The Invasion of Analytics

Thirty years ago, analytics was just a hobby, and for most people just an idea.  But as the years have passed analytics has developed, become more advanced, and become more prevalent in major sports.  Two of the three largest sports in America, baseball and basketball, have committed to using analytics to advance and improve the game.  Football on the other hand has not started to utilize analytics.  Analytics allow teams to find the most valuable players and find the most valuable statistics.  Analytics allow people to find ways to improve the game and get an advantage.


The Oakland Athletics were a major force in bringing analytics to the MLB.

Analytics first surfaced in baseball when Bill James first published Baseball Abstract in 1977.  This was a self-published compilation of statistics that were gathered from box scores from the previous season.  The statistics were ones that had never before been recorded and were much more in-depth than a normal box score.  These statistics found the real value of a player by finding which collected statistics were the most important.  At first, this new way of looking at and diagnosing the game of baseball was not accepted by many baseball executives.  They were fine with letting their general managers pick players by looking at the major categories in baseball: hitting, fielding, and running.  General Managers also would pick players based on a feeling that they got while watching the player.  Sabermetrics, the name for analytics in baseball, continued to grow through blogs and smaller articles, but it wasn’t until 2002, when the Oakland Athletics and General Manager Billy Beane won a record twenty games in a row and made the playoffs with the third lowest payroll in Major League Baseball, that people started giving analytics a chance.  The offseason before that season, the Oakland Athletics lost their three biggest stars to large market teams.  They lost Johnny Damon to the Boston Red Sox, Jason Giambi to the New York Yankees, and their closer Jason Isringhausen to the St. Louis Cardinals.  Billy Beane then attempted to replace these players by focusing on and using sabermetrics.  He realized that to score runs, people have to be on base or hit home runs, so he focused on getting players with high slugging percentages and high on base percentages (slugging percentage is the total number of bases a player gets divided by the number of at bats a player has, while on-base percentage is the measure of how often a batter reaches base).  With his team of cheap, overlooked players who could get on base and play great defense, Billy Beane revolutionized baseball and showed small market teams how to win an unfair game.


The Rockets are leading the NBA into the world of analytics.

Basketball is another sport that has recently adopted analytics.  When the three-point line was first introduced in 1979, players ignored it and continued to clog the paint and look for high-percentage shots near the basket.  The three-point line is now a staple in the NBA.  Teams have recently started focusing on the three-point shot.  The Houston Rockets decided a few years ago that long two point shots were worthless.  They decided to either take a few steps back and take a three-point shot, or go for layups.  This approach focuses on the fact that the long two point shot and the three-point shot have similar percentages, but the three-point shot gives one point more which can make a big difference in close games.  The Houston Rockets have ridden this strategy to the best offense in the league this year by taking 2308 three-point shots, close to four hundred more than the next closest Boston Celtics, and making 840 three-pointers this year, more than one hundred more than the second-best Cavaliers.  Also, the fact that last year’s Finals was a matchup of the top two teams in three pointers made and the last five teams remaining in the 2015 Playoffs were the top five teams in three pointers made shows the value of and the increase in focus on the three-point shot.  Another sign of the increase in three pointers in this new age of basketball is that January 2015 was the first time that there were more three point attempts in a month than free throw attempts.    Two more new aspect of the game studied by analytics are defense and teamwork.  Defense has always been valued, but offense has always been more important.  Recently though, defense has been valued more and teams have started relying on defense more than offense.   Also, high volume scorers such as Carmelo Anthony are not as valued today as they were five, ten or twenty years ago (See “Melo Is a Superstar?”).  Teams like the San Antonio Spurs, a team that stresses ball movement and teamwork, have started to take over the NBA.  Finally, in 2013, the NBA installed player tracking systems in twenty nine of the thirty arenas.  These systems track every movement a player makes allowing coaches and analysts to go back and calculate every players’ skills and deficiencies.  Coaches can now start analyzing a players’ actions and their worth, not just picking players off “the eye-test.”  The NBA has taken many steps to develop the league and look at the true value of every aspect of the game.

The NBA and MLB have lead the world of sports directly into the future, and the world of analytics.  While the NFL has not yet committed to using analytics, the NBA and MLB have given enough evidence to show the real value of analytics.  Part of the reason the NFL has not yet started using analytics may be due to the fact that on average, NFL franchises last changed ownership in 1980, while average NBA and MLB teams last changed ownership in 1999.  These older owners may still be stuck in the past and may want to hold to their older methods.  Despite this, NFL franchises would be smart to follow the MLB and NBA and start learning more about the game through analytics.


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