Sports analytics in the Moneyball era

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By Michael Angelo S. Murillo, Senior Reporter

BROUGHT to the fore by the 2003 book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis and the 2011 film inspired by it starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, sports analytics has seen its use in major sports grow exponentially, including in the Philippines where some teams are using it to enhance their game.

Using data, statistics, and information systems to facilitate informed pre- and in-game decision-making, sports analytics continues to evolve, providing a fresh perspective while shaking up conventional knowledge about how to properly play a sport.

Moneyball was about the Oakland A’s, a baseball team, for two very good reasons: first, baseball is uniquely suited to quantitative analysis, generating statistics that were easy to compile even before the computer age: batting average, earned run average,runs batted in, and so on.

It helped that every pitch is a different game state; every batter either advances or makes an out, changing the game state with every at-bat. The advent of computers and the Internet made even amateur analysis possible, taking form in the first fantasy sports leagues, called Rotisserie Baseball by its first practitioners, who were a small group of mostly media industry types in New York City.

In fact, one of the great heroes of Moneyball was Bill James, an amateur baseball statistician from Kansas who worked as a night watchman at a pork and beans factory. His groundbreaking analytical pamphlets made advanced baseball statistics fashionable and brought to light the work of an obscure group of analysts whose work later came to be known as Sabermetrics, named after the Society of American Baseball Research.




The second reason baseball was so suited for alternative strategies was that the Oakland A’s were a notoriously low-budget team in a league dominated by high-payroll clubs like the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. The Oakland general manager, Billy Beane, had a disastrous playing career even though he looked every inch the baseball player to a scout’s eye — he could run fast, throw hard, bat for percentage and power.

When he proved to be wanting in the mental aspect of the game, leading him to flame out while less physically gifted players stuck it out, it triggered in Mr. Beane a revolt against the game’s conventional wisdom, of which he was also a victim. Thus began a search for players with skills that were undervalued by the rest of the league, who were by extension cheap and therefore affordable for Oakland. It reached a point where the A’s roster consisted of oddballs and rejects, the logical conclusion of Mr. Beane’s single-minded exploitation of what Mr. Lewis called “market inefficiencies.”

AS APPLIED TO BASKETBALL
For Filipinos the practice of analytics is more evident in basketball, traditionally a pound-it-into-the-paint sport dominated by big men, who had a better chance of scoring the nearer they were to the basket. It was a long-standing approach to the game that was disrupted in recent years by teams like the Golden State Warriors, which now represent the sport’s state of the art.

The revolution took some years after the introduction of the National Basketball Association three-point line in the 1979-1980 season (after it had been pioneered by the rival American Basketball Association). It took a radical rethink by innovators like Mike d’Antoni while he was with the Phoenix Suns and Daryl Morey, General Manager of the Houston Rockets, before teams took concepts like spacing and the three-point line to their full potential, opening up driving lanes, rendering slow, traditional big men obsolete, and reworking game strategy more into what it looks like today.

In the Philippines, while use of sports analytics is acknowledged to be still in its infancy, it has nonetheless made in-roads with more teams and organizations recognizing its value and potential. Even though advanced basketball statistics are harder to track because of the game’s free-flowing nature, the disruption of traditional beliefs, such as the reliance on big men, suggests many other old ways of thinking are subject to disruption.

In the Philippine Basketball Association, the teams using sports analytics with designated personnel for it are the Barangay Ginebra San Miguel Kings and Alaska Aces.

While they recognize that it is not be-all and end-all of what they are doing,they believe it complements their attempts to succeed in Asia’s first play-for-pay league.

“Sports analytics for me is the marriage of sports and statistics. With the emergence of data analytics, the people saw the effects of statistics on sports,” said Jam Lipae, Barangay Ginebra analytics consultant in an interview with BusinessWorld.

While sports analytics is applicable to all sports, Mr. Lipae, a product of Ateneo de Davao who currently teaches mathematics at De La Salle University while doing analytics work for the Kings, said it certainly can be put to good use in basketball, especially in the PBA where the field has become more competitive.

“Analytics is good to apply in basketball because in a competitive field like in the PBA you are out to outdo the competition be it team-wise or individually. That is where analytics comes in as it provides data to gauge yourself vis-à-vis the others and, in turn, allow you to make the necessary decisions or adjustments,” said Mr. Lipae.

He said that most of the time he does his work manually, then making use of certain apps and videos to collate his data.

With Barangay Ginebra for four years now, Mr. Lipae said how teams use analytics in the PBA varies, depending on what they want to focus on.

He said that the team started compiling hustle charts — which tracked nontraditional statistics like dives, deflections and challenged shots — and the plus/minus rating, among other things not seen in old-fashioned box scores, then progressed to other statistics like number of passes and dribbles.

To understand why tracking these statistics is important, you need to arrive at an insight that diving for the ball sometimes saves possessions, which are valuable — you can’t score if you don’t have the ball — as are deflections (which could lead to changes in possession). Challenged shots, as opposed to leaving a shooter open to make an attempt with no pressure and in rhythm, tend to lower the shooter’s percentage significantly, even if the defender doesn’t block the shot or discourage the shooter from making an attempt. Passes and dribbles aren’t tracked for their own sake either — ball movement stats like these give coaches a snapshot of whether teams are stretching defenses until they reach breaking point.

He went on to say that analytics can be seen in how Barangay Ginebra coach Tim Cone sometimes comes up with his player combinations on the floor.

He cites a Barangay Ginebra game against the Meralco Bolts in the PBA Commissioner’s Cup on May 26, where the Kings turned things around in the second half after a dismal performance in the opening 24 minutes, eventually winning, 110-95.

Mr. Lipae said Mr. Cone and the rest of his staff discussed things at halftime and looked at the numbers to determine which combination of players would have a better impact to start the third quarter.

Using the plus-minus rating of players both offensively and defensively, the team came up with guards Sol Mercado and Scottie Thompson, forwards Aljon Mariano and Japeth Aguilar and import Justin Brownlee.

The combination did pay off as the Kings outscored the Bolts, 38-17, in the third frame to turn an 11-point deficit, 54-43, at the half to an 11-point advantage, 82-71, entering the fourth quarter.

It was turnaround they would use the rest of the way to book the victory.

In the postgame press conference, Mr. Cone acknowledged the role that analytics and his coaching staff played in the turnaround victory which he said was already a lost cause at the half.

STEP-BY-STEP PROCESS
Paulo Layug, Alaska’s analytics coach, said the team’s approach is more than just collecting numbers but a step-by-step process.

“People think it’s just numbers but you have to understand the game also. For me, I use data; I watch the whole game and break down the possessions based on different categories, what type of shot, what type of play, who shot it, where on the court, who passed and so on. I have a system where I encode the data. That’s the first step,” he said in a separate interview.

“Then analyzing the data comes next, looking at different trends. I use these data then give them to the coaches so they can prepare a game plan. They select which data they want to focus on. The third step is application,” added Mr. Layug, a Management Economics graduate from Ateneo de Manila who worked as a foreign exchange trader before being involved in analytics with Alaska.

He agrees with Mr. Lipae that use of analytics is team-specific, relative to what the ball club wants to achieve.

“Our system is customized to what we want to achieve. One of the things we like to do is press, so we look at how long our opponent takes to cross the half-court and how effectively we disrupt their offense,” the Alaska analytics coach said.

Both Messrs. Layug and Lipae said the use of analytics does not translate to outright wins for their respective teams, seeing what they do as just a “tool” for coaches and players to use.

“I don’t like to say that when you use analytics you automatically win. Like in business you look at different ratios — liquidity ratios, profitability and so on — that’s how I look at data. You just use data to see how your team is performing. So for me analytics is not the direct answer but just a tool that coaches and players use to improve themselves individually and as a team. It can be used for scouting, game-planning and improving their skills,” Mr. Layug said.

“Coaches’ ideas and numbers, that is analytics. Analytics will not decide. It is still the coaches who decide. The numbers are there to be the guide,” Mr. Lipae, for his part, said.

Barangay Ginebra and Alaska have been among the consistent top-half teams in the league in the last five years, with the former having won three championships in the last eight conferences.

COMPETITIVE EDGE
It was therefore a no-brainer to apply analytics to games where statistics are baked into the sport, such as esports, which cannot be played without a certain amount of computing power. So it’s no surprise that esports teams are also making use of analytics. Esports have seen steady growth and acceptance in recent years and are slated to be part for the first time in the Southeast Asian Games here later this year.

A number of esports teams have tapped into analytics to give them the competitive edge, be it in tournaments here at home or abroad.

“Analytics is already an integral part of esports especially at the highest levels of competition where knowledge of the game and your opponents are the key to victory. I think it’s safe to say that all the esports teams in the Philippines I know of are using analytics whether they realize it or not. It would be virtually impossible for an esports team to qualify for a high-level competition without having a form of analytics incorporated into their strategy,” said Jab Escutin,co-founder of esports team Bren Esports in an interview.

“I think analytics comes naturally to esports so it wasn’t really a decision we had to make. I think the decision was mainly on how to improve our data gathering and how we can properly incorporate it in our game plan,” he added.

Mr. Escutin, whose team,under Bren Epro, is a steady fixture in The Nationals, the country’s first and only franchise-based esports league, as well as in competitions abroad, said that like any organization or team that uses sports analytics theirs also involves “a lot of effort.”

“A lot of effort goes into analytics and I think the game developers themselves understand this that’s why they incorporate as much information as they can into the game. From the amount of damage a character can make up to video replays and summaries, all of that information is already available in the games we play. So it’s only a matter of transferring the data onto an Excel sheet or even something as simple as pen and paper depending on what our coaches are comfortable using,” said Mr. Escutin.

APPRECIATION AND ACCEPTANCE
Despite the pickup that sports analytics has gained in the Philippines, Messrs. Lipae, Layug and Escutin said appreciation and use of it are still a way off as compared to those in other countries, especially in those with readily available technology and equipment.

They said “acceptance” of it is very important in furthering its growth.

“Sports analytics here is growing but the challenge is understanding it in a wider scope, which at this point we have not fully achieved yet,” said Mr. Layug.

However, he is optimistic that in the next five years further use of it among PBA teams as well as in other leagues would be seen with the advent of new coaches who are open to learning and adapting it.

“Continued information on it would help the growth of analytics, inspiring more young people to take it up and be part of the system. Education and training for the players and coaches, too, would go a long way,” said Mr. Lipae.

The two PBA analytics experts said they do not see sports analytics “disrupting” or taking away employment from team personnel though they understand the resistance to it initially.

“Of course, there is some resistance but you don’t have to worry too much because it is so specialized. Teams will just be adding analytics coaches like teams now have coaches for strength and conditioning and other areas,” Mr. Layug said.

Mr. Escutin said success enhances further acceptance of sports analytics, particularly if teams make sustained runs at the top of their league.

“Analytics is the only thing that separates a skilful team from a consistently winning team. I can see a lot more teams formally incorporating analytics into their strategies specially when competing at the highest levels of Philippine esports,” he said.

“I think having teams like ours succeed consistently with proper analytics and preparation shows new and existing teams what they can do to improve their game. Like with traditional sports, when you see a team succeeding you want to emulate what they do or use so I think it’s only natural that analytics will be a part of Philippine esports,” Mr. Escutin added.

Analytics may still be in the process of finding a permanent spot in Philippine sports but for people championing its use there is no denying its upside to enhance the state of things.

“Getting data is still a challenge at the moment and we don’t have the technology and equipment here yet for the tedious work that goes with it. But it’s here and it’s going to be the norm sooner than later,” Mr. Layug said.

For Mr. Lipae, analytics adds a dimension to effective performance analysis which should translate to exciting games and competition.

“Analytics gives a different and positive perspective in sports as it involves not only intuition, making the games themselves, and how they are being approached, exciting,” said Mr. Lipae.

As the technology improves, games that were once thought to be too free-flowing to analyze statistically — like football — are also opening up to analytical approaches. It is already possible to track game states in basketball, where start-ups are employing high-tech cameras to analyze the impact of even minor shifts in court position, such as whether a three-point shooter is standing in the corner during a drive.

To properly interpret such data, you need to understand that the corner three is among the most efficient shots in basketball, because it’s the shortest distance to the goal of any three-pointer, and that defenses need to guard the corner three or else leave themselves open to a relatively easy shot.Which suggests that the world may be drowning in data points, but it still takes a sharp human understanding of game strategy to make use of them properly.

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