Everyone loves sports analytics, and Boston’s at the center
Just two years ago, the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference featured a common lament among panelists who represented teams from the major sports. While front-office analysis could identify inefficiencies, a challenge remained in turning such findings into on-field improvements.
Rare was the unbroken chain that ran from analytics departments to coaching staffs to players. Skepticism of analytics at the player level remained high, and represented an impediment to change.
That view is evolving. In the opening remarks of this year’s conference, Rockets GM – and SSAC co-founder – Daryl Morey dusted off some slides from the conference’s earliest days after it debuted in 2007 as a sort of business casual garage workshop in MIT’s classrooms.
Back then, conference participants had shown that the pass was underused relative to the run in football. Meanwhile, NBA teams were stuck in their own knuckle-dragging mud, taking too few 3-pointers while attempting too many long-range jumpers from inside the arc.
Morey juxtaposed those slides with simple graphs showing the steadily increasing usage of both tactics in their respective leagues. He also showed a heat map of where his own Rockets (now coached by Mike D’Antoni, who was a speaker and interested observer of several SSAC panels in 2015) now take shots – with almost every attempt coming inside the lane or beyond the 3-point arc. The mid-range jumper – the least efficient shot in basketball – has been all but eliminated from the team’s oeuvre.
At its start, the “Moneyball” revolution was foremost about talent acquisition – how front offices identified and valued talent. It was about building rosters.
Now, the reach of analytics seems more complete. It’s found on the NFL sidelines in play-calling, in the MLB dugout in altered usage patterns of starters and relievers alike, on the NBA court in shot distribution, in players’ personal lives in terms of greater attention to sleep patterns.
The analysts are no longer being shut out of the conversation. Everyone is listening to them, resulting in the ongoing, startling growth of the conference. This year, according to Morey’s conference co-founder, Jessica Gelman, the CEO of the Kraft Analytics Group, more than 3,500 attendees filled the Hynes Convention Center.
“We’re kind of riding a wave. We continue to,” said Morey. “The reason why this gets better every year is because it works and it helps teams win. That’s really it.”
The pervasiveness of buy-in and acceptance has arrived at a fairly striking point. Baseball alone offers numerous examples.
Sluggers like Kris Bryant of the Cubs and Mark Trumbo of the Orioles have discussed tailoring their swings to optimize the launch angles of balls they put in play, an approach meant to turn contact into homers with greater frequency. Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen referenced Statcast evidence that he is more effective tracking balls to his right than his left in discussing his acceptance of a move from center to right field. Pitchers seek out data on everything from release points, stride length, and spin rates in an effort to comprehend their performances.
It is no longer front-office members who are communicating these concepts to players. Increasingly, ex-players (among them, Brian Bannister with the Red Sox, Tommy Hottovy with the Cubs, and Dan Haren and Burke Badenhop with the Diamondbacks) are becoming data-savvy coaches who are capable of discussing analytics with executives while also relating to players in familiar clubhouse language.
“The jocks are becoming the nerds,” pronounced Dave Cameron of Fangraphs.
In a way, everyone in the sports world is becoming a nerd. Wayne LeGarie, an agent to several NBA coaches, noted that the Sloan Conference itself had become a sort of “coaching car wash,” a way for out-of-work coaches to prove their open-mindedness to research-driven concepts.
“If my coaches don’t speak or don’t understand analytics, they’re not getting the job,” said LeGarie, who noted that all four coaches he’s sent to the Sloan Conference got hired.
The Sloan Conference is now primarily noteworthy for offering an event conducted in the language of analytics rather than expanding attendees’ vocabularies in new ways. Nearly all the speakers at the conference are guarded about what they say, keeping proprietary or controversial findings out of sight.
“If I say anything you find interesting,” joked one speaker, “I haven’t done my job.”
That sense has made it common for some attendees to bemoan the absence of game-changing presentations at the conference.
There are flickers of intrigue about developments that have a chance to alter what teams do – whether the endless celebrations of wearable, biometric technology as an injury-prevention mechanism, or the run of NBA teams visiting the booth of Noah Basketball, a real-time feedback system that helps players improve their shooting arc, or a lecture on “The Science of Sleep” and its measurable implications for athletic performance.
Still, much of what happens at Sloan – particularly the larger panels with the most recognizable names – is descriptive of what’s happened in sports. With a few exceptions, there are few indications about what lies ahead in the sports landscape.
Yet that very notion, and the fact that teams cling desperately to whatever proprietary secrets they believe they possess, is itself a demonstration of a sports landscape that has altered considerably from the time when Gelman and Morey organized the first Sloan conference in 2007.
“There’s no low-hanging fruit at the executive level,” said Billy Beane, the A’s executive vice president of baseball operations. “You’re not really privy nowadays to what other people are doing. … You may think you’re doing something different and you’re not. … I have no idea if we’re Fred Flintstone or cutting edge.”
The Sloan Conference represents an effort by its attendees to be the latter – or at least not to be confused with the former. Either way, it represents the undeniable reach of analytics in how sports are currently understood and operated.