Saturday, September 24, 2011

Know your numbers

Globe and Mail columnist James Mirtle, whose work I respect a great deal, offers up a piece on the statistical revolution in professional hockey that is most definitely worth a read.
One would think that CBJ GM Scott Howson did some hefty statistical
analysis before opening up the Blue Jackets checkbook
to the tune of $33 million on James Wisniewski, a player who has
never commanded  such a price on the market.
In contrast to traditional statistics such as goals and assists, advanced statisticians believe [newer statistical measurements] offer greater insight into which players are performing well in important areas of the game, including defensive play, puck possession and ability to play against other team's top lines. 
This knowledge, in theory, allows teams to better determine what players should be paid – that is, their true value under the salary cap – and find players who may be overlooked or underrated by their own organizations.
Sure, this piece is written to coincide with the "Moneyball" film that just hit the theaters.  It's always good policy to take the topic du jour and put a localized spin on it.  To talk about stats in hockey is right in line with that philosophy.

But we can't diminish the the piece - or the concepts behind it - by suggesting that it's just a "Moneyball" tie-in designed to grab readers' attention.
No way.  With the dollars and cents as high as they are in sport, every team should be mining the stats to unearth their diamonds in the rough.  No longer is hockey - or any truly professional sport, for that matter - the exclusive realm of The Jock Fraternity.  It's a numbers game: Numbers on salaries and numbers on statistics.  (And if you want to go further, numbers on tax collections, numbers on attendance and gate receipts, etc.)  It's not enough to have a scout say, "This guy is great!" Now the numbers need to back up those assertions.  This is nothing new in sports as Mirtle notes, but the professionalism and precision of the sports stats industry grows by the day.

Bringing it closer to home, articles like Mirtle's bring me back to the big offseason acquisitions for the Columbus Blue Jackets.  Jeff Carter is an expensive player, but his recent statistics appear to support his salary.  Even more intriguing is the James Wisniewski signing.  Up until now, Wiz was not a premier defenseman and wasn't paid like one.  One would think that Scott Howson and his team considered Wiz's statistical output and growth curve at least as much as the fact that "Wiz has a wicked shot from the point" and other such anecdotal observations.  I mean, 6 years, $33 million dollars isn't chump change - and Howson's a bright guy who probably could understand the new world of statistics better than, say, former CBJ majordomo Doug Maclean.  (By the way, Wiz has some pretty strong Corsi numbers over the years. For more on Corsi ratings, click here.)

I've dabbled in stats in the past with varying degrees of effectiveness, and pieces like Mirtle's stiffen my resolve to get back to that approach.  It's not easy to do, and it's very time-consuming to do well, but we'll see what we can do.

Apologies for not offering much in the way of commentary on the now-underway preseason (and thanks to Gallos for once again filling the breach!).  I've been out of town since Sunday and haven't seen enough preseason hockey to offer any useful thoughts on the state of the roster.  I'll do my best to get back in the swing quickly.

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