Why Stats Matter

May 8, 2016

Want to be a better sports analyst? Know stats and how to use them. Don’t think because you’ve been watching football/baseball/hockey/basketball/soccer/golf/etc since you were a kid, you know what to look for in a game or in a player.

I became interested in stats when ESPN started televising poker matches. They would give odds of how likely a hand is to beat an opponent’s. A player holding a pair of nines might have a 55% chance to win versus a player holding a non-suited Queen/King. The odds were based upon the stats of a the likely hood of the person getting the best hand based upon the cards left in the deck. The pair of nines are better, but a king or queen might be dealt, or a straight draw, etc. I quickly realized that stats in poker are just like stats in any other sport, and can give valuable insight into teams and players.

Most people who are into sports like to wax philosophic about their teams or the game/sport in general. It’s a way to engage with other fans about a common interest, a catharsis if your team isn’t playing well, or simply provoke thought on how the team can improve. The problem comes when you don’t have evidence to support your claims, yet expect people to take what you have to say at face-value.

Sports performances are largely subjective. I may love Shea Salinas as a player and think he had a great game because I’m looking at the positives and dismissing the negatives. Shea Salinas signed an autograph for me! The same could be said of a player I hate: I may focus on their negatives and ignore their positives. This is why Wondo gets such a bad rap on the USMNT despite him being one of the most consistent goal-scorers over the past six years. One shot tainted people’s views of him, but anyone that has paid attention to his career can see he’s the most prolific active goal-scorer in U.S. soccer, a statistical fact. Bottom line: it’s difficult to take an objective look at the game. Therein is why statistics matter.

Stats are objective evidence. Facts. Verified metrics which give a numerical analysis of a player’s performance. Different positions have different metrics for measuring a player’s value. A quarterback is rated on QBR, a combination of pass completion %, distance, interceptions, right decisions, etc, not just how many points the offense scored. A higher QBR equals a better quarterback. A point-guard is rated on field goal percentage, turnovers, and assists while a center may be measured on rebounds, fouls committed per game, etc. OPS (On-base % plus slugging) is probably the biggest offensive stat in baseball; it tells you how well a baseball player can judge a pitch to hit a ball for power or draw walks, rather than simply hacking at every pitch and hoping to make contact. The batters batting third and fourth typically have the highest OPS on the team.

Soccer, as in any other sport, is the same thing. Soccer has a measure of player statistics which give an overall snapshot of the player’s performance/production which can be compared to other players. For example, two midfielders play, and one creates more chances, more key passes, more crosses, and less turnovers, the stats will tell you which one had the better game based purely upon production. If you want to measure “heart” to say so-and-so had a great game, or has great “intangibles” (things that cannot be measured by stats), that’s purely speculation, also known as BS. Any regular reader of this blog knows I hate BS. I care about one thing: production.

One of the most important things stats do is provide you with odds. This is how Vegas handicaps games: pure statistical analysis to give odds for bets. If a baseball team is starting their ace with a 1.51 ERA/0.89 WHIP against a team starting a bottom-of-the-rotation pitcher with a 5.69 ERA, Vegas is going to bump the odds of winning to the team starting their ace. Does that mean that the team starting their ace is a guaranteed win? No, it just means they have a 75% chance of winning, so Vegas will lower the spread to -200 (you have to bet $200 to win $100) as opposed to a -150 spread. The underdog will always have a +XXX bet or some variation (example, a +110 bet is a $100 bet to win $110). The odds of the team winning versus another team’s ace is less likely, so Vegas creates incentive to bet by offering more money for smaller bets.

Odds are important in sports, especially sports analysis. Playing the players and the formations that create the best odds of winning is the key to success. When analyzing players, it’s important to measure them against others, as well as the position/formation. Dawkins becoming a CAM in Philly, as opposed to an inverted left-winger, totally changed the game and his performance.

Odds are not guarantees. The odds of Portland winning the MLS Cup last year was slim compared to other teams, but they won despite the odds. Don’t think that because the Quakes have an 80% chance to win means they will win, or a 90% chance to lose means they’ll lose. Anything can happen in a game, just like anything can happen on the flop, the turn, and the river in Texas Holdem.

Of course there’s the old adage: there are facts, lies, and statistics. True, stats can be misleading, or a combination of truths and lies. I can say the San Jose Earthquakes are undefeated when Dawkins doesn’t start (statistically true, the Quakes tied FC Dallas and DC United, beat NYRB), but that doesn’t mean the Quakes are better without Dawkins starting. That is why it is necessary to look at multiple stats to get as accurate of a snapshot as possible. Maybe the Quakes beat the odds in those wins when they only had a 40% chance to win while Dawkins gives them a 60% chance to win yet lost a few games. It’s important to weigh the stats together rather than focus on one or two. “Shea had NINE crosses!” “Yes, but only one was successful, and he was dispossessed three times on his 55 touches.” Now I’m getting a better picture of how Shea played: he was great at sending in crosses, but his accuracy was lacking, and his ball control had room for improvement. The same can be true of situations. A team that’s up two goals may change tactics resulting in more chances for the other team.  There are a ton of variables, so take stats with a small grain of salt, for there’s always more to the statistical story.



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