Super Nerds

I enjoy the game of baseball, playing as a kid and then for a decade as a 40 year old adult. I gave it up a few years ago, worried about the wear and tear of sporadic play. I’m happy now coaching kids and participating in individual sports for exercise, but I still love the game.

A few years back I read the book, Moneyball. The book is about the use of metrics and analysis in addition to the human scouting evaluation in the Oakland As organization. There was a movie made as well, and both are worth consuming. Since that time,  other baseball teams have adopted some of the ideas, and I’ve been hearing that both basketballNFL football, and other sports in the US are using more metrics. There’s even a Revisionist History episode that talks about football/soccer and the way that makes the most sense to improve your team.

Recently I ran across an article with a great headline: Jayson Werth rails against ‘super nerds’ that are ‘killing the game’. In the article, a player rants about the way in which data and statistics are being used to make decisions. Instead of allowing players to just play, analytics become a part of the decision to play a certain way. For example, bunting and stealing have dramatically declined, mainly do to the analytics that show these are lower percentage actions compared to other choices.

It’s interesting to hear players rant against the user of statistics. I completely get the annoyance at losing control of your choices, and certainly appreciate that the game becomes less exciting at times. However, I also know that players, and even coaches, may make emotional decisions, or base decisions on poor information. Most of us humans can’t remember all the tendencies and likelihoods. In a modern world where skill levels have dramatically increased in many ways, there are often better ways to build a strategy.

Data is valuable, and certainly can help in sports. It isn’t the end-all be-all, and it can be misleading when applied to individual humans. At the professional level, where more data is available, I think it makes sense to use data more as a significant part of your decisions, though not the only factors. For me, as a coach of younger kids where I have relatively little data, I still use the eye-test for most things, relying on data to double check my thoughts. The world moves fast, and it can be easy to forget how individual players have performed across an event, especially when I’m trying to manage the game as well. Data helps me remember how the day is going.

Steve Jones

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