The new sports battleground is no longer about the value of a stats approach vs. a traditional one. Most teams by now realize that blending the two offers a better shot at winning. The bigger challenge is how to get humans to catch up to the numbers.
Inside sports business
A few Mariners managers ago, Eric Wedge was bemoaning the impact of “sabermetrics” on struggling hitter Dustin Ackley.
Wedge found himself in hot water that 2013 season for stating that Ackley, who had been demoted to Class AAA, had too much information cluttering his mind. Namely, Wedge felt that advanced statistics were interfering with the former No. 2 overall draft pick’s plate approach.
“It’s the new generation. It’s all this sabermetrics stuff, for lack of a better term, you know what I mean?’’ Wedge said. “People who haven’t played since they were 9 years old think they have it figured out. It gets in these kids’ heads.’’
Wedge took heat for those comments, which some took as insinuating the stats-gatherers themselves were broken and not a hitter the Mariners eventually traded to the New York Yankees. But Wedge actually was dabbing at an issue that today represents a major challenge in all sports where advanced stats and technology are being deployed like never before.
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Namely: How do you get players to store all of this information coming at them rapid fire? To the point where they actually use it instinctively on the playing field?
It may sound trivial. But for teams building entire divisions of stats personnel seeking any edge they can find, transmitting that into on-field results becomes paramount.
The issue was widely discussed at the recent GeekWire Sports Tech Summit at Safeco Field, where athletes, business leaders and stats experts told a similar story. As great as modern tech and stats advances are, they agreed, they are useless if not applied practically.
“When you talk about that gut feeling, we need to have that when we go on the football field,’’ Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin told conference-goers. “No matter how much data or information … that (gut feeling) can’t change, because at the end of the day you have to make the decision.
“In a split second, when I catch the ball, I can’t make a decision like ‘OK, the data says this, so I should do this,’ ” Baldwin said. “I can’t do that. Yes, maybe it will help me in terms of repetition. But when I’m out on the field, I’m not thinking about that. It has to be second nature.”
Which is what Wedge, in his own way, was inferring about Ackley overthinking his approach.
The information is all potentially valuable. But it’s a matter of prioritizing, simplifying and communicating it to the athletes in ways they can use.
That’s why the most stats-inclined front offices insist on employing coaches open to new ideas and adept at communicating them.
Baldwin, an avid fan of tech in sports, mentioned challenges faced by coaches dealing with players who process information differently. He talked about the Seahawks using Microsoft Surface tablets on the sideline during games to review plays and make instant corrections.
“The thing I’ve noticed is that all of us are different,’’ Baldwin said. “I can look at this one sheet of paper and tell that this defensive back is in this particular position, and I have a completely different take on it than Darrell Bevell, our offensive coordinator, would. And he’s telling me to do one thing, and I’m telling him, ‘That’s not going to work, I’m going to try to do this.’
“And we’re looking at the same picture.”
Prominent baseball author and sabermetrics proponent Rob Neyer raised another key issue about stats dissemination in a Vice Sports article last week titled “Not Enough Cooks.” Neyer took the virtually unheard of step of suggesting that Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane was being too insular with his inner circle in collecting and disseminating information.
Beane has long been lauded for his innovative stats approaches. But with the A’s having tumbled into irrelevance following questionable player moves, Neyer asked whether Beane is “falling behind” teams with much bigger statistical staffs.
“There’s just so much more data these days, and data needs parsing and parsing needs man- and woman-hours,” Neyer wrote. “One can’t help wondering if ‘a tight little group’ just can’t keep up.”
Neyer mentioned the Dodgers having 41 baseball-operations staffers, the Cubs having 31. Both would make the playoffs if the season ended today. The floundering A’s have only 21 baseball-ops staffers listed, among the fewest in baseball.
Granted, not all such staffers specialize in stats. Also, Neyer is mostly critiquing how Beane and company collect info and not necessarily how they transmit it to players.
But you can’t worry about getting players to focus on the most important stats without first singling that info out from piles of data made available by increasingly powerful computers. It’s all part of the process: gathering the key data within a front office, employing coaches who can communicate it and then having athletes use the info in a way Seahawks receiver Baldwin would describe as second nature.
That’s why the new sports battleground is no longer about the value of a stats approach vs. a traditional one. Most teams by now realize that blending the two offers a better shot at winning.
The bigger challenge is how to get humans to catch up to the numbers and ideas thrown our way like never before. And those teams that manage it will gain a distinct advantage over opponents that can’t.