The on-field play and business dealings in Major League Baseball in the US have for many years now been very data driven. The application of such analytics to the sport is called Sabermetrics. This revolutionary numerical approach was originally developed by Bill James. (Here is a segment of an interview with him on the October 23, 2008 broadcast of 60 Minutes on CBS about his methodology and later work with it for the Boston Red Sox.) This was further popularized by the highly regarded and very compelling 2004 book and 2011 movie Moneyball, written by Michael Lewis, about how the Oakland Athletics used this methodology to improve their team.
In fact, so popular has this approach been in other sports and even other non-sports fields, that term “Moneyball” has been transposed into a verb. That is, X has recently “moneyballed” their salaries, recruiting, marketing, strategy and so on.
Other professional sports in the US are also developing and refining their own forms of data analytics and they are starting to produce demonstrable and dramatic results. Two new articles this week appeared this week on how such tech is affecting professional football and professional basketball. Moreover, both features were focused on the changes this has brought to the examination and fine-tuning of defensive play in the National Football League and the National Basketball Association.
First, on October 28, 2014, The Wall Street Journal carried a piece entitled How Technology Is Killing NFL Defenses, by Kevin Clark. To briefly recap, during the past four seasons, players have had tablets to review game video and the results of this are now becoming manifest. In effect, everything about every play is known and, in turn, the traditional element of surprise is being neutralized to a certain extent. Offenses can now adjust quickly when they recognize patterns and movements by the opposing defensive formations and adjustments. Even the most subtle changes on the line are now being detected that were had previously been unseen in time. As a result, defenses must constantly remain more flexible. Consequently, the percentages of blitzes are up while sacks are down across the NFL. Please check out the full text of this to get a genuine sense of how this is affecting the players and the sport.
Second, the November 2014 issue of WIRED carries and except from a a book published yesterday (October 30, 2014) entitled Faster, Higher, Stronger: How Sports Science Is Creating a New Generation of Superathletes –and What We Can Learn from Them by Mark McClusky (Hudson street Press). The WIRED piece is entitled This Guy’s Quest to Track Every Shot in the NBA Changed Basketball Forever. To sum up, this focuses on the author’s development of sophisticated metrics of the player’s offensive and defensive plays mapped against their points of occurrence on the court. For example, from what points around the key are shots most effective for particular player? Are baskets sinking from certain concentrated points or are they more evenly distributed? As well, in match-ups of offenses and defenses, particularly within 5 feet of the basket, how well, in terms of shots made and sunk, are defenders preventing any scoring? I highly recommend a click through to read all of the details in this highly engaging story and to three of these extraordinarily enlightening graphics. They effectively marge data analysis, visualization and mapping.
My questions in reactions to these two articles are as follows:
- Are there any current or yet to be devised defensive strategies, formations and split second adjustments that, notwithstanding these new defensive-centric tools and analyses, are more resistant to this more transparent game environment?
- Will teams with historically better records get even better while worse teams grow even weaker, or will new forms of dynamics emerge?
- Will these analytics filter down to semi-pro and school athletic leagues and, if so, how will they alter the training and levels of play there? Further, what new skills will coaches need to cultivate?
- Does this present new opportunities for entrepreneurs in sports informatics?
- Will the New York Jets ever win another game this year?