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More and more, sports teams around the globe are turning to big data to better evaluate players and plan new strategies to keep them ahead of the competiton. The 2013 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference held recently at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. gave advocates the opportunity to share their findings.
Analytics is fairly new to sports but is nothing new to business. With today's technology, vast amounts of data is analyzed by increasingly more powerful computers to predict success rates for game strategies, a player's potential for success, betting, or marketing a team. It's all there right in front of you. The field, made popular in sports by statistician Bill James and Oakland A's general manager Billy Bean, the focus of the book and movie Moneyball, is based on crunching numbers and data over watching an athlete's or team's actual performance. Both men have been featured guests at this conference.
The goal is to make a team better while using fewer resources. It helps a team pick important role players at a lower cost while avoiding the ones who demand higher salaries but may provide a low return on a team's investment. Even small market teams can be competitive — case in point the Oakland A's.
We'll check out strategies put forward by sports management and researchers that are based on cold numbers, not hunches or out-of-date game plans.
A paper presented at this conference tackles when and where and when an NFL coach should send out his field goal unit. Here's the analytical analysis presented by three students from MIT's Aueronautics and Astonics Department — Torin Clark, a PhD candidate, and two graduate students, Aaron Johnson and Alexander J. Stimpson. Their study is one of one of eight finalists in the research-paper competition at this year’s Sloan conference.
Based on their examination of 11,896 NFL field goal attempts, they've determined that environmental factors are much more important than psychological factors in the success of a field goal attempt. Calling a timeout to ice a kicker has little value while factoring weather conditions such as wind velocity or temperature are much more critical.
Brian Burke who authors a blog, Advanced NFL Stats, produced detailed analysis, "Fourth Downs in the New Overtime: First Possession." In an NFL overtime game, the team that possesses the ball first can only win the game with a touchdown or safety. After that possession, any score will win the game.
The numbers show the team which has the ball first in overtime has a better chance of winning if, on fourth down deep in its own territory, it tries for a first down instead of punting. The deeper the team is in its own territory, the chances are better that that the team will make a first down rather than give the ball to the opposing team which should have great field position and is likely to score. Over the long run, this strategy may win more games on average but an NFL coach is looking at losing his job if it doesn't work just once.
Another finding is that long field goals should not be attempted on a team's first possession in overtime. Their projected success rate is overshadowed by the loss of field position if it is missed and even if it is good, the opposition still has a chance to win.
Why do the best football (soccer) players appear to have better field vision than others? To answer that question, Geir Jorde of the Norweigan Sports Institute, Jonathan Bloomfield of Hull University, and Johan Heijmerikx of the University of Groningen, Netherlands examined 1,279 close-up videos of more than 118 midfielders and forwards in the Barclay's Premier League.
The study focused on how the players use head and body movements to help them see the field better and make better split-second decisions. The most important finding was that players, especially midfielders, who better explore the field will make more accurate passes — something that managers, scouts, and fans usually overlook. Here's the full study.