Much has been made over the importance of analytics in professional sports. “Numbers can never replace your eyes,” may be the ex-jock, Kenny Powers lookalike credo, but that backwards thinking is rooted in ignorance and fear. While analytics cannot — and should not — be taken as gospel or replace traditional scouting measures completely, a hybrid of the two approaches can yield tremendous results.
One of the tenants of the analytical community has been a calculus attempting to create a formula to measure the value of a win. Baseball has WAR, which stands for Wins Above Replacement, an aggregate of a single player’s contributions when compared to a “replacement player”, basically a man at the end of the bench without the ability to play on a full-time basis. Basketball has PER, football DVOA, less established and prominent comprehensive statistics that attempt to tell fans which players truly provide the most value, even if the eye test doesn’t do them justice.
Even hockey has CORSI, though its acceptance in league circles truly undermines its value. CORSI is at its core a simple measurement of shots that are attempted in a game, adjusted to determine each team’s percentage. Literally anyone who could count to 100 and can pass remedial 5th grade math can technically calculate CORSI, but general managers dismiss its usefulness, chalking it up as “too advanced” and “confusing”. Again, it’s 5th grade math.
Herein lies the problem with analytics and arguably the main flaw with those entrusted with explaining their importance: the general public, and to a lesser extent entrenched front office decision makers, doesn’t want to understand analytics for the fear that the math is too advanced, the numbers are too confusing and both detract from the “fun” that sports provide. This is a debate for a different day, but eventually savvy television and internet broadcasters, writers and producers will figure out how to convey the importance of statistics into the sports themselves. It’s just a matter of time.
Most agree that determining how to evaluate players when compared positionally and historically remains the most important aspect of analytics. Encompassing that goal as a major piece of a larger pie will allow statisticians and front offices to determine the relative skill of their respective teams, helping them determine a myriad of factors, including win expectancy, notable weaknesses, areas of improvement and potential acquisitions that shift the team’s likelihood of winning. As teams develop better predictive models and more finite and comprehensive data, they’ll be able to better understand both their short-term and long-term potential for success. And do everything in their power to sculpt their fate so that the highs reach the peaks but the lows scrape the bottom of the valleys.
As long as the professional sports keep their current models for acquiring new talent, tanking will exist. The mere act of “intentionally losing” in order to secure a better draft pick remains a hot button and controversial issue. As does the act of trading away expensive assets in exchange for a pittance of their value in order to obtain financial flexibility that can be used when the team is actually relevant again. Take baseball, for example. The Houston Astros have won 162 games over the past three years! They’ve played 486 (and lost 324). For that “accomplishment”, they’ve had the first overall pick in the past two MLB entry drafts and will select first again for the 2014 draft in June. While some argue that the team shouldn’t be rewarded for this level of futility, Houston is just playing by a system that encourages such pitiful major league performance. Winning 10 or 15 more games over the past three years wouldn’t have offset the loss in attendance (which itself was offset on the books by the rise in television revenue and the microscopic payrolls), but it could have jeopardized the team’s ability to choose the best amateur player in baseball in any of the past three years. This isn’t tanking, it’s maximizing long-term success by encouraging short-term failure.
The NFL follows the same model, while the NBA and NHL have a draft lottery, with slightly more slotting fluctuations. Each of the four major sports gives the team with the worst record the best odds to draft the best player available. Calculating the value of a win may be easy, but for the majority of teams, determining the value of a loss may be more important.
Every team’s primary long-term goal is — or at least should be, Miami Marlins — to win a championship. Secondary goals are to win multiple championships and establish potential dynasties that reach the postseason in a string of consecutive years. For small market and/or teams with the poor fortune of being relatively above average, few avenues offer vast opportunities to improve.
Tanking should be celebrated because only those teams that truly believe they’re abysmal attempt the practice. The Chicago Bulls don’t tank, they’re too good, destined to be a mid-level team that falls victim to one of the two powerhouses in the Eastern Conference. The Washington Nationals can’t tank, they have two of the best young talents in Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg. The Green Bay Packers, led by arguably the best quarterback in football, will attempt to win games at any cost, so long as said quarterback remains upright. Those teams have determined that their current rosters have enough talent and a great enough win expectancy that the marginal value of each loss is insignificant to the team’s ability to better itself in the following offseason.
Unless the commissioners change the draft formats, mediocre-to-bad teams will have incredible incentives to be as awful as possible in order to drastically improve their long-term odds at success. It’s simple analytics. If fielding the best possible team is the ultimate result, it would make sense to look for avenues that encourage such aggressive rebuilding or asset acquisition. Not to mention that only in baseball do players at the top of the draft get significantly more money than players a few picks lower (and even then, it’s not a foregone conclusion that players will hold out for higher paydays than what MLB allotted in their pick values. The worst teams in the league have the potential — if they choose correctly — to significantly upgrade their rosters, all without having to sacrifice any player and pay an exorbitant salary. Why should they even attempt to win?
The Chicago Cubs have been part of an aggressive rebuild under team president Theo Epstein, who found success in a somewhat similar fashion with the Boston Red Sox. Epstein didn’t have to look through the draft for many of the players he acquired that helped the Red Sox win their first World Series in a century, but many on the roster had been drafted by Epstein’s predecessor. Once those players were ready to contribute, the team was aggressive in free agency and the rest was history. In theory, the Cubs will use this blueprint, acquiring players via free agency when the time is truly right.
For teams that want to win and can’t afford to — or are not allowed to — spend as much money as they want, the marginal value of a loss likely supersedes the potential value of a win, when every “win” matters.