Monday, March 02, 2015
To that end, yes, of course, some teams invest more in analytical personnel, and some do a better job of integrating that into strategy, tactics, and method on the field or court. But try naming some and why, specifically, they’re successful. You’ll get as far as an accommodating owner or infrastructure, like the Mavericks or Rockets enjoy, or the efficiency of scale the Red Sox or New York Yankees can sometimes employ in turning small-market tactics loose with big-market ruthlessness (and margin for error), but not much further. There’s a reason for that: the actual work of transcoding data to usable intelligence involves the most closely-kept industry secrets in sports, to the point that, as I heard it from some of the private analytics crowd, multiple NBA teams were furious last year when Kirk Goldsberry and the Harvard group made public their models for parsing SportVU data in a useful way. As a rule, no one shows their work; no one shows proofs or models or submits to peer review that extends beyond the trade deadline. Yes, it’s probable that the Rockets really do have some great quants working in-house—who, like the best quants at your local Evil Finance Operation, are likely kept chained in a dark room being fed graphing paper so competitors never learn their names—but that probability rests in the team’s proven record of turning observation into philosophy into decisions into on-court success. The irony is that for all the complications added to sports organizations over the last several years, because of those complications and their secrecy, simple old wins are just about the only honest metric available to the public by which to judge whether or not a team’s analytics department has done a good job.
That doesn’t mean no one tries to prove otherwise. In the absence of any way to check everyone’s homework for bullshit, it’s very easy to just praise the teams who seem most vociferous about abiding by the maxims of analytics as good-faith practitioners. Draft picks and youth are valuable; roster flexibility is key; defense is cheap, and maybe the new (or now just recent) inefficiency—all the little truisms distilled and disseminated in that ESPN analytics package are basically just talking points when coming from teams that promise they’ve done the math even if you can’t see it working yet.
As such, the analytics story right now isn’t just about a standard-issue business division being imparted divine powers by the media and the people who benefit from such coverage; it’s about right-minded and unverifiable claims being attached to all manner of disasters as a way of reassuring fans that they shouldn’t worry, that there is a plan, and that the plan is based on smart-people things.
But seriously, the Mariners are still working on that state-of-the-art weight room.
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