The title pretty much says it all. In January I’ll be starting a real j-o-b as a “Senior Writer, Sports” for the new ESPN-backed FiveThirtyEight, due to launch in February. So I thought I’d better say some quick goodbyes and hellos.

For old readers:

While I’m admittedly a little sad that this blog won’t be coming back any time soon, this should obviously be great news for people who enjoy my work: Backed by ESPN/FiveThirtyEight data and resources, it will be better and there will be more of it. My responsibilities at FiveThirtyEight will be similar to what I’d been doing here already: conducting original research, writing articles, and blogging. Except full time. And paid.

(Yeah, it’s basically my dream job.)

For new readers:

Of course, for many of you reading this, this is probably your first time visiting this site. In which case: welcome!  For a primer on who the hell I am, you might want to read the “about Ben” and “about this blog” pages, or you can skip those and just read some of my articles. My best known work is undoubtedly The Case For Dennis Rodman, which is incredibly long—

TCFDR

—but has a guide, which can be found here. And in case you’ve heard rumors, yes, it speculates that Rodman—in a very specific way—may have been more valuable than Michael Jordan.

However, if I had to pick just a handful of articles to best represent my ideas and interests, it might look something like this:

Football:

Quantum Randy Moss—An Introduction to Entanglement

The Aesthetic Case Against 18 Games

Basketball:

The Case for Dennis Rodman, Part 4/4(a): All-Hall?

Bayes’ Theorem, Small Samples, and WTF is Up With NBA Finals Markets?

Baseball:

A Defense of Sudden-Death Playoffs in Baseball

Why Not Balls and Strikes?

General:

C.R.E.A.M. (Or, “How to Win a Championship in Any Sport”)

Applied Epistemology in Politics and the Playoffs

[Note: I apologize for missing last Wednesday and Friday in my posting schedule. I had some important business-y things going on Wed and then went to Canada for a wedding over the weekend.]

Last week I came across this ESPN article (citing this Forbes article) about how Bill Belichick is the highest-paid coach in American sports:

Bill Belichick tops the list for the second year in a row following the retirement of Phil Jackson, the only coach to have ever made an eight-figure salary. Belichick is believed to make $7.5 million per year. Doc Rivers is the highest-paid NBA coach at $7 million.

Congrats to Belichick for a worthy accomplishment! Though I still think it probably under-states his actual value, at least relative to NFL players. As I tweeted:

Of course, coaches’ salaries are different from players’: they aren’t constrained by the salary cap, nor are they boosted by the mandatory revenue-sharing in the players’ collective bargaining agreement.  Yet, for comparison, this season Belichick will make a bit more than a third of what Peyton Manning will in Denver. As I’ve said before, I think Belichick and Manning have been (almost indisputably) the most powerful forces in the modern NFL (maybe ever). Here’s the key visual from my earlier post, updated to include last season (press play):

The x axis is wins in season n, y axis is wins in season n+1.

Naturally, Belichick has benefited from having Tom Brady on his team. However, Brady makes about twice as much as Belichick does, and I think you would be hard-pressed to argue that he’s twice as valuable—and I think top QB’s are probably underpaid relative to their value anyway.

But being high on Bill Belichick is about more than just his results. He is well-loved in the analytical community, particularly for some of his high-profile 4th down and other in-game tactical decisions.  But I think those flashy calls are merely a symptom of his broader commitment to making intelligent win-maximizing decisions—a commitment that is probably even more evident in the decisions he has made and strategies he has pursued in his role as the Patriots’ General Manager.

But rather than sorting through everything Belichick has done that I like, I want to take a quick look at one recent adjustment that really impressed me: the Patriots out-of-character machinations in the 2012 draft.

The New Rookie Salary Structure

One of the unheralded elements to the Patriots’ success—perhaps rivaling Tom Brady himself in actual importance—is their penchant for stock-piling draft-picks in the “sweet spot” of the NFL draft (late 1st to mid-2nd round), where picks have the most surplus value. Once again, here’s the killer graph from the famous Massey-Thaler study on the topic:

In the 11 drafts since Belichick took over, the Patriots have made 17 picks between numbers 20 and 50 overall, the most in the NFL (the next-most is SF with 15, league average is obv 11). To illustrate how unusual their draft strategy has been, here’s a plot of their 2nd round draft position vs. their total wins over the same period:

Despite New England having the highest win percentage (not to mention most Super Bowl wins and appearances) over the period, there are 15 teams with lower average draft positions in the 2nd round. For comparison, they have the 2nd lowest average draft position in the 1st round and 7th lowest in the third.

Of course, the new collective bargaining agreement includes a rookie salary scale. Without going into all the details (in part because they’re extremely complicated and not entirely public), the key points are that it keeps total rookie compensation relatively stable while flattening the scale at the top, reducing guaranteed money, and shortening the maximum number of years for each deal.

These changes should all theoretically flatten out the “value curve” above. Here’s a rough sketch of what the changes seem to be attempting:

Since the original study was published, the dollar values have gone up and the top end has gotten more skewed. I adjusted the Y-axis to reflect the new top, but didn’t adjust the curve itself, so it should actually be somewhat steeper than it appears.  I tried to make the new curves as conceptually accurate as I could, but they’re not empirical and should be considered more of an “artist’s rendition” of what I think the NFL is aiming for.

With a couple of years of data, this should be a very interesting issue to revisit.  But, for now, I think it’s unlikely that the curve will actually be flattened very much. If I had to guess, I think it may end up “dual-peaked”: By far the greatest drop in guaranteed money will be for top QB prospects taken with the first few picks. These players already provide the most value, and are the main reason the original M/T performance graph inclines so steeply on the left. Additionally, they provide an opportunity for continued surplus value beyond the length of the initial contract. This should make the top of the draft extremely attractive, at least in years with top QB prospects.

On the other hand, I think the bulk of the effect on the rest of the surplus-value curve will be to shift it to the left. My reasons for thinking this are much more complicated, and include my belief that the original Massey/Thaler study has problems with its valuation model, but the extremely short version is that I have reason to believe that people systematically overvalue upper/middle 1st round picks.

How the Patriots Responded

Since I’ve been following the Patriots’ 2nd-round-oriented drafting strategy for years now, naturally my first thoughts after seeing the details of the new deal went to how this could kill their edge. Here’s a question I tweeted at the Sloan conference:

Actually, my concern about the Patriots drafting strategy was two-fold:

  1. The Patriots favorite place to draft could obviously lose its comparative value under the new system. If they left their strategy as-is, it could lead to their picking sub-optimally. At the very least, it should eliminate their exploitation opportunity.
  2. Though a secondary issue for this post, at some point  taking an extreme bang-for-your-buck approach to player value can run into diminishing returns and cause stagnation. Since you can only have so many players on your roster or on the field at a time, your ability to hoard and exploit “cheap” talent is constrained. This is a particularly big concern for teams that are already pretty good, especially if they already have good “value” players in a lot of positions: At some point, you need players who are less cheap but higher quality, even if their value per dollar is lower than the alternative.

Of course, if you followed the draft, you know that the Patriots, entering the draft with far fewer picks than usual, still traded up in the 1st round, twice.

Taken out of context, these moves seem extremely out of character for the Patriots. Yet the moves are perfectly consistent with an approach that understands and attacks my concerns: Making fewer, higher-quality picks is essentially the correct solution, and if the value-curve has indeed shifted up as I expect it has, the new epicenter of the Patriots’ draft activity may be directly on top of the new sweet spot.

Baseball

The entire affair reminds me of an old piece of poker wisdom that goes something like this: In a mixed game with one truly expert poker player and a bunch of completely outclassed amateurs, the expert’s biggest edge wouldn’t come in the poker variant with which he has the most expertise, but in some ridiculous spontaneous variant with tons of complicated made-up rules.

I forget where I first read the concept, but I know it has been addressed in various ways by many authors, ranging from Mike Caro to David Sklansky. I believe it was the latter (though please correct me if I’m wrong), who specifically suggested a Stud variant some of us remember fondly from childhood:

Several different games played only in low-stakes home games are called Baseball, and generally involve many wild cards (often 3s and 9s), paying the pot for wild cards, being dealt an extra upcard upon receiving a 4, and many other ad-hoc rules (for example, the appearance of the queen of spades is called a “rainout” and ends the hand, or that either red 7 dealt face-up is a rainout, but if one player has both red 7s in the hole, that outranks everything, even a 5 of a kind). These same rules can be applied to no peek, in which case the game is called “night baseball”.

The main ideas are that A) the expert would be able to adapt to the new rules much more quickly, and B) all those complicated rules make it much more likely that he would be able to find profitable exploitations (for Baseball in particular, there’s the added virtue of having several betting rounds per hand).

It will take a while to see how this plays out, and of course the abnormal outcome could just be a circumstances-driven coincidence rather than an explicit shift in the Patriots’ approach. But if my intuitions about the situation are right, Belichick may deserve extra credit for making deft adjustments in a changing landscape, much as you would expect from the Baseball-playing shark.

If you’re a hardcore follower of this blog, you know that one of things I have frequently complained about is the failure of NBA play-by-play data to include the shot clock. It’s so obviously important and—relative to other play-by-play data—so easy to track, that it’s a complete mystery to me why doing so isn’t completely standard. OTOH, I see stats broken down by “early” and “late” in the shot clock all the time, so someone must have this information.

In the meantime, I went through the 2010 play-by-play dataset and kluged a proxy stat from the actual clock, reflecting the number of seconds passed since a team took possession. Here’s a chart summarizing the number and outcomes of possessions of various lengths:

The orange X’s represent the number of league-wide possessions in which the first shot took place at the indicated time. The red diamonds represent the average number of points scored on those possessions (including from any subsequent shots following an offensive rebound, etc).

We should expect there to be a constant trade-off at any given time between taking a shot “now” and waiting for a better one to open up: the deeper you get into a possession, the more your shot standards should drop. And, indeed, this is reflected in the graph by the downward-sloping curve.

For now, I’m just throwing this out there. Though it represents a very basic idea, it is difficult to overstate its importance:

  1. Accounting for the clock can help evaluate players where standard efficiency ratings break down. Most simply, you can take the results of each shot and compare them to the expected value of a shot taken under the same amount of time-pressure. E.g., if someone averages .9 points per attempt with only a couple of seconds left, you can spot value where normal efficiency calculations wouldn’t.
  2. Actually, I’ve calculated just such preliminary “value-added” shooting for the entire league (with pretty interesting results), but I’d like to see more accurate data before posting or basing any substantial analysis on it. Among other problems, I think the right side of the curve is overly generous, as it includes possessions where it took a while to get the clock started (a process that is, unfortunately, highly variable), or where time was added and the cause wasn’t scored (also disappointingly common).
  3. Examining this information can tell you some things about the league generally: For example, it’s interesting to me that there’s a noticeable dip right around where the most shots actually take place (14 to 16 seconds in). Though speculative, I suspect that this is when players are most likely to settle for mediocre 2 point jumpers. Similarly, but a bit more difficultly, you can compare the actual curve with a derived curve to examine whether NBA players, on the whole, seem to wait too long (or not long enough) to pull the trigger.

With better data, the possibilities would open up further (even moreso when combined with other play-by-play information, like shot type, position, defense, etc). For example, you could look at the curve for individual players and impute whether they should be more or less aggressive with their shot selection.

So, yeah, if any of you can direct me to a dataset that has what I want, please let me know.

This is part 2 of my “recap” of the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference that I attended in March (part 1 is here), mostly covering Day 2 of the event, but also featuring my petty way-too-long rant about Bill James (which I’ve moved to the end).

Day Two

First I attended the Football Analytics despite finding it disappointing last year, and, alas, it wasn’t any better. Eric Mangini must be the only former NFL coach willing to attend, b/c they keep bringing him back:

Overall, I spent more time in day 2 going to niche panels, research paper presentations and talking to people.

The last, in particular, was great. For example, I had a fun conversation with Henry Abbott about Kobe Bryant’s lack of “clutch.” This is one of Abbott’s pet issues, and I admit he makes a good case, particularly that the Lakers are net losers in “clutch” situations (yes, relative to other teams), even over the periods where they have been dominant otherwise.

Kobe is kind of a pivotal case in analytics, I think. First, I’m a big believer in “Count the Rings, Son” analysis: That is, leading a team to multiple championships is really hard, and only really great players do it. I also think he stands at a kind of nexus, in that stats like PER give spray shooters like him an unfair advantage, but more finely tuned advanced metrics probably over-punish the same. Part of the burden of Kobe’s role is that he has to take a lot of bad shots—the relevant question is how good he is at his job.

Abbott also mentioned that he liked one of my tweets, but didn’t know if he could retweet the non-family-friendly “WTF”:

I also had a fun conversation with Neil Paine of Basketball Reference. He seemed like a very smart guy, but this may be attributable to the fact that we seemed to be on the same page about so many things. Additionally, we discussed a very fun hypo: How far back in time would you have to go for the Charlotte Bobcats to be the odds-on favorites to win the NBA Championship?

As for the “sideshow” panels, they’re generally more fruitful and interesting than the ESPN-moderated super-panels, but they offer fewer easy targets for easy blog-griping. If you’re really interested in what went down, there is a ton of info at the SSAC website. The agenda can be found here. Information on the speakers is here. And, most importantly, videos of the various panels can be found here.

Box Score Rebooted

Featuring Dean Oliver, Bill James, and others.

This was a somewhat interesting, though I think slightly off-target, panel. They spent a lot of time talking about new data and metrics and pooh-poohing things like RBI (and even OPS), and the brave new world of play-by-play and video tracking, etc. But too much of this was discussing a different granularity of data than what can be improved in the current granularity levels. Or, in other words:

James acquitted himself a bit on this subject, arguing that boatloads of new data isn’t useful if it isn’t boiled down into useful metrics. But a more general way of looking at this is: If we were starting over from scratch, with a box-score-sized space to report a statistical game summary, and a similar degree of game-scoring resources, what kinds of things would we want to include (or not) that are different from what we have now?  I can think of a few:

  1. In basketball, it’s archaic that free-throws aren’t broken down into bonus free throws and shot-replacing free throws.
  2. In football, I’d like to see passing stats by down and distance, or at least in a few key categories like 3rd and long.
  3. In baseball, I’d like to see “runs relative to par” for pitchers (though this can be computed easily enough from existing box scores).

In this panel, Dean Oliver took the opportunity to plug ESPN’s bizarre proprietary Total Quarterback Rating. They actually had another panel devoted just to this topic, but I didn’t go, so I’ll put a couple of thoughts here.

First, I don’t understand why ESPN is pushing this as a proprietary stat. Sure, no-one knows how to calculate regular old-fashioned quarterback ratings, but there’s a certain comfort in at least knowing it’s a real thing. It’s a bit like Terms of Service agreements, which people regularly sign without reading: at least you know the terms are out there, so someone actually cares enough to read them, and presumably they would raise a stink if you had to sign away your soul.

As for what we do know, I may write more on this come football season, but I have a couple of problems:

One, I hate the “clutch effect.” TQBR makes a special adjustment to value clutch performance even more than its generic contribution to winning. If anything, clutch situations in football are so bizarre that they should count less. In fact, when I’ve done NFL analysis, I’ve often just cut the 4th quarter entirely, and I’ve found I get better results. That may sound crazy, but it’s a bit like how some very advanced Soccer analysts have cut goal-scoring from their models, instead just focusing on how well a player advances the ball toward his goal: even if the former matters more, its unreliability may make it less useful.

Two, I’m disappointed in the way they “assign credit” for play outcomes:

Division of credit is the next step. Dividing credit among teammates is one of the most difficult but important aspects of sports. Teammates rely upon each other and, as the cliché goes, a team might not be the sum of its parts. By dividing credit, we are forcing the parts to sum up to the team, understanding the limitations but knowing that it is the best way statistically for the rating.

I’m personally very interested in this topic (and have discussed it with various ESPN analytics guys since long before TQBR was released). This is basically an attempt to address the entanglement problem that permeates football statistics.  ESPN’s published explanation is pretty cryptic, and it didn’t seem clear to me whether they were profiling individual players and situations or had created credit-distribution algorithms league-wide.

At the conference, I had a chance to talk with their analytics guy who designed this part of the metric (his name escapes me), and I confirmed that they modeled credit distribution for the entire league and are applying it in a blanket way.  Technically, I guess this is a step in the right direction, but it’s purely a reduction of noise and doesn’t address the real issue.  What I’d really like to see is like a recursive model that imputes how much credit various players deserve broadly, then uses those numbers to re-assign credit for particular outcomes (rinse and repeat).

Deconstructing the Rebound With Optical Tracking Data

Rajiv Maheswaran, and other nerds.

This presentation was so awesome that I offered them a hedge bet for the “Best Research Paper” award. That is, I would bet on them at even money, so that if they lost, at least they would receive a consolation prize. They declined. And won. Their findings are too numerous and interesting to list, so you should really check it out for yourself.

Obviously my work on the Dennis Rodman mystery makes me particularly interested in their theories of why certain players get more rebounds than others, as I tweeted in this insta-hypothesis:

Following the presentation, I got the chance to talk with Rajiv for quite a while, which was amazing. Obviously they don’t have any data on Dennis Rodman directly, but Rajiv was also interested in him and had watched a lot of Rodman video. Though anecdotal, he did say that his observations somewhat confirmed the theory that a big part of Rodman’s rebounding advantage seemed to come from handling space very well:

  1. Even when away from the basket, Rodman typically moved to the open space immediately following a shot. This is a bit different from how people often think about rebounding as aggressively attacking the ball (or as being able to near-psychically predict where the ball is going to come down.
  2. Also rather than simply attacking the board directly, Rodman’s first inclination was to insert himself between the nearest opponent and the basket. In theory, this might slightly decrease the chances of getting the ball when it heads in toward his previous position, but would make up for it by dramatically increasing his chances of getting the ball when it went toward the other guy.
  3. Though a little less purely strategical, Rajiv also thought that Rodman was just incredibly good at #2. That is, he was just exceptionally good at jockeying for position.

To some extent, I guess this is just rebounding fundamentals, but I still think it’s very interesting to think about the indirect probabilistic side of the rebounding game.

Live B.S. Report with Bill James

Quick tangent: At one point, I thought Neil Paine summed me up pretty well as a “contrarian to the contrarians.”  Of course, I’m don’t think I’m contrary for the sake of contrariness, or that I’m a negative person (I don’t know how many times I’ve explained to my wife that just because I hated a movie doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it!), it’s just that my mind is naturally inclined toward considering the limitations of whatever is put in front of it. Sometimes that means criticizing the status quo, and sometimes that means criticizing its critics.

So, with that in mind, I thought Bill James’s showing at the conference was pretty disappointing, particularly his interview with Bill Simmons.

I have a lot of respect for James.  I read his Historical Baseball Abstract and enjoyed it considerably more than Moneyball.  He has a very intuitive and logical mind. He doesn’t say a bunch of shit that’s not true, and he sees beyond the obvious. In Saturday’s “Rebooting the Box-score” panel, he made an observation that having 3 of 5 people on the panel named John implied that the panel was [likely] older than the rest of the room.  This got a nice laugh from the attendees, but I don’t think he was kidding.  And whether he was or not, he still gets 10 kudos from me for making the closest thing to a Bayesian argument I heard all weekend.  And I dutifully snuck in for a pic with him:

James was somewhat ahead of his time, and perhaps he’s still one of the better sports analytic minds out there, but in this interview we didn’t really get to hear him analyze anything, you know, sportsy. This interview was all about Bill James and his bio and how awesome he was and how great he is and how hard it was for him to get recognized and how much he has changed the game and how, without him, the world would be a cold, dark place where ignorance reigned and nobody had ever heard of “win maximization.”

Bill Simmons going this route in a podcast interview doesn’t surprise me: his audience is obviously much broader than the geeks in the room, and Simmons knows his audience’s expectations better than anyone. What got to me was James’s willingness to play along, and everyone else’s willingness to eat it up. Here’s an example of both, from the conference’s official Twitter account:

Perhaps it’s because I never really liked baseball, and I didn’t really know anyone did any of this stuff until recently, but I’m pretty certain that Bill James had virtually zero impact on my own development as a sports data-cruncher.  When I made my first PRABS-style basketball formula in the early 1990′s (which was absolutely terrible, but is still more predictive than PER), I had no idea that any sports stats other than the box score even existed. By the time I first heard the word “sabermetrics,” I was deep into my own research, and didn’t bother really looking into it deeply until maybe a few months ago.

Which is not to say I had no guidance or inspiration.  For me, a big epiphanous turning point in my approach to the analysis of games did take place—after I read David Sklansky’s Theory of Poker. While ToP itself was published in 1994, Sklansky’s similar offerings date back to the 70s, so I don’t think any broader causal pictures are possible.

More broadly, I think the claim that sports analytics wouldn’t have developed without Bill James is preposterous. Especially if, as i assume we do, we firmly believe we’re right.  This isn’t like L. Ron Hubbard and Incident II: being for sports analytics isn’t like having faith in a person or his religion. It simply means trying to think more rigorously about sports, and using all of the available analytical techniques we can to gain an advantage. Eventually, those who embrace the right will win out, as we’ve seen begin to happen in sports, and as has already happened in nearly every other discipline.

Indeed, by his own admission, James liked to stir controversy, piss people off, and talk down to the old guard whenever possible. As far as we know, he may have set the cause of sports analytics back, either by alienating the people who could have helped it gain acceptance, or by setting an arrogant and confrontational tone for his disciples (e.g., the uplifting “don’t feel the need to explain yourself” message in Moneyball). I’m not saying that this is the case or even a likely possibility, I’m just trying to illustrate that giving someone credit for all that follows—even a pioneer like James—is a dicey game that I’d rather not participate in, and that he definitely shouldn’t.

On a more technical note, one of his oft-quoted and re-tweeted pearls of wisdom goes as follows:

Sounds great, right? I mean, not really, I don’t get the metaphor: if the sea is full of ignorance, why are you collecting water from it with a bucket rather than some kind of filtration system? But more importantly, his argument in defense of this claim is amazingly weak. When Simmons asked what kinds of things he’s talking about, he repeatedly emphasized that we have no idea whether a college sophomore will turn out to be a great Major League pitcher.  True, but, um, we never will. There are too many variables, the input and outputs are too far apart in time, and the contexts are too different.  This isn’t the sea of ignorance, it’s a sea of unknowns.

Which gets at one of my big complaints about stats-types generally.  A lot of people seem to think that stats are all about making exciting discoveries and answering questions that were previously unanswerable. Yes, sometimes you get lucky and uncover some relationship that leads to a killer new strategy or to some game-altering new dynamic. But most of the time, you’ll find static. A good statistical thinker doesn’t try to reject the static, but tries to understand it: Figuring out what you can’t know is just as important as figuring out what you can know.

On Twitter I used this analogy:

Success comes with knowing more true things and fewer false things than the other guy.

To complete “Championship Week” at Skeptical Sports, I thought I’d post a little fun research I did before this year’s Super Bowl.

Like basketball, teams with championship-winning experience outperform their regular-season records in the playoffs, especially if they make it to the Super Bowl.

So, a bit like my 5-by-5 model, I wanted to come up with a simple metric for picking the Super Bowl winner. Unlike its NBA cousin, however, this method only applies to the championship game, not to the entire playoffs. The main question is, how much better does a team with more Super Bowl winning experience do than it’s opponent?

I feel bad about my text/graphs ratio this week, so I thought I’d tell this story in pictures. Before testing the question, we need to pick the best time period. So, for what number of years does the metric “pick the team with the most super bowl wins” most often pick the ultimate winner:

This was a little surprising to me already: I thought for sure the best n would be a small number, but it turns out to be 6.

Counting 2012, there have been 26 Super Bowls where one team has won more championships in the previous 6 years than the other. Of those games, the team with the greater number has won 20, or 77% of the time—including the Giants. [True story: I was going to publish something on this research before this year’s Super Bowl, but, knowing that it predicted a New York win against the heavily favored Patriots, I chickened out.]

Of course, I’m sure most of you are just itching to pounce right now: Clearly the team with the most recent Super Bowl wins is usually going to be better, right? So clearly this must be confounding this result. So let’s compare it to the predictive accuracy of SRS (Simple Rating System, aka “Margin of Victory adjusted for Strength of Schedule”):

Looking at all 46 Super Bowls, the team with the higher SRS has won 26, or 57%. In Super Bowls where no team had more Super Bowl wins, SRS performs slightly better, correctly picking 12/20 (60%). But the real story is in the games where both had something to say: When SRS and L6 agreed, the team they both picked won 11/14 (79%). But when SRS and L6 disagreed—in other words, where one team had a higher SRS, but the other had more Super Bowl wins in the previous 6 years—the team with the paper qualifications lost to the team with the championship experience 9 of 12 times (75%).

Now, your next thought might be that the years when L6 trumped SRS were probably the years when the teams were very close. But you’d be wrong:

The average SRS difference in 9 years where the L6 team won is actually higher than in the 3 years when it lost!

So how much does L6 add overall? Well, let’s first create a simple method, a bit like 5-by-5:

  1. If one team has more Super Bowl wins in the previous 6 years, pick them.
  2. Otherwise, pick the team with the best SRS.

Following this method, you would correctly pick 32 of the 46 Super Bowls (70%), for a 10% improvement overall, despite step 1 only even applying in about half of the games (also, note that if you just picked randomly in the 20 Super Bowls where L6 doesn’t apply, you would still be expected to get 30 right overall).

Finally, to try to quantify the difference in predictive value between the two measures, I plugged them both into a logistic regression:

As you can see, L6 is much more predictive, though the 95% confidence intervals do overlap. (Though I should also note, this last chart is based on the regression I ran prior to this year’s game, which ended up being another victory for the championship experience side.)

So, over the weekend, I attended my second MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. My experience was much different than in 2011: Last year, I went into this thing barely knowing that other people were into the same things I was. An anecdote: In late 2010, I was telling my dad how I was about to have a 6th or 7th round interview for a pretty sweet job in sports analysis, when he speculated, “How many people can there even be in that business? 10? 20?” A couple of months later, of course, I would learn.

A lot has happened in my life since then: I finished my Rodman series, won the ESPN Stat Geek Smackdown (which, though I am obviously happy to have won, is not really that big a deal—all told, the scope of the competition is about the same as picking a week’s worth of NFL games), my wife and I had a baby, and, oh yeah, I learned a ton about the breadth, depth, and nature of the sports analytics community.

For the most part, I used Twitter as sort of my de facto notebook for the conference.  Thus, I’m sorry if I’m missing a bunch of lengthier quotes and/or if I repeat a bunch of things you already saw in my live coverage, but I will try to explain a few things in a bit more detail.

For the most part, I’ll keep the recap chronological.  I’ve split this into two parts: Part 1 covers Friday, up to but not including the Bill Simmons/Bill James interview.  Part 2 covers that interview and all of Saturday.

Opening Remarks:

From the pregame tweets, John Hollinger observed that 28 NBA teams sent representatives (that we know of) this year.  I also noticed that the New England Revolution sent 2 people, while the New England Patriots sent none, so I’m not sure that number of official representatives reliably indicates much.

The conference started with some bland opening remarks by Dean David Schmittlein.  Tangent: I feel like political-speak (thank everybody and say nothing) seems to get more and more widespread every year. I blame it on fear of the internet. E.g., in this intro segment, somebody made yet another boring joke about how there were no women present (personally, I thought there were significantly more than last year), and was followed shortly thereafter by a female speaker, understandably creating a tiny bit of awkwardness. If that person had been more important (like, if I could remember his name to slam him), I doubt he would have made that joke, or any other joke. He would have just thanked everyone and said nothing.

The Evolution of Sports Leagues

Featuring Gary Bettman (NHL), Rob Manfred (MLB), Adam Silver (NBA), Steve Tisch (NYG) and Michael Wilbon moderating.

This panel really didn’t have much of a theme, it was mostly Wilbon creatively folding a bunch of predictable questions into arbitrary league issues.  E.g.: ” “What do you think about Jeremy Lin?!? And, you know, overseas expansion blah blah.”

I don’t get the massive cultural significance of Jeremy Lin, personally.  I mean, he’s not the first ethnically Chinese player to have NBA success (though he is perhaps the first short one).  The discussion of China, however, was interesting for other reasons. Adam Silver claimed that Basketball is already more popular in China than soccer, with over 300 million Chinese people playing it.  Those numbers, if true, are pretty mind-boggling.

Finally, there was a whole part about labor negotiations that was pretty well summed up by this tweet:

Hockey Analytics

Featuring Brian Burke, Peter Chiarelli, Mike Milbury and others.

The panel started with Peter Chiarelli being asked how the world champion Boston Bruins use analytics, and in an ominous sign, he rambled on for a while about how, when it comes to scouting, they’ve learned that weight is probably more important than height.

Overall, it was a bit like any scene from the Moneyball war room, with Michael Schuckers (the only pro-stats guy) playing the part of Jonah Hill, but without Brad Pitt to protect him.

When I think of Brian Burke, I usually think of Advanced NFL Stats, but apparently there’s one in Hockey as well.  Burke is GM/President of the Toronto Maple Leafs. At one point he was railing about how teams that use analytics have never won anything, which confused me since I haven’t seen Toronto hoisting any Stanley Cups recently, but apparently he did win a championship with the Mighty Ducks in 2007, so he clearly speaks with absolute authority.

This guy was a walking talking quote machine for the old school. I didn’t take note of all the hilarious and/or non-sensical things he said, but for some examples, try searching Twitter for “#SSAC Brian Burke.” To give an extent of how extreme, someone tweeted this quote at me, and I have no idea if he actually said it or if this guy was kidding.

In other words, Burke was literally too over the top to effectively parody.

On the other hand, in the discussion of concussions, I thought Burke had sort of a folksy realism that seemed pretty accurate to me.  I think his general point is right, if a bit insensitive: If we really changed hockey so much as to eliminate concussions entirely, it would be a whole different sport (which he also claimed no one would watch, an assertion which is more debatable imo).  At the end of the day, I think professional sports mess people up, including in the head.  But, of course, we can’t ignore the problem, so we have to keep proceeding toward some nebulous goal.

Mike Milbury, presently a card-carrying member of the media, seemed to mostly embrace the alarmist media narrative, though he did raise at least one decent point about how the increase in concussions—which most people are attributing to an increase in diagnoses—may relate to recent rules changes that have sped up the game.

But for all that, the part that frustrated me the most was when Michael Schuckers, the legitimate hockey statistician at the table, was finally given the opportunity to talk.  90% of the things that came out of his mouth were various snarky ways of asserting that face-offs don’t matter.  I mean, I assume he’s 100% right, but just had no clue how to talk to these guys.  Find common ground: you both care about scoring goals, defending goals, and winning.  Good face-off skill get you the puck more often in the right situations. The question is how many extra possessions you get and how valuable those possessions are? And finally, what’s the actual decision in question?

Baseball Analytics

Featuring Scott Boras, Scott Boras, Scott Boras, some other guys, Scott Boras, and, oh yeah, Bill James.

In stark constrast to the Hockey panel, the Baseball guys pretty much bent over backwards to embrace analytics as much as possible.  As I tweeted at the time:

Scott Boras seems to like hearing Scott Boras talk.  Which is not so bad, because Scott Boras actually did seem pretty smart and well informed: Among other things, Scott Boras apparently has a secret internal analytics team. To what end, I’m not entirely sure, since Scott Boras also seemed to say that most GM’s overvalue players relative to what Scott Boras’s people tell Scott Boras.

At this point, my mind wandered:

How awesome would that be, right?

Anyway, in between Scott Boras’s insights, someone asked this Bill James guy about his vision for the future of baseball analytics, and he gave two answers:

  1. Evaluating players from a variety of contexts other than the minor leagues (like college ball, overseas, Cubans, etc).
  2. Analytics will expand to look at the needs of the entire enterprise, not just individual players or teams.

Meh, I’m a bit underwhelmed.  He talked a bit about #1 in his one-on-one with Bill Simmons, so I’ll look at that a bit more in my review of that discussion. As for #2, I think he’s just way way off: The business side of sports is already doing tons of sophisticated analytics—almost certainly way more than the competition side—because, you know, it’s business.

E.g., in the first panel, there was a fair amount of discussion of how the NBA used “sophisticated modeling” for many different lockout-related analyses (I didn’t catch the Ticketing Analytics panel, but from its reputation, and from related discussions on other panels, it sounds like that discipline has some of the nerdiest analysis of all).

Scott Boras let Bill James talk about a few other things as well:  E.g., James is not a fan of new draft regulations, analogizing them to government regulations that “any economist would agree” inevitably lead to market distortions and bursting bubbles.  While I can’t say I entirely disagree, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that his political leanings are probably a bit Libertarian?

Basketball Analytics

Featuring Jeff Van Gundy, Mike Zarren, John Hollinger, and Mark Cuban Dean Oliver.

If every one of these panels was Mark Cuban + foil, it would be just about the most awesome weekend ever (though you might not learn the most about analytics). So I was excited about this one, which, unfortunately, Cuban missed. Filling in on zero/short notice was Dean Oliver.  Overall, here’s Nathan Walker’s take:

This panel actually had some pretty interesting discussions, but they flew by pretty fast and often followed predictable patterns, something like this:

  1. Hollinger says something pro-stats, though likely way out of his depth.
  2. Zarren brags about how they’re already doing that and more on the Celtics.
  3. Oliver says something smart and nuanced that attempts to get at the underlying issues and difficulties.
  4. Jeff Van Gundy uses forceful pronouncements and “common sense” to dismiss his strawman version of what the others have been saying.

E.g.:

Zarren talked about how there is practically more data these days than they know what to do with.  This seems true and I think it has interesting implications. I’ll discuss it a little more in Part 2 re: the “Rebooting the Box Score” talk.

There was also an interesting discussion of trades, and whether they’re more a result of information asymmetry (in other words, teams trying to fleece each other), or more a result of efficient trade opportunities (in other words, teams trying to help each other).  Though it really shouldn’t matter—you trade when you think it will help you, whether it helps your trade partner is mostly irrelevant—Oliver endorsed the latter.  He makes the point that, with such a broad universe of trade possibilities, looking for mutually beneficial situations is the easiest way to find actionable deals.  Fair enough.

Coaching Analytics

Featuring coaching superstars Jeff Van Gundy, Eric Mangini, and Bill Simmons.  Moderated by Daryl Morey.

OK, can I make the obvious point that Simmons and Morey apparently accidentally switched role cards?  As a result, this talk featured a lot of Simmons attacking coaches and Van Gundy defending them.  I honestly didn’t remember Mangini was on this panel until looking back at the book (which is saying something, b/c Mangini usually makes my blood boil).

There was almost nothing on, say, how to evaluate coaches, say, by analyzing how well their various decisions comported with the tenets of win maximization.  There was a lengthy (and almost entirely non-analytical) discussion of that all-important question of whether an NBA coach should foul or not up by 3 with little time left.  Fouling probably has a tiny edge, but I think it’s too close and too infrequent to be very interesting (though obviously not as rare, it reminds me a bit of the impassioned debates you used to see on Poker forums about whether you should fast-play or slow-play flopped quads in limit hold’em).

There was what I thought was a funny moment when Bill Simmons was complaining about how teams seem to recycle mediocre older coaches rather than try out young, fresh talent. But when challenged by Van Gundy, Simmons drew a blank and couldn’t think of anyone.  So, Bill, this is for you.  Here’s a table of NBA coaches who have coached at least 1000 games for at least 3 different teams, while winning fewer than 60% of their games and without winning any championships:

CoachGamesTeamsW%Last
Don Nelson2398555.7%2010
George Karl1775559.4%Active
Gene Shue1645547.7%1989
Cotton Fitzsimmons1607651.8%1997
John MacLeod1364351.8%1991
Mike Dunleavy1329446.1%2010
Mike Fratello1215354.9%2007
Flip Saunders1164354.8%Active
Doug Moe1157354.3%1993
Kevin Loughery1136641.7%1995
Del Harris1013354.9%1999

Note that I’m not necessarily agreeing with Simmons: Winning championships in the NBA is hard, especially if your team lacks uber-stars (you know, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Dennis Rodman, et al).

Part 2 coming soon!

Honestly, I got a little carried away with my detailed analysis/screed on Bill James, and I may have to do a little revising. So due to some other pressing writing commitments, you can probably expect Part 2 to come out this Saturday (Friday at the earliest).

In their win over Detroit on Sunday, Green Bay once again managed to emerge victorious despite giving up more yards than they gained. This is practically old hat for them, as it’s the 10th time that they’ve done it this year. Over the course of the season, the 15-1 Packers gave up a stunning 6585 yards, while gaining “just” 6482—thus losing the yardage battle despite being the league’s most dominant team.

This anomaly certainly captures the imagination, and I’ve received multiple requests for comment.  E.g., a friend from my old poker game emails:

Just heard that the Packers have given up more yards than they’ve gained and was wondering how to explain this.  Obviously the Packers’ defense is going to be underrated by Yards Per Game metrics since they get big leads and score quickly yada yada, but I don’t see how this has anything to do with the fact they’re being outgained.  I assume they get better starting field position by a significant amount relative to their opponents so they can have more scoring drives than their opponents while still giving up more yards than they gain, but is that backed up by the stats?

Last week Advanced NFL Stats posted a link to this article from Smart Football looking into the issue in a bit more depth. That author does a good job examining what this stat means, and whether or not it implies that Green Bay isn’t as good as they seem (he more or less concludes that it doesn’t).

But that doesn’t really answer the question of how the anomaly is even possible, much less how or why it came to be.  With that in mind, I set out to solve the problem.  Unfortunately, after having looked at the issue from a number of angles, and having let it marinate in my head for a week, I simply haven’t found an answer that I find satisfying.  But, what the hell, one of my resolutions is to pull the trigger on this sort of thing, so I figure I should post what I’ve got.

How Anomalous?

The first thing to do when you come across something that seems “crazy on its face” is to investigate how crazy it actually is (frequently the best explanation for something unusual is that it needs no explanation).  In this case, however, I think the Packers’ yardage anomaly is, indeed, “pretty crazy.”  Not otherworldly crazy, but, say, on a scale of 1 to “Kurt Warner being the 2000 MVP,” it’s at least a 6.

First, I was surprised to discover that just last year, the New England Patriots also had the league’s best record (14-2), and also managed to lose the yardage battle.  But despite such a recent example of a similar anomaly, it is still statistically pretty extreme.  Here’s a plot of more or less every NFL team season from 1936 through the present, excluding seasons where the relevant stats weren’t available or were too incomplete to be useful (N=1647):

The green diamond is the Packers net yardage vs. Win%, and the yellow triangle is their net yardage vs. Margin of Victory (net points).  While not exactly Rodman-esque outliers, these do turn out to be very historically unusual:

Win %

Using the trendline equation on the graph above (plus basic algebra), we can use a team’s season Win percentage to calculate their expected yardage differential.  With that prediction in hand, we can compare how much each team over or under-performed its “expectation”:

Both the 2011 Packers and the 2010 Patriots are in the top 5 all-time, and I should note that the 1939 New York Giants disparity is slightly overstated, because I excluded tie games entirely (ties cause problems elsewhere b/c of perfect correlation with MOV).

Margin of Victory

Toward the conclusion of that Smart Football article, the author notes that Green Bay’s Margin of Victory isn’t as strong as their overall record, noting that the Packers “Pythagorian Record” (expectation computed from points scored and points allowed) is more like 11-5 or 12-4 than 15-1 (note that getting from extremely high Win % to very high MOV is incidental: 15-win teams are usually 11 or 12 win teams that have experienced good fortune).  Green Bay’s MOV of 12.5 is a bit lower than the historical average for 15-1 teams (13.8) but don’t let this mislead you: the disparity between the yardage differential that we would expect based on Green Bay’s MOV and their actual result (using a linear projection, as above) is every bit as extreme as what we saw from Win %:

And here, in histogram form:

So, while not the most unusual thing to ever happen in sports, this anomaly is certainly unusual enough to look into.

For the record, the Packers’ MOV -> yard diff error is 3.23 standard deviations above the mean, while the Win% -> yard diff is 3.28.  But since MOV correlates more strongly with the target stat (note an average error of only 125 yards instead of 170), a similar degree of abnormality leaves it as the more stable and useful metric to look at.

Thus, the problem can be framed as follows: The 2011 Packers fell around 2000 yards (the 125.7 above * 16 games) short of their expected yardage differential.  Where did that 2000 yard gap come from?

Possible Factors and/or Explanations

Before getting started, I should note that, out of necessity, some of these “explanations” are more descriptive than actually explanatory, and even the ones that seem plausible and significant are hopelessly mixed up with one another.  At the end of the day, I think the question of “What happened?” is addressable, though still somewhat unclear.  The question of “Why did it happen?” remains largely a mystery: The most substantial claim that I’m willing to make with any confidence is that none of the obvious possibilities are sufficient explanations by themselves.

While I’m somewhat disappointed with this outcome, it makes sense in a kind of Fermi Paradox, “Why Aren’t They Here Yet?” kind of way.  I.e., if any of the straightforward explanations (e.g., that their stats were skewed by turnovers or “garbage time” distortions) could actually create an anomaly of this magnitude, we’d expect it to have happened more often.

And indeed, the data is actually consistent with a number of different factors (granted, with significant overlap) being present at once.

Line of Scrimmage, and Friends

As suggested in the email above, one theoretical explanation for the anomaly could be the Packers’ presumably superior field position advantage.  I.e., with their offense facing comparatively shorter fields than their opponents, they could have literally had fewer yards available to gain.  This is an interesting idea, but it turns out to be kind of a bust.

The Packers did enjoy a reciprocal field position advantage of about 5 yards.  But, unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a noticeable relationship between average starting field position and average yards gained per drive (which would have to be true ex ante for this “explanation” to have any meaning):

Note: Data is from the Football Outsiders drive stats.

This graph plots both offenses and defenses from 2011.  I didn’t look at more historical data, but it’s not really necessary: Even if a larger dataset revealed a statistically significant relationship, the large error rate (which converges quickly) means that it couldn’t alter expectation in an individual case by more than a fraction of a yard or so per possession.  Since Green Bay only traded 175ish possessions this season, it couldn’t even make a dent in our 2000 missing yards (again, that’s if it existed at all).

On the other hand, one thing in the F.O. drive stats that almost certainly IS a factor, is that the Packers had a net of 10 fewer possessions this season than their opponents.  As Green Bay averaged 39.5 yards per possession, this difference alone could account for around 400 yards, or about 20% of what we’re looking for.

Moreover, 5 of those 10 possessions come from a disparity in “zero yard touchdowns,” or net touchdowns scored by their defense and special teams: The Packers scored 7 of these (5 from turnovers, 2 from returns) while only allowing 2 (one fumble recovery and one punt return).  Such scores widen a team’s MOV without affecting their total yardage gap.

[Warning: this next point is a bit abstract, so feel free to skip to the end.] Logically, however, this doesn’t quite get us where we want to go.  The relevant question is “What would the yardage differential have been if the Packers had the same number of possessions as their opponents?”  Some percentage of our 10 counterfactual drives would result in touchdowns regardless.  Now, the Packers scored touchdowns on 37% of their actual drives, but scored touchdowns on at least 50% of their counterfactual drives (the ones that we can actually account for via the “zero yard touchdown” differential).  Since touchdown drives are, on average, longer than non-touchdown drives, this means that the ~400 yards that can be attributed to the possession gap is at least somewhat understated.

Garbage Time

When considering this issue, probably the first thing that springs to minds is that the Packers have won a lot of games easily.  It seems highly plausible that, having rushed out to so many big leads, the Packers must have played a huge amount of “garbage time,” in which their defense could have given up a lot of “meaningless” yards that had no real consequence other than to confound statisticians.

The proportion of yards on each side of the ball that came after Packers games got out of hand should be empirically checkable—but, unfortunately, I haven’t added 2011 Play-by-Play data to my database yet.  That’s okay, though, because there are other ways—perhaps even more interesting ways—to attack the problem.

In fact, it’s pretty much right up my alley: Essentially, what we are looking for here is yet another permutation of “Reverse Clutch” (first discussed in my Rodman series, elaborated in “Tim Tebow and the Taxonomy of Clutch”). Playing soft in garbage time is a great way for a team to “underperform” in statistical proxies for true strength.  In football, there are even a number of sound tactical and strategic reasons why you should explicitly sacrifice yards in order to maximize your chances of winning.  For example, if you have a late lead, you should be more willing to soften up your defense of non-sideline runs and short passes—even if it means giving up more yards on average than a conventional defense would—since those types of plays hasten the end of the game.  And the converse is true on offense:  With a late lead, you want to run plays that avoid turnovers and keep the clock moving, even if it means you’ll be more predictable and easier to defend.

So how might we expect this scenario to play out statistically?  Recall, by definition, “clutch” and “reverse clutch” look the same in a stat sheet.  So what kind of stats—or relationships between stats—normally indicate “clutchness”?  As it turns out, Brian Burke at Advanced NFL Stats has two metrics pretty much at the core of everything he does: Expected Points Added, and Win Percentage Added.  The first of these (EPA) takes the down and distance before and after each play and uses historical empirical data to model how much that result normally affects a team’s point differential.  WPA adds time and score to the equation, and attempts to model the impact each play has on the team’s chances of winning.

A team with “clutch” results—whether by design or by chance—might be expected to perform better in WPA (which ultimately just adds up to their number of wins) than in EPA (which basically measures generic efficiency).

For most aspects of the game, the relationship between these two is strong enough to make such comparisons possible.  Here are plots of this comparison for each of the 4 major categories (2011 NFL, Green Bay in green), starting with passing offense (note that the comparison is technically between wins added overall and expected points per play):

And here’s passing defense:

Rushing offense:

And rushing defense:

Obviously there’s nothing strikingly abnormal about Green Bay’s results in these graphs, but there are small deviations that are perfectly consistent with the garbage time/reverse clutch theory.  For the passing game (offense and defense), Green Bay seems to hew pretty close to expectation.  But in the rushing game they do have small but noticeable disparities on both sides of the ball.  Note that in the scenario I described where a team intentionally trades efficiency for win potential, we would expect the difference to be most acute in the running game (which would be under-defended on defense and overused on offense).

Specifically: Green Bay’s offensive running game has a WPA of 1.1, despite having an EPA per play of zero (which corresponds to a WPA of .25).  On defense, the Packers’ EPA/p is .07, which should correspond to an expected WPA of 1.0, while their actual result is .59.

Clearly, both of these effects are small, considering there isn’t a perfect correlation.  But before dismissing them entirely, I should note that we don’t immediately know how much of the variation in the graphs above is due to variance for a given team and how much is due to variation between teams.  Moreover, without knowing the balance, the fact that both variance and variation contribute to the “entropy” of the observed relationship between EPA/p and WPA, the actual relationship between the two is likely to be stronger than these graphs would make it seem.

The other potential problem is that this comparison is between wins and points, while the broader question is comparing points to yards.  But there’s one other statistical angle that helps bridge the two, while supporting the speculated scenario to boot: Green Bay gained 3.9 yards per attempt on offense, and allowed 4.7 yards per attempt on defense—while the league average is 4.3 yards per attempt.  So, at least in terms of raw yardage, Green Bay performed “below average” in the running game by about .4 yards/attempt on each side of the ball.  Yet, the combined WPA for the Packers running game is positive! Their net rushing WPA is +.5, despite having an expected combined WPA (actually based on their EPA) of -.75.

So, if we thought this wasn’t a statistical artifact, there would be two obvious possible explanations: 1) That Green Bay has a sub-par running game that has happened to be very effective in important spots, or 2) that Green Bay actually has an average (or better) running game that has appeared ineffective (especially as measured by yards gained/allowed) in less important spots. Q.E.D.

For the sake of this analysis, let’s assume that the observed difference for Green Bay here really is a product of strategic adjustments stemming from (or at least related to) their winning ways, how much of our 2000 yard disparity could it account for?

So let’s try a crazy, wildly speculative, back-of-the-envelope calculation: Give Green Bay and its opponents the same number of rushing attempts that they had this season, but with both sides gaining an average number of yards per attempt.  The Packers had 395 attempts and their opponents had 383, so at .4 yards each, the yardage differential would swing by 311 yards.  So again, interesting and plausibly significant, but doesn’t even come close to explaining our anomaly on its own.

Turnover Effect?

One of the more notable features of the Packers season is their incredible +22 turnover margin.  How they managed that and whether it was simply variance or something more meaningful could be its own issue.  But in this context, give them the +22, how helpful is that as an explanation for the yardage disparity?  Turnovers affect scores and outcomes a ton, but are relatively neutral w/r/t yards, so surely this margin is relevant.  But exactly how much does it neutralize the problem?

Here, again, we can look at the historical data.  To predict yardage differential based on MOV and turnover differential, we can set up an extremely basic linear regression:

The R-Square value of .725 means that this model is pretty accurate (MOV alone achieved around .66).  Both variables are extremely significant (from p value, or absolute value of t-stat).  Based on these coefficients, the resulting predictive equation is

YardsDiff = 7.84*MOV – 23.3*TOdiff/gm

Running the dataset through the same process as above (comparing predictions with actual results and calculating the total error), here’s how the new rankings turns out:

In other words, if we account for turnovers in our predictions, the expected/actual yardage discrepancy drops from ~125 to ~70 yards per game.  This obv makes the results somewhat less extreme, though still pretty significant: 11th of 1647.  Or, in histogram form:

So what’s the bottom line?  At 69.5 yards per game, the total “missing” yardage drops to around 1100.  Therefore, inasmuch as we accept it as an “explanation,” Green Bay’s turnover differential seems to account for about 900 yards.

It’s probably obvious, but important enough to say anyway, that there is extensive overlap between this “explanation” and our others above: E.g., the interception differential contributes to the possession differential, and is exacerbated by garbage time strategy, which causes the EPA/WPA differential, etc.

“Bend But Don’t Break”

Finally, I have to address a potential cause of this anomaly that I would almost rather not: The elusive “Bend But Don’t Break” defense.  It’s a bit like the Dark Matter of this scenario: I can prove it exists, and estimate about how much is there, but that doesn’t mean I have any idea what it is or where it comes from, and it’s almost certainly not as sexy as people think it is.

Typically, “Bend But Don’t Break” is the description that NFL analysts use for bad defenses that get lucky.  As a logical and empirical matter, they mostly don’t make sense: Pretty much every team in history (save, possibly, the 2007 New England Patriots) has a steeply inclined expected points by field position curve.  See, e.g., the “Drive Results” chart in this post.  Any time you “bend” enough to give up first downs, you’re giving up expected points. In other words, barring special circumstances, there is simply no way to trade significant yards for a decreased chance of scoring.

Of course, you can have defenses that are stronger at defending various parts of the field, or certain down/distance combinations, which could have the net effect of allowing fewer points than you would expect based on yards allowed, but that’s not some magical defensive rope-a-dope strategy, it’s just being better at some things than others.

But for whatever reason, on a drive-by-drive basis, did the Green Bay defense “bend” more than it “broke”? In other words, did they give up fewer points than expected?

And the answer is “yes.”  Which should be unsurprising, since it’s basically a minor variant of the original problem.  In other words, it begs the question.

In fact, with everything that we’ve looked at so far, this is pretty much all that is left: if there weren’t a significant “Bend But Don’t Break” effect observable, the yardage anomaly would be literally impossible.

And, in fact, this observation “accounts” for about 650 yards, which, combined with everything else we’ve looked at (and assuming a modest amount of overlap), puts us in the ballpark of our initial 2000 yard discrepancy.

Extremely Speculative Conclusions

Some of the things that seem speculative above must be true, because there has to be an accounting: even if it’s completely random, dumb luck with no special properties and no elements of design, there still has to be an avenue for the anomaly to manifest.

So, given that some speculation is necessary, the best I can do is offer a sort of “death by a thousand cuts” explanation.  If we take the yardage explained by turnovers, the “dark matter” yards of “bend but don’t break”, and then roughly half of our speculated consequences of the fewer drives/zero yard TD’s and the “Garbage Time” reverse-clutch effect (to account for overlap), you actually end up with around 2100 yards, with a breakdown like so:

So why cut drives and reverse clutch in half instead of the others?  Mostly just to be conservative. We have to account for overlap somewhere, and I’d rather leave more in the unknown than in the known.

At the end of the day, the stars definitely had to align for this anomaly to happen: Any one of the contributing factors may have been slightly unusual, but combine them and you get something rare.

There’s nothing people love more in sports than the appearance of “clutch”ness, probably because the ability to play “up” to a situation implies a sort of super-humanity, and we love our super-heroes. Prior to this last weekend, Tim Tebow had a remarkable streak of games in which he (and his team) played significantly better in crucial 4th-quarter situations than he (or they) did throughout the rest of those contests. Combined with Tebow’s high profile, his extremely public religious conviction, and a “divine intervention” narrative that practically wrote itself, this led to a perfect storm of hype. With the din of that hype dying down a bit (thank you, Bill Belichick), I thought I’d take the chance to explore a few of my thoughts on “clutchness” in general.

This may be a bit of a surprise coming from a statistically-oriented self-professed skeptic, but I’m a complete believer in “clutch.”  In this case, my skepticism is aimed more at those who deny clutch out of hand: The principle that “Clutch does not exist” is treated as something of a sacred tenet by many adherents of the Unconventional Wisdom.

On the other hand, my belief in Clutch doesn’t necessarily mean I believe in mystical athletic superpowers. Rather, I think the “clutch” effect—that is, scenarios where the performance of some teams/players genuinely improves when game outcomes are in the balance—is perfectly rational and empirically supported.  Indeed, the simple fact that winning is a statistically significant predictive variable on top of points scored and points allowed—demonstrably true for each of the 3 major American sports—is very nearly proof enough.

The differences between my views and those of clutch-deniers are sometimes more semantic and sometimes more empirical.  In its broadest sense, I would describe “clutch” as a property inherent in players/teams/coaches who systematically perform better than normal in more important situations. From there, I see two major factors that divide clutch into a number of different types: 1) Whether or not the difference is a product of the individual or team’s own skill, and 2) whether their performance in these important spots is abnormally good relative to their performance (in less important spots), whether it is good relative to the typical performance in those spots, or both.  In the following chart, I’ve listed the most common types of Clutch that I can think of, a couple of examples of each, and how I think they break down w/r/t those factors (click to enlarge):

Here are a few thoughts on each:

1. Reverse Clutch

I first discussed the concept of “reverse clutch” in this post in my Dennis Rodman series.  Put simply, it’s a situation where someone has clutch-like performance by virtue of playing badly in less important situations.

While I don’t think this is a particularly common phenomenon, it may be relevant to the Tebow discussion.  During Sunday’s Broncos/Pats game, I tweeted that at least one commentator seemed to be flirting with the idea that maybe Tebow would be better off throwing more interceptions. Noting that, for all of Tebow’s statistical shortcomings, his interception rate is ridiculously low, and then noting that Tebow’s “ugly” passes generally err on the ultra-cautious side, the commentator seemed poised to put the two together—if just for a moment—before his partner steered him back to the mass media-approved narrative.

If you’re not willing to take the risks that sometimes lead to interceptions, you may also have a harder time completing passes, throwing touchdowns, and doing all those things that quarterbacks normally do to win games.  And, for the most part, we know that Tebow is almost religiously (pun intended) committed to avoiding turnovers.  However, in situations where your team is trailing in the 4th quarter, you may have no choice but to let loose and take those risks.  Thus, it is possible that a Tim Tebow who takes risks more optimally is actually a significantly better quarterback than the Q1-Q3 version we’ve seen so far this season, and the 4th quarter pressure situations he has faced have simply brought that out of him.

That may sound farfetched, and I certainly wouldn’t bet my life on it, but it also wouldn’t be unprecedented.  Though perhaps a less extreme example, early in his career Ben Roethlisburger played on a Pittsburgh team that relied mostly on its defense, and was almost painfully conservative in the passing game.  He won a ton, but with superficially unimpressive stats, a fairly low interception rate, and loads of “clutch” performances. His rookie season he passed for only 187 yards a game, yet had SIX 4th quarter comebacks.  Obviously, he eventually became regarded as an elite QB, with statistics to match.

 2. Not Choking

A lot of professional athletes are *not* clutch, or, more specifically, are anti-clutch. See, e.g., professional kickers.  They succumb under pressure, just as any non-professionals might. While most professionals probably have a much greater capacity for handling pressure situations than amateurs, there are still significant relative imbalances between them.  The athletes who do NOT choke under pressure are thus, by comparison, clutch.

Some athletes may be more “mentally tough” than others.  I love Roger Federer, and think he is among the top two tennis player of all time (Bjorn Borg being the other), and in many ways I even think he is under-appreciated despite all of his accolades.  Yet, he has a pretty crap record in the closest matches, especially late in majors: lifetime, he is 4-7 in 5 set matches in the Quarterfinals or later, including a 2-4 record in his last 6.  For comparison, Nadal is 4-1 in similar situations (2-1 against Federer), and Borg won 5-setters at an 86% clip.

Extremely small sample, sure. But compared to Federer’s normal expectation on a set by set basis over the time-frame (even against tougher competition), the binomial probability of him losing that much without significantly diminished 5th set performance is extremely low:

Thus, as a Bayesian matter, it’s likely that a portion of Rafael Nadal’s apparent “clutchness” can be attributed to Roger Federer.

3. Reputational Clutch.

In the finale to my Rodman series, I discussed a fictional player named “Bjordson,” who is my amalgamation of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson, and I noted that this player has a slightly higher Win % differential than Rodman.

Now, I could do a whole separate post (if not a whole separate series) on the issue, but it’s interesting that Bjordson also has an extremely high X-Factor: that is, the average difference between their actual Win % differential and the Win % differential that would be predicted by their Margin of Victory differential is, like Rodman’s, around 10% (around 22.5% vs. 12.5%).  [Note: Though the X-Factors are similar, this is subjectively a bit less surprising than Rodman having such a high W% diff., mostly because I started with W% diff. this time, so some regression to the mean was expected, while in Rodman's case I started with MOV, so a massively higher W% was a shocker.  But regardless, both results are abnormally high.]

Now, I’m sure that the vast majority of sports fans presented with this fact would probably just shrug and accept that Jordan, Bird and Johnson must have all been uber-clutch, but I doubt it.  Systematically performing super-humanly better than you are normally capable of is extremely difficult, but systematically performing worse than you are normally capable of is pretty easy.  Rodman’s high X-Factor was relatively easy to understand (as Reverse Clutch), but these are a little trickier.

Call it speculation, but I suspect that a major reason for this apparent clutchiness is that being a super-duper-star has its privileges. E.g.:

In other words, ref bias may help super-stars win even more than their super-skills would dictate.

I put Tim Tebow in the chart above as perhaps having a bit of “reputational clutch” as well, though not because of officiating.  Mostly it just seemed that, over the last few weeks, the Tebow media frenzy led to an environment where practically everyone on the field was going out of their minds—one way or the other—any time a game got close late.

4. Skills Relevant to Endgame

Numbers 4 and 5 in the chart above are pretty closely related.  The main distinction is that #4 can be role-based and doesn’t necessarily imply any particular advantage.  In fact, you could have a relatively poor player overall who, by virtue of their specific skillset, becomes significantly more valuable in endgame situations.  E.g., closing pitchers in baseball: someone with a comparatively high ERA might still be a good “closing” option if they throw a high percentage of strikeouts (it doesn’t matter how many home runs you normally give up if a single or even a pop-up will lose the game).

Straddling 4 and 5 is one of the most notorious “clutch” athletes of all time: Reggie Miller.  Many years ago, I read an article that examined Reggie’s career and determined that he wasn’t clutch because he hit an relatively normal percentage of 3 point shots in clutch situations. I didn’t even think about it at the time, but I wish I could find the article now, because, if true, it almost certainly proves exactly the opposite of what the authors intended.

The amazing thing about Miller is that his jump shot was so ugly. My theory is that the sheer bizarreness of his shooting motion made his shot extremely hard to defend (think Hideo Nomo in his rookie year).  While this didn’t necessarily make him a great shooter under normal circumstances, he could suddenly become extremely valuable in any situations where there is no time to set up a shot and heavy perimeter defense is a given. Being able to hit ANY shots under those conditions is a “clutch” skill.

 5. Tactical Superiority (and other endgame skills)

Though other types of skills can fit into this branch of the tree, I think endgame tactics is the area where teams, coaches, and players are most likely to have disparate impacts, thus leading to significant advantages w/r/t winning.  The simple fact is that endgames are very different from the rest of games, and require a whole different mindset. Meanwhile, leagues select for people with a wide variety of skills, leaving some much better at end-game tactics than others.

Win expectation supplants point expectation.  If you’re behind, you have to take more risks, and if you’re ahead, you have to avoid risks—even at the cost of expected value.  If you’re a QB, you need to consider the whole range of outcomes of a play more than just the average outcome or the typical outcome.  If you’re a QB who is losing, you need to throw pride out the window and throw interceptions! There is clock management, knowing when to stay in bounds and when to go down.  As a baseball manager, you may face your most difficult pitching decisions, and as a pitcher, you may have to make unusual pitch decisions.  A batter may have to adjust his style to the situation, and a pitcher needs to anticipate those adjustments.  Etc., etc., ad infinitum.  They may not be as flashy as Reggie Miller 3-ball, but these little things add up, and are probably the most significant source of Clutchness in sports.

6. Conditioning

I listed this separately (rather than as an example of 4 or 5) just because I think it’s not as simple and neat as it seems.

While conditioning and fitness are important in every sport, and they tend to be more important later in games, they’re almost too pervasive to be “clutch” as I described it above.  The fact that most major team sports have more or less uniform game lengths means that conditioning issue should manifest similarly basically every night, and should therefore be reflected in most conventional statistics (like minutes played, margin of victory, etc), not just in those directly related to winning.

Ultimately, I think conditioning has the greatest impact on “clutchness” in Tennis, where it is often the deciding factor in close matches

7. True Clutch.

And finally, we get to the Holy Grail of Clutch.  This is probably what most “skeptics” are thinking of when they deny the existence of Clutch, though I think that such denials—even with this more limited scope—are generally overstated.  If such a quality exists, it is obviously going to be extremely rare, so the various statistical studies that fail to find it prove very little.

The most likely example in mainstream sports would seem to be pre-scandal Tiger Woods.  In his prime, he had an advantage over the field in nearly every aspect of the game, but golf is a fairly high variance sport, and his scoring average was still only a point or two lower than the competition.  Yet his Sunday prowess is well documented: He has gone 48-4 in PGA tournaments when entering the final round with at least a share of the lead, including an 11-1 record with only a share of the lead.  Also, to go a bit more esoteric, Woods has successfully defended a title 22 times.  So, considering he has 71 career wins, and at least 22 of them had to be first timers, that means his title defense record is closer to 40-45%, depending on how often he won titles many times in a row.  Compare this to his overall win-rate of 27%, and the idea that he was able to elevate his game when it mattered to him the most is even more plausible.

Of course, I still contend that the most clutch thing I have ever seen is Packattack’s final jump onto the .1 wire in his legendary A11 run.  Tim Tebow, eat your heart out!

So despite my general antipathy toward America’s pastime, I’ve been looking into baseball a lot lately.  I’m working on a three part series that will “take on” Pythagorean Expectation.  But considering the sanctity of that metric, I’m taking my time to get it right.

For now, the big news is that Major League Baseball is finally going to have realignment, which will most likely lead to an extra playoff team, and a one game Wild Card series between the non–division winners.  I’m not normally one who tries to comment on current events in sports (though, out of pure frustration, I almost fired up WordPress today just to take shots at Tim Tebow—even with nothing original to say), but this issue has sort of a counter-intuitive angle to it that motivated me to dig a bit deeper.

Conventional wisdom on the one game playoff is pretty much that it’s, well, super crazy.  E.g., here’s Jayson Stark’s take at ESPN:

But now that the alternative to finishing first is a ONE-GAME playoff? Heck, you’d rather have an appendectomy than walk that tightrope. Wouldn’t you?

Though I think he actually likes the idea, precisely because of the loco factor:

So a one-game, October Madness survivor game is what we’re going to get. You should set your DVRs for that insanity right now.

In the meantime, we all know what the potential downside is to this format. Having your entire season come down to one game isn’t fair. Period.

I wouldn’t be too sure about that.  What is fair?  As I’ve noted, MLB playoffs are basically a crapshoot anyway.  In my view, any move that MLB can make toward having the more accomplished team win more often is a positive step.  And, as crazy as it sounds, that is likely exactly what a one game playoff will do.

The reason is simple: home field advantage.  While smaller than in other sports, the home team in baseball still wins around 55% of the time, and more games means a smaller percentage of your series games played at home.  While longer series’ eventually lead to better teams winning more often, the margins in baseball are so small that it takes a significant edge for a team to prefer to play ANY road games:

Note: I calculated these probabilities using my favorite binom.dist function in Excel. Specifically, where the number of games needed to win a series is k, this is the sum from x=0 to x=k of the p(winning x home games) times p(winning at least k-x road games).

So assuming each team is about as good as their records (which, regardless of the accuracy of the assumption, is how they deserve to be treated), a team needs about a 5.75% generic advantage (around 9-10 games) to prefer even a seven game series to a single home game.

But what about the incredible injustice that could occur when a really good team is forced to play some scrub?  E.g., Stark continues:

It’s a lock that one of these years, a 98-win wild-card team is going to lose to an 86-win wild-card team. And that will really, really seem like a miscarriage of baseball justice. You’ll need a Richter Scale handy to listen to talk radio if that happens.

But you know what the answer to those complaints will be?

“You should have finished first. Then you wouldn’t have gotten yourself into that mess.”

Stark posits a 12 game edge between two wild card teams, and indeed, this could lead to a slightly worse spot for the better team than a longer series.  12 games corresponds to a 7.4% generic advantage, which means a 7-game series would improve the team’s chances by about 1% (oh, the humanity!).  But the alternative almost certainly wouldn’t be seven games anyway, considering the first round of the playoffs is already only five.  At that length, the “miscarriage of baseball justice” would be about 0.1% (and vs. 3 games, sudden death is still preferable).

If anything, consider the implications of the massive gap on the left side of the graph above: If anyone is getting screwed by the new setup, it’s not the team with the better record, it’s a better team with a worse record, who won’t get as good a chance to demonstrate their actual superiority (though that team’s chances are still around 50% better than they would have been under the current system).  And those are the teams that really did “[get themselves] into that mess.”

Also, the scenario Stark posits is extremely unlikely: basically, the difference between 4th and 5th place is never 12 games.  For comparison, this season the difference between the best record in the NL and the Wild Card Loser was only 13 games, and in the AL it was only seven.  Over the past ten seasons, each Wild Card team and their 5th place finisher were separated by an average of 3.5 games (about 2.2%):

Note that no cases over this span even rise above the seven game “injustice line” of 5.75%, much less to the nightmare scenario of 7.5% that Stark invokes.  The standard deviation is about 1.5%, and that’s with the present imbalance of teams (note that the AL is pretty consistently higher than the NL, as should be expected)—after realignment, this plot should tighten even further.

Indeed, considering the typically small margins between contenders in baseball, on average, this “insane” sudden death series may end up being the fairest round of the playoffs.

Last season I did some analysis of rookie starting quarterbacks and which of their stats are most predictive of future NFL success. One of the most fun and interesting results I found is that rookie interception % is a statistically significant positive indicator—that is, all else being equal, QB’s who throw more interceptions as rookies tend to have more successful careers.  I’ve been going back over this work recently with an eye towards posting something on the blog (coming soon!), and while playing around with examples I stumbled into this:

Note: Data points are QB’s in the Super Bowl era who were drafted #1 overall and started at least half of their team’s games as rookies (excluding Matthew Stafford and Sam Bradford for lack of ripeness). Peyton Manning and Jim Plunkett each threw 4.9% interceptions and won one Super Bowl, so I slightly adjusted their numbers to make them both visible, though the R-squared value of .7287 is accurate to the original (a linear trend actually performs slightly better—with an R-squared of .7411—but I prefer the logarithmic one aesthetically).

Notice the relationship is almost perfectly ironic: Excluding Steve Bartowski (5.9%), no QB with a lower interception percentage has won more Super Bowls than any QB with a higher one. Overall (including Steve B.), the seven QB’s with the highest rates have 12 Super Bowl rings, or an average of 1.7 per (and obv the remaining six have none).  And it’s not just Super Bowls: those seven also have 36 career Pro Bowl selections between them (average of 5.1), to just seven for the remainder (average of 1.2).

As for significance, obviously the sample is tiny, but it’s large enough that it would be an astounding statistical artifact if there were actually nothing behind it (though I should note that the symmetricality of the result would be remarkable even with an adequate explanation for its “ironic” nature).  I have some broader ideas about the underlying dynamics and implications at play, but I’ll wait to examine those in a more robust context. Besides, rank speculation is fun, so here are a few possible factors that spring to mind:

  1. Potential for selection effect: Most rookie QB’s who throw a lot of interceptions get benched.  Teams may be more likely to let their QB continue playing when they have more confidence in his abilities—and presumably such confidence correlates (at least to some degree) with actually having greater abilities.
  2. The San Antonio gambit: Famously, David Robinson missed most of the ’96-97 NBA season with back and foot injuries, allowing the Spurs to bomb their way into getting Tim Duncan, sending the most coveted draft pick in many years to a team that, when healthy, was already somewhat of a contender (also preventing a drool-worthy Iverson/Duncan duo in Philadelphia).  Similarly, if a quality QB prospect bombs out in his rookie campaign—for whatever reason, including just “running bad”—his team may get all of the structural and competitive advantages of a true bottom-feeder (such as higher draft position), despite actually having 1/3 of a quality team (i.e., a good quarterback) in place.
  3. Gunslingers are just better:  This is my favorite possible explanation, natch.  There are a lot of variations, but the most basic idea goes like this: While ultimately a good QB on a good team will end up having lower interception rates, interceptions are not necessarily bad.  Much like going for it on 4th down, often the best win-maximizing choice that a QB can make is to “gamble”—that is, to risking turning the ball over when the reward is appropriate. This can be play-dependent (like deep passes with high upsides and low downsides), or situation-dependent (like when you’re way behind and need to give yourself the chance to get lucky to have a chance to win).  E.g.: In defense of Brett Favre—who, in crunch time, could basically be counted on to deliver you either a win or multiple “ugly” INT’s—I’ve quipped: If a QB loses a game without throwing 4 interceptions, he probably isn’t trying hard enough.  And, of course, this latter scenario should come up a lot for the crappy teams that just drafted #1 overall:  I.e., when your rookie QB is going 4-12 and isn’t throwing 20 interceptions, he’s probably doing something wrong.

[Edit (9/24/2011) to add: Considering David Meyer's comment below, I thought I should make clear that, while my interests and tastes lie with #3 above, I don't mean to suggest that I endorse it as the most likely or most significant factor contributing to this particular phenomenon (or even the broader one regarding predictivity of rookie INT%).  While I do find it meaningful and relevant that this result is consistent with and supportive of some of my wilder thoughts about interceptions, risk-taking, and quarterbacking, overall I think that macroscopic factors are more likely to be the driving force in this instance.]

For the record, here are the 13 QB’s and their relevant stats:

QBGSAttIntInt%SBPB
Terry Bradshaw82182411.01%43
Troy Aikman11293186.14%36
Steve Bartowski11255155.88%02
John Elway10259145.41%29
Jim Plunkett14328164.88%10
Peyton Manning16575284.87%111
Joe Namath9340154.41%15
Carson Palmer13432184.17%02
Jeff George12334133.89%00
Drew Bledsoe12429153.50%04
David Carr16444153.38%00
Tim Couch14399133.26%00
Bernie Kosar1024872.82%01