Statistical advantage

Last Friday, the movie Moneyball debuted in theatres. It is based on Michael Lewis’s 2003 best-selling book of the same name and focuses on the 2002 Oakland Athletics and their attempt to field a winning baseball team. Since they had no money to spend on top players, they used alternative statistics and advanced analysis to evaluate and sign players who were rated low based on conventional statistics.

Statistics have been a part of sports ever since Henry Chadwick invented baseball’s box score in the 1860s, but the past decade has seen a shift in the way sports fans analyze their favourite players and teams. For decades, the metrics used to assess players and teams have been questioned, and new and advanced metrics are created to better measure their true value.

In 1977, aspiring baseball writer Bill James self-published his book, “The Bill James Baseball Abstract.” It challenged the conventional wisdom of the sport while using statistics to support his claims. A future edition was featured in a Sports Illustrated article in 1981; with the advent of fantasy baseball, James’s book achieved mass appeal. In baseball, this was the beginning of “sabermetrics”: analysis through empirical evidence.

While James’s research was the beginning of objective sports analysis, it wasn’t until the Internet age when James’s terms such as “runs created” and “win shares” would be commonly used amongst mathematically inclined baseball fans. Around this time, as the popularity of fantasy sports leagues rose and the number of platforms for stat researchers increased, James’s ideas began to be applied to other sports. The rise in popularity offered fans incredible statistical analysis of their favourite athletes and teams.

Baseball still gets the most attention among the advanced statistics community, via websites including Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs and the website for the Society for American Baseball Research. The site, founded by Roland Beech, focuses on advanced statistics in basketball, featuring the statistic-based writings of Jeff Sagarin and Dean Oliver, who are considered influential experts in their field. Football adopted its own alternative statistics with websites like Advanced NFL Stats and Football Outsiders. Soccer also has dedicated advanced statistics sites: Soccermetrics, Soccer by the Numbers and Soccer Analysts, which was established this year.

While hockey is behind the other three major North American sports with regards to advanced statistics, it too has its own statistical community, which also happens to be Canada’s biggest contribution to the field. Websites such as Hockey Analytics and Behind The Net, founded by ex-Winnipegger Gabriel Desjardins, are expanding statistical horizons within the game of hockey and creating new statistics such as “ Corsi ratings” and “ shot quality neutral save percentage.” Rob Pettapiece is another Canadian working with statistical analysis. Pettapiece features his findings on the CIS Blog and Yahoo!’s 55 Yard Line blog, filling the void for both the CIS and the CFL.

Academia has also become interested in sports analysis. The Journal for Quantitative Analysis in Sports was founded in 2004 by the American Statistical Association, and annual sports conferences have been held by MIT and the Manchester Business School in England. The Harvard Sports Analysis Collective, founded by Harvard students, was established in 2006.

Despite the success of the Oakland A’s, as depicted in Moneyball, whether advanced statistics create lasting success for sports teams is still up for debate. Both James and Beech were consultants for the Boston Red Sox and the Dallas Mavericks in their respective championship years, but those teams were also able to spend money on star players. As with every other scientific discipline, new theories and ideas in sports statistics are being shared every day. As statistical software company SAS once wrote, “Sports lovers are the world’s leading amateur statisticians.”