaw, as opposed to just a physical body attribute.
  2. It’s weird that it’s normal to have feelings about a human being because of this. Really weird. It’s really no different than disliking a person because they wear glasses.

I think I’m going to reverse my position. I feel sorry for these guys. To reach the pinnacle of your profession, in what should be the prime years of your life, and have your body start breaking down on you? It’s not like getting injured or having lengthy recovery times is something they want, or is an active choice they’re making. Imagine if, as a rising business person, I was unable to make good business decisions for weeks or months at a time. My cognitive abilities always used to serve me just fine…but now they don’t. And people are mad at me because of this!

I dunno. Just a thought.

I’m sorry, Rick.

 

NFL Timeouts

November 28, 2011 § 3 Comments

A quick thought: Why in the world do NFL teams ever call timeouts early on in the game?

Maybe I’m a simpleton. Don’t understand all the intricacies of coaching and playcalling. Whatever.

Ostensibly, a timeout gets called early on when:

  1. Poor clock management by coach / QB
  2. QB reads a lopsided defense, knows his play is going to bust
  3. I don’t know, Subway bought commercial time and needs to sell more sandwiches

Is this really worth burning one of your only three timeouts? You wouldn’t rather, at midfield in the middle of the third quarter, take a 5-yard Delay of Game penalty or burn a play on an incomplete pass?

Again, I could be biased: as a TV viewer, I don’t get to hear what goes on in the huddle or the sidelines. The announcer never says “boy, that was a good play change that the coach implemented during the timeout.”

Watching football, it seems to me that most any game that’s even remotely close will come down to clock management in the final two minutes of the game. And the scales, consistently, are tipped by whichever team has timeouts to spare.

Saving all three until the final two minutes (or so) of the game should be a coaching staple. Your three timeouts are sacred. Why fundamentally cripple your chances to compete late in the game?

I’ve lately been reading (reading! I know, right!?) a fascinating sports/economics/statistics/psychology book, Scorecasting. I’m not going to plagiarize the authors’ ideas here, but thought I’d let you know my thinking has been even more sports-centered than usual for the past few days.

Nike & Jordan

November 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

Dear Nike:

Your marketing budget is ginormous. In 2008, Forbes claimed that you dropped around $2 Billion on sponsorships and advertising, combined. And I guess you’ve done some pretty cool stuff.

But not the coolest thing possible.

Here’s what I propose:

1) Cut the promotional budget relentlessly. Anything that won’t cause an immediate catastrophic disaster, scrap.

2) Call up these guys. Give them all your money. In exchange, you get to change their name from “Royal Jordanian” airlines to “Air Jordan,” you get to wrap the planes with giant MJ photos, and you get to deck the planes out with basketball stuff.

3) ???

4) Profit relentlessly.

Sincerely,
Josh

Albert Pujols is terrible.

October 24, 2011 § 4 Comments

And I can prove it.

In light of all the hooplah surrounding the revolution in baseball statistics (and even well prior to the release of Brad Pitt’s Moneyball), Matt and I have developed a new advanced baseball metric. It’s called Outs Per At Bat.

It’s pretty stupid.

OPAB is a figure designed to gauge how bad a player is. We found it funny that “Grounded into Double Play” (GIDP) is a recorded statistic, and effectively suggests the number of plate appearances in which a batter actually manages to generate two outs, even though he’s just one player.

Key factors weighing in on OPAB:

  1. GIDP. Mentioned above.
  2. Walks. These are considered “Plate Appearances,” not “At Bats,” and as such don’t count adversely towards a player’s score in the category. These are not counted directly, but typically lead to lower AB totals and smaller denominators (one could argue, Plate Appearances – Walks (and other stuff) = At Bats).
  3. Sacrifice Hits (bunts), Sacrifice Flies. These, too, don’t count towards a player’s At Bat total. So, remarkably, the batter generates an out without accumulating an at bat.

We calculate the statistic as follows: (At Bats – Hits + SH + SF + GIDP) / At Bats. Lower scores (IE, fewer outs per at bat) are better.

As it turns out, Cardinals’ centerpiece Albert Pujols is among the league’s worst in OPAB. While leading the league in GIDP’s for the 2011 season, Pujols generated an abysmal .763 OPAB. Eeeugh. In comparison, Cardinals regular guy outfielder/utilityman Allen Craig scored a .735 OPAB on the year. And you don’t see headlines and billion kajdrillion dollar contract deals going his way any time soon.

This year’s leader in OPAB among qualified batters? Jose Reyes stands at .683. In fact, he and Ryan Braun (.689) are the only two players I’ve found thus far (in my admittedly primitive and in all likelihood statistically insignificant research) with OPAB below the .700 mark.

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Update: I realized as of 7:30pm that the stat Caught Stealing ought also apply.

This results in a revised formula of: (At Bats – Hits + SH + SF + GIDP + CS) / At Bats .

As it pertains to the players mentioned above:

Jose Reyes—.696
Ryan Braun—.6998
Allen Craig—.735
Albert Pujols—.765

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In conclusion, baseball is great and basketball sucks.

Stats calculated based off of 2011 season totals, courtesy of fangraphs.com

Basketball Sucks [Revisited]

July 18, 2011 § 3 Comments

An old favorite post of mine: Basketball Sucks. It’s among the most popular all time posts on my humble little blog.

I wrote:

…for reasons I completely fail to understand (and have no hopes of ever grasping), sometimes when you call a timeout, your team gets to pass the ball inbounds from halfway up the court. So if the other team sinks what should be a game-winning shot, you’re allowed to set your team up within reasonable range of the basket to make what should be an impossible shot – simply because you’ve called timeout.  There’s no way this rule can be founded in our common understanding of logic.

Recently (just over two years later!), famous writer and journalist Chuck Klosterman made the very same observation in a feature piece on Grantland.

Says Chuck:

I’m obsessed with the fact that — following a timeout, late in any game — teams can automatically move the ball to half court…There’s nothing else like it — it’s the only statute that suggests time and space don’t matter. A team calls a timeout 94 feet from the basket, and it suddenly gets the ball 47 feet from the goal. It would be like the rules committee in baseball deciding that any runner on first base can automatically advance to second if there are two outs in the ninth inning, or like if the NFL decreed that touchbacks inside the two-minute warning instantly moved the pigskin to the 50.

I love it when I’m right.

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