Keeping Score

Put the Stats Geeks in the Game!

Sports teams are using more analytics then ever to value players, assess trades and make roster decisions. But why couldn't the number crunchers move from the front office to the front lines, as in-game coaches and advisers?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Adam Hunger / Reuters

The Dallas Mavericks employ a statistician who sits behind the bench

You’re a Chicago Cubs fan. Or a Mariners fan, a Mets fan, a Marlins fan, whatever — you have a favorite baseball team whose fortunes keep you up at night. And that team loses, a lot. But now, sitting next to your team’s manager, a scruffy baseball lifer, in the dugout is not just another scruffy baseball lifer, spitting tobacco. Instead, by his side is a guy with a Ph.D. in theoretical physics, a beautiful mind who can calculate complex probabilities, in real time, in his head. He can tell you the odds of so-and-so throwing such-and-such a pitch to so-and-so on such-and-such a count.

Sure, he looks funny in a baseball uniform. But have you seen the guts of graying baseball managers and coaches spilling over those needless belts? This stats coach, or whatever you want to call him, is a resource, to be trusted by the manager when he should play the percentages, or ignored if he decides to just go with his (ample) gut.

(See the top 10 U.S. sports strikes and lockouts.)

If such a stats head were at the service of your manager, wouldn’t your team be better off? Could it possibly hurt to try him out?

On March 4 and 5 in Boston, hundreds of the most gifted minds in sports gathered at the 5th Annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, an event that has grown in such importance that, yes, it’s now “presented by ESPN.” Dubbed “Dorkapalooza” by ESPN columnist Bill Simmons, the conference is one part wonkfest, in which research papers with titles like “Optimizing an NBA Team’s Approach to Free Agency Using a Multiple-Choice Knapsack Model” are presented, and another part powwow. The geeks who used to work on Wall Street and other quantitative fields have gained enormous clout in the front offices of pro sports teams. And their power will only grow.

But we’ve known that for some time now. The Moneyball craze in executive suits was one the hottest trends of the prior decade. At this point, it’s more apropos to wonder, Why aren’t more Dorkapalooza darlings on the field, influencing game decisions in real time? Especially in baseball, a sport in which the numbers are more available, and fully dissected, than in others, and in which the languid pace gives managers more time to process advice when making decisions. One team, the Tampa Bay Rays, does practically give the geeks a say in game-day decisionmaking. “The Rays are super hands on,” says Jonah Keri, author of a critically acclaimed new book, The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First, which profiles the Tampa Bay Rays’ rise. “Although the numbers experts aren’t talking to [the Rays’ manager] Joe Maddon during the game, they’re talking to him soon before the game, where’s there’s a meeting, in the manager’s office, while players are in their jocks. It’s not like some message that gets translated from up above, where five runner boys hand over some information. There’s a direct contact.” The payroll-challenged Rays have won the American League East, home of the obscene-spending New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, two out of the past three years.

(See the best and worst sports executives of 2008.)

But why should the smart conversation stop at the first pitch? In-game quant gurus could help teams in other sports as well. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who is like the Bono of the MIT conference, has hired a statistician, Roland Beech, who actually travels with the team and sits behind the Mavericks bench. Beech isn’t barking orders in the time-out huddle. But he’s not ignored. “The coaches are asking him questions more than anything,” says Cuban. And Cuban says his value will only increase during the playoffs, in which multiple games against one opponent permit more telling statistical patterns to emerge. At the MIT event I asked Cuban, wearing a T-shirt that said “Talk Nerdy to Me,” if he thinks more NBA teams will let stats guys near the huddle. “I hope not,” Cuban says. “The way I look at it, relative to the cost, if [Beech] wins me one game, he’s paid for himself.” Entering last night’s game against the New York Knicks, Dallas had a 46-18 record, third best in the NBA.

If former NFL coach Eric Mangini had had a quant next to him on game days, perhaps he’d still have a job, rather than be chillin’ at Dorkapalooza. And the Cleveland Browns fans wouldn’t be so angry. “You’d love to have a guy in the booth that can say, Hey, we’ve got a 75% chance of that hitting,” says Mangini, who was fired as Browns coach in January after two straight 5-11 seasons. “Because as a coach, you’d love real-time odds. And you have that to some degree. But between offense and defense and special teams, there are only so many of those things you can remember.”

So why didn’t you have that guy in the booth? “I wish I knew about this conference earlier,” says Mangini. “Because I think there are a lot of kids here, a lot of professors here, a lot people here that I would love to have.” What’s holding teams back from giving analytics a game-day role? “Somebody just has to take the initiative to make that happen,” Mangini says.

(Read “NFL Coaches: As Fun to Watch As the Playoff Games.”)

If Mangini gets another job, he has no excuse not to hire a numbers coordinator. The reasons teams give for keeping smart guys on the sidelines are fairly lame. “Baseball is a pretty traditional sport,” says John Abbamondi, vice president of strategy and business analysis for the San Diego Padres. Yeah, but the list of stupid sports traditions is longer than Randy Johnson’s neck. “And I don’t think it’s necessary,” Abbamondi says of analytic assistants in the dugout. “Either a manager buys into the utility of that, or he doesn’t. If he does, he’s going to avail himself of that information and you’re going to have people bring it to him and his coaching staff. And, if he doesn’t, then you have this guy in the dugout, and it’s just awkward.”

This thinking doesn’t fly. At this point, a manager who completely ignores analytics probably shouldn’t be your manager. But let’s say he’s a skeptic, yet having success. Best case: you throw a stats guy in the dugout, he comes around, and the team is even better. Worst case: despite everyone’s best efforts, the manager continues to ignore the numbers, and the stats guy sits lonely in the dugout. Sure, it’s awkward. But so what? Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin went a whole year wanting to kill each other. Think that wasn’t awkward? The Yankees still won the World Series. Would a team’s on-field performance hinge on whether anyone talked to the nerd at the end of the bench?

And if your manager likes numbers, what’s wrong with more of them? No manager is so smart that he knows everything. A little extra advice and perspective will only help. “There’s just one degree of separation from being in the manager’s office and being in the dugout,” says Keri, one of the best analytical minds writing about baseball today. “There’s just something about the dugout that’s magical or mystical or whatever. Whatever.”

Exactly — whatever. Teams have more brainpower at their disposal than ever. They can do more with it. Let’s start seeing beautiful minds on the bench.

See the top 10 sports moments of 2010.