(The High Screen is running a novice’s guide to advanced statistical analysis in sports in the form of a 10-part series. Part I was an introduction to the series. Part II covered Baseball. Part III covered basketball. Part IV covered hockey. Part V was a Q+A with Matthew Coller. Part VI covered American Football . Part VII covered the Calgary Flames. Part VIII was a Q+A with Rob Vollman)
While the use of advanced stats in sports analysis has become quite prominent over the last decade, there are still many detractors in the ranks of media, team personnel and fans. Large groups of people have dismissed the idea of using advanced stats for a variety of reasons.
While I would never tell anyone what the proper way to enjoy or cover a sport is, I’d like to take this opportunity to address some of the more common criticisms. After all, it’s likely that someone looking to get into analytics may have had some of these same concerns.
Watch the game, nerd!
This is likely the most common phrase attached to a blanket dismissal of advanced stats. It is, of course, not a legitimate critique as much as a straw man argument. No respectable purveyor of advanced stats would tell you that watching a game is unimportant. Stats are meant to complement scouting, not supplement it.
As I said in the intro piece, statistics are just a log of what’s happened in a game, season or career. They add context to what you’ve seen. It’s impossible for the human mind to remember and categorize everything it sees over the course of a game, much less a season. That’s where statistical analysis comes in.
Watching the game is important for such obvious reasons I don’t feel I need to list them here.
In short: paying attention to advanced stats doesn’t mean you should pay less attention to the game.
You never played the game!
This is a common criticism whether or not the issue in question involves advanced stats. It’s also an incredible cop out. If playing a game at a professional level allows you some sort of insight that has escaped non-professionals (which it probably does), then the athlete should be able to explain that insight fully without resorting to dismissive language.
And while I believe playing a game at the highest level offers insights someone who didn’t play pro wouldn’t get, that shouldn’t exclude people who haven’t from analyzing that sports.
Following the “you never played the game” logic, anyone who was never president would never be able to criticize the commander in chief. Were you ever a chef? Then, you better not comment on any food you order at a restaurant ever. See how ridiculous that sounds?
Of course someone who’s never played a sport professionally can analyze it. Someone who’s never played a sport at all can analyze it.
I know what I see
The issue with this is two-fold. First, it’s the refrain of someone who wants to think what they think and will deny all evidence that challenges their opinion. Second, it’s not always true. Like I said above, it’s not possible to watch, remember and categorize every play of every game in a season.
Second, what we think we see is flawed and full of biases. It’s not enough to just watch a game and add no context to it if you want to analyze sports. Statistics give you that context.
You can make numbers say whatever you want
First off, you can’t make number everything, but statistics can be manipulated to support certain agendas or arguments. And there are plenty of bad or useless statistics that can manipulate the perception of a player or team.
That’s why it’s important to pay attention to the factors that can influence statistics. For example, traditional thought would say won/loss record is a good way to measure pitching success in baseball. But this is a highly-dependent on the quality of the team surrounding the pitcher. For example, let’s say a pitcher throws nine innings and allows one run in the average game, but his team is shut out every game. He’d have zero wins and plenty of losses. Obviously this is an extreme example, but it showcases the weaknesses of that stat.
It’s important to enter any situation with an open mind, willing to forget what you previously thought. Statistics can only be manipulated if someone is willing to manipulate them.
Overall, be open to learning and changing your mind. The use of advanced metrics has always gone hand-in-hand with challenging conventional wisdom. People are quick to dismiss the analytics movement with provably-false one-liners because they don’t want to admit the way they’ve operated in the past has been flawed.
You don’t have to care about advanced stats to be a good fan. But don’t let anyone feed you one of the above lines. Now, you know better.
Taylor Nigrelli (@Nigrelli93) is a staff writer for the High Screen. He is a senior at St. Bonaventure University and was raised in Buffalo. He covers baseball and hockey, and throws in the occasional pop culture piece. His work also appears on The Hungry Dog Blog.