In addition to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s smug defensiveness, these three things stood out during the first day of the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference:
1. The leadoff panel of this year’s event might have been the most anticipated: It was a reunion of Moneyball author Michael Lewis and his chief subject in the landmark book, Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane. But it was another guest on the panel — no, not Brad Pitt, but sabermetrics forefather and Red Sox adviser Bill James — who stole the show with his brush-back rebuttal of some recent comments by grouchy Hall of Famer Goose Gossage. Gossage, 64, took a break from angrily shaking his fist at clouds Thursday to lament the state of the game — especially the impact of all of those nerdy-nerd numbers.
“The game is becoming a freaking joke because of the nerds who are running it,’’ Gossage told ESPN. “I’ll tell you what has happened, these guys played rotisserie baseball at Harvard or wherever the [expletive] they went, and they thought they figured the [expletive] game out.’’
James, who was discussing what has changed in baseball since Moneyball was published in 2002, responded with this: “That’s what’s changed since 2002. You used to have to have to pay attention to those guys [like Gossage]. Now you can just ignore them.’’
It’s a great point, though one that should probably be tweaked. It’s not about ignoring guys like Gossage. After all, his comments did generate plenty of headlines. The difference is how easily such nonsense can be dismissed these days, even if we do acknowledge it. The days of the three-inning closer — which Gossage occasionally was, as fans of the ’78 Red Sox remember all too well — are long gone, and they’re not coming back. But analytics? They’re not going anywhere, whether the likes of Gossage want to acknowledge it or not.
2. Many of the best panels at Sloan are slated for Saturday, rather than Friday’s opening act. And in the five or so years I’ve covered this event, the best ones typically are centered on the NBA. The hack-a-stat panel — which includes Rockets general manager and Sloan co-founder Daryl Morey, ESPN writer Zach Lowe, former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, Celtics assistant general manager Mike Zarren, and former Celtic Brian Scalabrine — seems like a particularly compelling look at how data and the extraordinary levels of knowledge and information we have now is changing the game. I can’t think of an ex-player who is more qualified to discuss this stuff than Scal. But there’s another NBA panel — one he’s moderating — Saturday that ought to be entertaining, though not for reasons related to analytics. It’s titled: Modern NBA Coaching: Balancing Team and Talent. The panelists? Scott Brooks, Vinny Del Negro, and Mike Brown — three coaches who are currently out of work because of, in part, their utter inability to balance team and talent. The panel should produce some interesting anecdotes, but this is one Byron Scott appearance away from being the worst collection of NBA coaches in one room since Rick Pitino found himself alone in his Celtics office in January 2001.
3. Neil Greenberg, who writes the excellent Fancy Stats blog for The Washington Post probably isn’t a favorite sports writer among Patriots fans. In the aftermath of Von Miller carrying Peyton Manning to a career-capping victory in Super Bowl 50, Greenberg wrote this: “Even before Manning got his second ring he deserved to be looked upon as the NFL’s all-time greatest quarterback. Now that he has ring No. 2, there really shouldn’t be any debate.’’
In the column, which ran Feb. 7, Greenberg explained his thought process with the aid of various charts and analytics, none of which served to convince anyone around here of his case. So I found it interesting that Greenberg — who joined Nate Silver, Pablo Torre, and a couple of other number-crunching specialists on the ESPN-sponsored Serving the Sports Fan with Analytics panel Friday afternoon — offered one of the best explanations of the value of and satisfaction that can be found in analytics I have ever heard: “I think that people [who are skeptical] of analytics think that we, meaning us in the world of media, are definitively trying to answer a question. Who is the best of all time, or who is the best at this or that. And that’s not true. We’re not trying to take away debate or the conversation. We’re trying to do [the player or subject] justice, to find out all of the information we can, not to tell you definitively who is best, but to enhance the argument.’’