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It was long, and revolved around concepts like variance and standard deviation, and while the panelists got it, the giggling and groaning among audience members hinted that they either didn’t understand or didn’t care. Even though they’d shown up for a discussion on analytics they weren’t ready for such technical talk.
And, it highlights a dilemma among sports analytics experts. The topic is increasingly important, hence the emphasis on it by teams like the Houston Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers. But with its emphasis on advanced statistics and mathematics, it remains difficult for many fans to decipher.
He helped found the group in September, and it has quickly grown to more than 20 members. Currently they’re working with the Blue Jays on questions dealing with the value of platoons, and how minor leaguers will perform in the majors.
“It’s a super tough problem and a million-dollar question. Billion, maybe,” says Stolbunov, a third-year PhD student. “We’re willing to work on these problems and make connections because we enjoy this stuff.”
NBA legend Charles Barkley dismissed analytics as “crap”, and was criticized for it.
Last month at MIT’s annual Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, critics like Kyle Wagner of Deadspin wondered out loud whether the biggest victory for proponents of analytics has been convincing the sports public that their work really matters.
“If this was five years ago I probably wouldn’t be sitting here,” said NBA basketball analytics director Jason Rosenfeld during the panel. “I probably wouldn’t have a job in sports.”
Stolbunov sees the field of analytics expanding, both in terms of the sports it covers and the talent it attracts. He says his group is composed mainly of engineering and math students, but can grow to accommodate students with design backgrounds who can help display the group’s findings. And he thinks individual Olympic sports are overdue for an analytic overhaul.
In some ways, pro football is already there, says New York Giants assistant GM Kevin Abrams. He admits hand-timed 40-yard dashes, while the NFL’s highest-profile “advanced” stat, are an inefficient way of measuring an athlete’s speed. But he points out the league has long relied on the predictive value of obscure stats like hand size and arm length.