Show Me The Numbers

Nothing gets me excited during the baseball season like poring over baseball statistics. I used to obsess over simple stats on the backs of baseball cards, batting average, home runs, and runs batted in, but today I keep up with the newest metrics out there, too. It seems like every year baseball analysts are coming up with new ways to measure a ballplayer’s ability: value over replacement player, on-base plus slugging, wins above replacement, player empirical comparison, and optimization test algorithm, to name a few. This trend has not caught on in other major sports, like basketball or football, and it is unclear why. American professional sports ought to embrace the advanced statistics revolution that has become an integral part of baseball.

Most of these metrics, like VORP, are very hard to derive but have transformed the way that the eager fan understands the game. Advances in baseball stats in the past decade have done wonders for enhancing the experience of the baseball season. Instead of comparing New York Yankee Alex E. Rodriguez’s home-run totals from year to year, fans can now discuss his “win shares” in each season. One is hard-pressed to find similar, flashy new stats in basketball and football. A few exist, but none has the recognition of its baseball counterparts.

Teams can gain an edge on the opposition by embracing statistics. In baseball, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, Billy L. Beane, revolutionized the game in the late 1990s through his statistics-driven “Moneyball” approach to finding the most valuable players at the cheapest price out there. The Athletics flourished under Beane, and soon the rest of baseball was scrambling to learn his numbers-based analysis of talent. The rest is history. Today, a stats guru is just as vital to a baseball team’s front office as the players themselves. Even the Boston Red Sox have the father of all baseball statistics, G. Bill James, on their payroll.

If professional teams in other sports have already developed advanced statistics, then they guard their secrets jealously. There’s evidence that National Basketball Association teams have been compiling advanced stats for a while now, but they have yet to release the data to the general public. Only when stats become available to the public can the major sports fully embrace the statistics revolution the way baseball has.

It will not be hard for professional sports to emulate baseball’s great success in this field. While baseball has the advantage of simple one-on-one matchups that are easy to quantify, inability to record plays in the age of computers and instant replay is a poor excuse for a lack of statistics. At the average major league baseball game there is an army of statisticians whose job it is to record every aspect of the game, every pitch, swing, and throw.

Statisticians should cover other sports the same way. With enough manpower and technology, countless unexplored parameters could be measured. In basketball, the percentage of successful fast-break baskets or pass/dribble rates could be explored. For football, measures of how long an offensive tackle keeps a defensive lineman in front of him or how often a receiver catches a pass in tight coverage could easily be recorded and analyzed. As new stats are developed all the time, the possibilities for new ways to analyze these sports seem limitless. Sports have everything to gain from a greater emphasis on gathering statistics.

Steps can be taken to make this change happen. All that is needed is an enterprising company to take up the challenge. Private organizations need to publish new, innovative stats for the common fan to use. It makes business sense, too: There is a market for advanced statistics. Many fantasy sports fanatics would be willing to pay for access to these stats. Gamblers who bet on sports would be happy to pay for access to stats that improve their chances of winning. Whether people are drawn to the sport for money or pleasure, all would welcome a wave of new statistics.

Leagues would benefit from better public access to statistics. Releasing groundbreaking metrics would only increase fan involvement and interest in professional sports. Teams might be afraid of giving away their competitive edge, but common knowledge of the available statistics today could jumpstart a new generation of more effective and predictive statistics tomorrow.

The age of advanced statistics in sports has arrived, and many leagues are being left behind. These leagues lose not only the utility of more effective player analysis but also neglect a key area of fan interest. If the leagues refuse to evolve on their own, then private businesses must take up the task of developing modern era stats to complement these modern era sports. There is nothing to lose and everything to gain by embracing the statistics revolution. The numbers say so.

Jackson F. Cashion ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Adams House.

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