The Dark Arts of the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

This past weekend, I got to attend the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference:

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the 2018 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston. For the uninitiated, the conference was started 12 years ago by Daryl Morey (current GM of the Houston Rockets) and Jessica Gelman (CEO of Kraft Analytics Group) in the classrooms of MIT to promote the use of analytics in sports. It has now expanded to the halls of the Boston Convention Center and included such prestigious guests as Rob Manfred, Nate Silver, and none other than the 44th President of the United States Barrack Obama. I was thrilled.

Yet despite the success of the conference, there still exists a strange tension in professional sports between traditional “old school” scouting guys and these radical new “analytics” kids. It’s almost as if analytics are some strange kind of black magic that the old guard of the teams and leagues are picking up their pitch forks and torches to go defend their village against.

But really, analytics simply means using data to make informed decisions. Seems like a no brainer, right? However, I found that if a conference speaker who represented the analytics school of thought was confronted about the failure of analytics in a certain situation, or how analytics dehumanizes the players in the sport, the repeated refrain was “analytics are a tool to make a decision, not the ultimate authority on all things.”

Some interesting things:

Of course, the popularity of analytics stems from professional teams always looking to find an edge on the competition. But its use is still in a kind of hush-hush phase. To this point, I actually approached a representative from the Baltimore Ravens at the conference, and while he was keen to point out their use of analytics on the football operations side (ticket sales, fan experience, advertising, etc.) he “declined to comment” about their use in player personnel. This was an odd response from someone at an analytics conference.

I was able to talk to a member of the analytics team with the Jacksonville Jaguars, and, at least in regards to the draft, he said that his guys really come into play in the later rounds or for rookie free agents. They look at the guys they know won’t get drafted but have the statistics to get excited about. For example, Keelan Cole was a rookie free agent last year and I bet at least one person reading this had him on their fantasy team at the end of last season.

Notable late draft picks and undrafted free agents of the past several years:

  • Nick Boyle (5th, 2015)
  • Michael Campanaro (7th, 2014)
  • James Hurst (Undrafted, 2014)
  • Ryan Jensen (6th, 2013)
  • Matt Judon (5th, 2016)
  • Patrick Onwuasor (Undrafted, 2016)
  • Matt Skura (Undrafted, 2017)
  • Justin Tucker (Undrafted, 2012)

 

The future of analytics in sports is clear: it will become the standard sooner rather than later. But there will always be a need for scouting. What successful organizations will find (or already have found) is a successful cooperation between the two. Scouts find players that they like and ask the analytics department to look deeper, or the analytics people uncover a statistical wunderkind and ask the scouts to investigate.

It’s not a secret and it’s not some kind of dark magic, but the sooner an organization embraces the use of analytics, the better informed their decisions will be. The key is to have the proper people up top that can take that data and use it as a tool to make their decisions.

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