Dispatch from Sloan: Talking Tim Tebow, Derek Jeter, and the Truth and Joy Found in Analytics

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Let me see, I think is the fourth year I’ve attended the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. Or it might be the fifth. I’ve never been a math master, which is just the kind of self-aware confession that annually makes me feel like the most clueless guy in the room at this thing.

I’m not sure I actually was the most clueless guy this particular year. This ESPN-sponsored intersection of sports, business and innovation in which franchises risk looking out-of-touch to their fan base if they don’t at least send one representative, is the kind of gathering where, upon arrival at the Boston Convention And Exhibition Center, you immediately notice odd cross-sport conversations such as Spurs general manager R.C. Buford chatting with former Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum.

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What could those two, who would be on opposite ends of the spectrum if we ranked every general manager this century in major professional sports by competence and achievement, possibly be discussing?

I peered down from the escalator, anticipating the inevitable moment when the latter begins shrieking desperately, “PLEASE TEACH ME YOUR WAYS, MR. ROBERT CANTERBURY BUFORD! I’M BEGGING HERE!” But what I hope happens does not. Oh well.

I may not be brighter than Tannenbaum, who is now helping the Dolphins attempt to finish in second place in the AFC East next season. Then again, maybe I am. I certainly wouldn’t have drafted Vernon Gholston, I know that much.

I actually love attending Sloan — I wouldn’t have done this four times, maybe five, if I didn’t. And it’s not just because of the opportunity to witness those odd interactions and intersections among sports personalities of various backgrounds, bright-eyed, big-brained job-seekers, technology pushers, students, and a stray reporter here and there. There’s definitely a Star Wars bar scene element to it, at least if the majority of patrons in the Mos Eisley Cantina were wearing tidy new gray suits from the racks at Kohl’s.

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While making snarky comments while people-watching is a fine time-killer between panels, the honest truth is that Sloan is a blast because of those panels. I consider myself analytically inclined, particularly when it comes to baseball and sabermetrics. But I’m also well aware of making it accessible to as many readers as possible, which is why I continue to use the relatively rudimentary OPS-plus and ERA-plus in my columns.

Coming from that fairly conventional but open-minded perspective, I have to admit that some discussions at Sloan do leave me searching for that elusive clue or simply aren’t appealing to my sports sensibilities. I wasn’t scrambling for a seat at “Three At The Back: Analyzing the Pace of Soccer Analytics,” you know? But there were two in particular I was looking forward to, and they happened to run concurrently.

One was Brian Kenny’s sit-down with baseball commissioner Rob Manfred. The other touched on a subject that occasionally comes up with readers who are proud graduates of a school older than mine. It was titled “Is Analytics Taking the Joy Out of Sports?”

I hope the majority of you agree with me that it does not — if anything, it enhances sports, especially if you’re willing to endure some trial and error to find what you like. Find what works for you, you know? The big news that came from Manfred’s conversation is that the MLB StatCast — which provides such data as the route an outfielder took to the ball and the speed with which he arrived, among so much more — will be available in all 30 ballparks this season. (It was in three last year.)

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Some will say this is information overkill, that the data will end those who’s-better debates that make baseball such an enduring topic of summertime conversation. I agree that it will end them … if you’re stubborn and on the wrong side of the argument. But it will also allow us to marvel — with statistical support and comparison — at, say, how fast Billy Hamilton goes from first to third and whether his path is optimal.

I do not get who would not want to know as much as possible. But ex-NBA player and panelist Shane Battier, who embraces analytics and saw his value enhanced by them, had a theory why some would. During the Is Analytics Taking the Joy Out of Sports? discussion, the conversation turned to how sometimes analytics confirm perceptions we already had. Battier noted how Allen Iverson was a player who had the well-earned reputation as a gunner, someone whose inefficiencies became more apparent only after analytics were developed that put his career in context.

“We could see that Iverson was a volume scorer,” said Battier. “We knew that. Now we can see specifically what the problems were with that in a way we didn’t see before. We have an understanding of the game and know the importance of efficiency that we just didn’t during Iverson’s prime.”

But Battier acknowledged that Iverson’s fans might fear that analytics do a disservice to his many attributes as a player that might be more difficult to quantify.

“There’s not a number that can tell me … that can make me stop loving Allen Iverson, for being toughest guy on the floor every night,” said Battier. “Again, I go back to my theory of the human condition. People want to live vicariously through the top athletes in the world. They want to feel how they respond to this pressure. That’s why we love sports.”

But loving sports does not mean that attempts to learn more should be stunted.

“It’s about gaining insight,” said Brian Burke, the founder of Advanced Football Analytics. “There’s a segment of fans that crave about knowing a little more and a little more. Which players are secret weapons? Which players are overrated?”

Ben Alamar, ESPN’s director of analytics, cited the devaluation of running backs as something fans have become more aware of in recent seasons.

“This is where analytics helps the fan a lot,” said Alamar. “The Cowboys may decide not to pay DeMarco Murray. You go back 15 years to a situation like this, and it would be a mystery. ‘This guy was huge for us this year? Why aren’t they paying him?’ Fans have become savvy to what has happened at that position over the years, the knowledge gained about the length of running backs’ careers and the effects of workloads.”

Where analytics collide with fan sensibilities is when the numbers contradict a popular narrative or open up a popular player for criticism. Data punctures myths, which is how the conversation, moderated by ESPN anchor John Anderson, turned to a certain lefty quarterback.

“All the data tells me that Tim Tebow was a terrible quarterback,” said Anderson. “So how come he ended up winning the games?”

“Noooooo,” said Alamar. “There were a lot of other guys on the field who did stuff that helped them —

“Leader of men,” Anderson interjected dryly. “He willed the team.”

“Yes, yes perhaps. I’m sure he’s a very good young man. But he didn’t win those games. That’s what analytics tells you. It allows you to see the real story. Without them, the myth of Tim Tebow grows even though he’s terrible.”

That word, terrible, makes for a swell segue to a discussion of five-time Gold Glove-winning shortstop Derek Jeter’s defense. While a graphic noted that Jeter was minus-159 runs saved in his career, Anderson continued to set up the conversation by jovially playing the role of conventional-wisdom dispenser

“There’s got to be value beyond numbers [with Jeter],” he said. “He won constantly.”

Parried Alamar: “He didn’t make a whole lot of other plays that would have helped them win more.”

Anderson paused a beat.

“How much do you need?” he said to laughter.

Jeter did win four championships in his first five seasons. Of course, it hardly requires a deep dive into baseball-reference.com to gather a reminder that Jeter won just one ring in his final 14 seasons.

It’s fair to presume he would have liked to win more. All players would, though that doesn’t necessarily mean they are quick to embrace the edges analytics can provide.

“Guys who understand that these new stats can create an edge? They’re listening. They’re listening,” said Battier, who retired after 13 NBA seasons in June. “Those who pooh-pooh them will soon learn that they’re limiting their career.

“I always tell the story of the greatest player of my generation, LeBron James. I came to Miami with a knowledge of analytics. I didn’t beat him over the head with it. I didnt’ say, ‘Hey, LeBron! You’re covering Kevin Durant all wrong! You’ve got to guard him this way!’ I went up to him one day and said, ‘Hey. When KD has the ball in the post, he’s shooting over his right shoulder.’ ”

“He went out, defended him well the next day, and once he had that little hook — I call it the stat drug — he wanted more. He said, ‘Tell me more.’ So if the greatest player of a generation is looking to grab a competitive edge by this much, I think every player would be wise to follow suit.”

How much of a difference, Battier is asked, does that matter in the difference between winning a championship and going out in the first round?

“It all adds up,” said Battier. “No matter how small the advantage gained, it all adds up.”

Perhaps that is the easiest sell on analytics yet. Every bit of information gained ostensibly makes your favorite players better, which makes the team better, which leads to greater success. And before you know it, who knows? You might just be taking a day off to catch a parade.

It didn’t quite work for Battier and LeBron last season with the Heat. But R.C. Buford could tell ’em what it was like, presuming the Spurs’ boss isn’t still talking to Tannenbaum.

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