Analytics: Sports + Math Is Cool Now?

Math. The scourge of nearly every student; hours on hours of formulas, problems, theorems, postulates, and exams, or so it can seem. If math is really so terrible, why on earth is it taught? So that children will grow up to be functioning adults. Without math, tasks such as grocery shopping, driving safely, or building buildings would by exponentially more difficult. You couldn’t make any purchases without math; abiding by the speed limits and creating schematics for new structures would by nigh on impossible. Without a knowledge of basic – or advanced – math, our society wouldn’t be able to operate. There would be no computers. No iPhones. No technology at all. You wouldn’t even be reading this article right now – wouldn’t that be a tragedy. Finally, without math, there would be no sports, or at the very least, no sports as we know them today.

At this point, I’m sure you’re asking just what mathematics and sports have to do with each other. After all, wasn’t recess, where sports are often played, invented to give kids a break from their schoolwork? Don’t children flock outdoors to clear their minds, many using sports as an outlet? Well, it just so happens that sports and math are more intertwined than we think. In fact, they are more intertwined than ever.

an·a·lyt·ics, noun

The term “analytics” originated somewhere in the late 1500’s, in Mediterranean Europe, from medieval Latin and ancient Greek. Today, analytics are often associated with technology. In modern society, there are a plethora of different uses for analytics. From Google Analytics, designed to track various portions of data on websites, to business analytics, basically just a massive influx of data generated by assorted companies, to social media analytics, which tracks marketers’ hits, posts, and overall outreach; the number is only growing.

Analytics literally means:

  • “the systematic computational analysis of data or statistics”

or,

  •  “information resulting from the systematic analysis of data or statistics”

But what about analytics in the sports world? As it turns out, the very idea of amalgamating sports and math into one entity is not a new invention; on the contrary, it’s been around for over one hundred years. The name for this concept is beyond creative; it’s called “sports analytics”.

In order to gain some more insight into sports analytics, we must embark on a brief history lesson. Back in 1913, in the days where baseball really was America’s pastime, a young Branch Rickey, the man later responsible for Jackie Robinson’s time with the Dodgers, was innovating once again. Rickey was working as a field manager and executive for the St. Louis Browns. During his stint managing the Browns, Rickey instituted one of the first ever uses of analytics in sports. He hired a man to sit behind home plate, counting the total number of bases each player gained per at bat, along with the resulting bases gained by teammates as a result of the play. The goal of this was to assess the players most valuable to the team. After all, the more bases you advance, the higher your probability is of scoring.

Advances

While this concept may seem simple, Branch Rickey took one of the first steps in furthering sports analytics. Just how far have analytics progressed in sports since 1913? As it turns out, quite a lot. Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball highlighted the Oakland A’s use of analytics to scout and discover new players. This allowed the A’s to adjust for the often irregular and biased decisions made by scouts and organizations. Since then, sabermetrics, statistical analysis specifically designed for baseball, has become commonplace in Major League Baseball.

The heightened use of analytics has led many MLB teams to start using a defensive “shift”. Teams utilize statistics that illustrate batters’ hitting tendencies. Some hitters almost always hit to the right, or to the left. Clubs now have enough information to “shift” their defense to better defend against this situation.

With baseball as the catalyst, analytics has spread to every major sport in the world; every team has some sort of data analysis department.

Basketball has implemented an on-court player tracking system to give teams more information about their players. Six cameras have been installed in every single NBA arena, giving all 30 teams equal access to this information. Teams can now look at a dozen different categories of information: player movement, ball distribution, rebounding efficiency, commonly run plays, etc. This allows each team to be more prepared, therefore raising the overall quality of the league. As illustrated in one of my previous articles, the rapid rise of the analytics movement has also triggered a three point explosion in basketball all over the nation.

Soccer has adjusted to the new age of added analysis in sports similarly to basketball. Like the NBA, soccer teams all over the globe have installed cameras in their stadiums in order to garner more data to analyze from every game. During practice, many players wear training devices, including GPS technology and heart rate monitors, to track players’ movements and overall health. Some clubs are even moving this technology into their players’ off the field activities, such as sleeping and eating. These devices aim to form an ideal preparation regimen specifically tailored to each individual.

Over in the NFL, teams are more open to analytics now than ever before. The league’s movement to become more pass heavy can be seen as a direct correlation to the rise of analytics in sports. More yards are gained per pass play, as opposed to a run play, making it more efficient to throw the ball. The NFL’s all time leader in pass yards per play totals exactly two yards higher than his rushing counterpart. There’s no coincidence that some teams are averaging more than 40 passes per game, with many teams going over the 50 mark.

Question Marks

All of these innovations seem great, right? Most people think so. However, there are still various holdouts in the sports world. Charles Barkley has been one the most vocal opponents of analytics. calling Daryl Morey, the Rockets GM and a proponent of analytics, an “idiot” for putting so much stock in the idea. While Barkley isn’t the most reliable source for, well, anything, there is a valid question somewhere underneath his fountain of misinformation. Have we moved to rely too much on analytics? Have we lost the “human element” in sports today? And most critically, are analytics actually an improvement over the old methods of scouting, analyzing, and performing? It’s hard to say. Those who are pro-analytics will argue that they have drastically improved the sport, while those who are against analytics will argue that analytics are ruining the games we love. Unfortunately for those in the anti-analytics camp, there have been too many advances in technology and too many success stories as a direct result of analytics for them to be dismissed now. Like it or not, the age of sports analytics is real, it’s growing, and it’s here to stay.