There’s no such thing as advanced sports statistics

While “advanced statistics” are well-ensconced in the baseball world, they are still in fairly nascent stages in the faster-paced worlds of hockey and basketball. For two reasons, baseball is particularly well-suited for this so-called “advanced” analysis: 1) play essentially consists of discrete, one-on-one interactions and 2) a season is long enough to permit the accumulation of a statistically significant number of these interactions, from which meaningful trends can be derived. Hockey lacks both of these characteristics. It’s a fluid sport that rarely features isolated, one-on-one interactions, and numbers people say that the amount of compilable events during an NHL season, which is half as long as a MLB season, are too few to allow for statistical normalization. In other words, the sample size is too small.

Lee Panas’ book on advanced baseball statistics, Beyond Batting Average, which I began reading earlier this year, begins with the deceptively helpful reminder that “[w]ins and losses are indeed what matter.” Statistical data helps to understand why teams won or lost and whether and how they might win or lose in the future.

In the hockey world, advanced statistics, in general, aren’t too advanced just yet, at least when compared with the baseball sabermetric world. At present, the central concept is that, because goals– an obvious leading indicator of success (i.e., wins)– are too rare to be statistically useful, advanced hockey statistics orient themselves around possession. Because it is somewhat difficult, from a practical standpoint, to measure time of possession with useful precision, however, the leading metrics, known as Corsi and Fenwick, simply track those things a player and his team can do only when they possess the puck, which essentially amounts to shooting it.

If you prefer an expert with a more conversational style, here’s Grantland’s Sean McIndoeContinue reading

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Baseball Notes: The Crux of the Statistical Biscuit

baseball notes

The purpose of the interrupted Baseball Notes series is to highlight just-below-the-surface baseball topics for the purpose of deepening the enjoyment of the game for casual fans like you and me.

In the interest of achieving that casual purpose, this series generally will avoid advanced statistical concepts. One need not grasp the depths of wRC+ or xFIP to enjoy baseball, of course, or even to think about the give-and-take between baseball traditionalists, who eschew advanced statistics, and the sabermetricians, who live by them.

Moneyball famously highlighted this debate, such as it is, and it arose in the 2012 season around the American League MVP race between Miguel Cabrera (the eventual winner, and the traditional favorite) and Mike Trout, and again last season in the context of commentator Brian Kenny’s “Kill the Win” campaign against ascribing significant meaning to pitchers’ win-loss records.

The reason this “debate”– the “eye test,” wins, and batting average versus WAR et al.– isn’t really a debate is because the two sides have different descriptive goals. In short, the traditional group is concerned with what has happened, while the sabermetric group is concerned with what will happen. The former statically tallies the game’s basic value points, while the latter is out to better understand the past in order to predict the future. The basic stats on the back of a player’s baseball card aim to tell you what he did in prior seasons; the advanced statistics on Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, or in Baseball Prospectus aim to tell you something about what he’ll do next year based on a deeper understanding of what he did in prior seasons.

The previous paragraph represents an oversimplification, and probably a gross one, but I think it accurately highlights the basic, if slight, misalignment of initial points of view from the two main groups of people talking about how we talk about baseball today.

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[UPDATED] Fistered: Tigers lose starting pitcher to the Nationals

News broke last night that the Detroit Tigers traded starting pitcher Doug Fister to the Washington Nationals, the team’s second major move of this young offseason. (They traded Prince Fielder to the Texas Rangers for Ian Kinsler last month.)

In exchange for Fister, the Nationals sent Detroit Steve Lombardozzi Jr., a utility player; Ian Krol, a left-handed reliever; and Robbie Ray, a left-handed starting pitcher in the minor leagues. Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski said that Krol “can step right into our bullpen and has the potential to be a No. 1 lefthanded reliever,” and he called Lombardozzi “one of the best utilitymen in baseball.”

It’s tough for me to evaluate this trade, because I’ve never heard of Lombardozzi, Krol, or Ray. I’m far from a league-wide expert on players, but that may be an evaluative statement, however. I know Dombrowski has committed to moving Drew Smyly into a starting role, but I thought it would be Rick Porcello, or perhaps Max Scherzer, who departed to make room for Smyly. The decision to move Fister surprised me, and although I don’t know anything about Lombardozzi, Krol, or Ray, I can’t help feeling like Detroit got too little in return for the very solid Fister.   Continue reading