Add another old-man-shouting-at-cloud to the list of advanced statistics haters. Larry Brown, who has been in the game of basketball since well before Kennedy was shot, unsurprisingly thinks people like Sam Hinkie are ruining the sport.
It’s easy to roll your eyes at old-timey sentiments like this – I’m guilty of it, too – but it’s wholly understandable why someone who has spent nearly his whole life in a game where stats were used merely to measure performance but not predict it would get all tight-pants when the subject is broached. After all, Brown has had a lot of success, and made a lot of money, doing the eye test thing in a market where competitors were doing the same. Brown’s eye test is better than the other guy’s eye test. But his eye test probably isn’t better than someone with a grasp on analytics.
Locally, this issue reached its apex circa 2011, when SABR nerds squawked about Ryan Howard’s upcoming five-year, $125 million contract. They cited his deficiencies in key metrics, which predicted that his production – mostly home runs and RBIs – likely wouldn’t last and was aided partly by being on a really good team. Admittedly, I sided with people like Mike Missanelli – who called Howard the “preeminent power hitter of our generation” – in laughing away the nerds… who proved to be right. I’ve come around, it sounds like Missanelli has too, and so have many other sports fans. It’s now hard to argue that advanced metrics, even the simple ones (I know that’s an oxymoron) – like strikeout %, BABIP (batting average on balls put in play), ground ball %, OBP, OPS, etc. – are more useful than batting average, home runs, RBIs, runs and, to a lesser extent, ERA (I left out wins and saves because everyone knows they’re shit). Baseball is a sport that lends itself to these sorts of computations, since each at-bat has a result that is measurable in many different ways, or which can be plugged into many different formulas. It’s an individual matchup between a pitcher and batter, and it’s easy to measure. Stats that take into account the abilities of each (pitcher and batter), fielders, and game, weather and stadium conditions, likely exist, but I’d be lying if I knew what they were or could explain them to you. Those would be ideal. But even the simpler advanced statistics are extraordinarily useful in judging and predicting performance.
It’s not so easy in other sports. Basketball and hockey are probably where baseball was in 2008-2010 with this stuff. There are websites, analysts and GMs (Mr. Hinkie) who buy into it, but the statistics are mostly not understood, or even considered, by the masses. The problem is that, unlike baseball, basketball and hockey don’t have reportable results for each action. A pitcher, hitter or fielder in baseball can be judged on each pitch, swing, at-bat, ball put into play, and throw. In hockey, you can’t extrapolate a result when a forward fills a passing lane, or when a defenseman successfully intimidates his man from daring to enter the slot because, last time, he got a two-hander to his coccyx. There are more scenarios in basketball that can be measured – shots, passes, picks, possessions – but, like hockey, there’s still a lot of chaos that leaves players dependent on those around them, bounces, energy levels and other hard-to-measure factors.
Still, at least in basketball, there are some very useful advanced metrics – most of them a percentage or tally of a given action per game, minute or 100 possessions – to measure and predict success and formulate a game plan. For example: some basketball statheads think that teams are better off taking three-pointers instead of two-point jump shots, because, using straight math, the three-pointer is more efficient than the two-pointer when you compare their respective percentages and payoffs.
But this is where people like Brown – people who know the sport as a game played and fancied by humans – come in. It’s easy to say, “Well, shit, just shoot threes– dunks, layups and threes.” Doing that, however, would diminish the effectiveness of all of those shots, since opponents would literally just stop defending anywhere outside the paint and inside the three-point line. There needs to be a balance (consider the threat of the run in football, Andy Reid) to make the three (or the pass, Mr. Reid) effective. And that’s where good coaching, intangibles, and the unmeasurable feel-for-the-game come in. To me, that’s when advanced statistics are most useful and effective, in any sport: when they are combined with the knowledge and instincts obtained throughout a lifetime in the game.
Which brings us back to Brown. Judging by that quote (but having not heard the interview), he seems dismissive of advanced statistics at all. That’s a shame, because it’s brilliant coaches like him who would benefit most from embracing them.