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Tracking the rise of advanced statistics in sports

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Photo illustration by Samantha Hollingshead / Photo Editor

Photo illustration by Samantha Hollingshead / Photo Editor

This is part one of a three-part series examining the rise and impact of advanced statistics on sports nationally and at Ohio State.

Sports are similar to the separation of the right and left sides of the human brain. The right side of the brain specializes in a human’s ability to be creative and show feelings and emotions. This is shown in sports as devotion to a particular team and even a crazy fan experience at a sporting event. The left side of the brain, however, specializes in mathematics and analysis. For the past decade, these left-brained people have turned the sports world into a statistics-based, logical source of entertainment.

The science of statistics is used in any sort of profession.

“I would argue that statistics is really the science of how you collect, analyze and think about data,” said William Notz, vice chair for administration and undergraduate studies in the Ohio State Department of Statistics. “The differences typically occur in terms of the nature of the data, the nature of how you collect the data and maybe specific techniques you can use.”

This statistics revolution reached the sports world in many different ways, including in large part the explosion of fantasy sports. It started in 1961, when the company Strat-O-Matic came out with statistic-based board games for baseball and eventually for football in 1968.

“What they did was that they used data, for example with baseball, season data to create ‘players,’” Notz said. “What you do is that you would roll numerous dice, and based on the rules of the dice, that would tell you the performance of the player.”

This idea expanded on to the Internet and exploded into different sports, the most popular being football, baseball and basketball. This growing phenomenon made fans more aware of what was actually happening on the field.

“We are more aware of relative performance and some of the trends,” said Todd Nesbit, senior lecturer in the Department of Economics. “There are certain matchups such as a certain hitter against a certain pitcher that for whatever reason favors the particular hitter or pitcher that would be abnormal in relation to the rest of the stats.”

As the statistics world has grown, several intellectuals have brought it upon themselves to make games, such as baseball, even more sophisticated to get a better grasp on what a particular player’s value is. This trend has been growing into front offices across the sports world.

“(Front offices) bring these analytical minds into their organization because they feel it will bring value to their team,” said Ryan Dunsmore, editor for SB Nation’s Houston Astros website, Crawfish Boxes. “It started with baseball because of the whole revolution of Bill James and how he wanted to find a bigger and better picture of what was happening on the field.”

This trend is relatively new to the sports world, and teams are still trying to find ways to balance the new wave approach for scouting players, the statistical and analytical mindset and the old-school approach for scouts around the game. However, the teams that grasp this balance have shown signs of being more successful.

“In baseball, say you have a scout that says you should look at this guy and gives that information to the front office to see whether his numbers match up,” Dunsmore said. “This is where analytics has come in and said we need to see a picture that said this guy can hit and can make a difference for our team instead of just going off of the eyeball test. Those opinions still make it into the decision-making process, but you still need the numbers to be able to back it up.”

One advanced statistic used in the baseball world is wins above replacement, which calculates, based on a particular player’s ability and statistics, how many wins the player generates or loses for the club.

“Every play in baseball either contributes to runs scored or takes away from runs scored,” said Jim Albert, a professor of statistics in the Department of Mathematics at Bowling Green State University. “Runs can be translated or interpreted in terms of wins with roughly 10 additional runs corresponding to one win. Obviously you want to score runs, but the objective essentially is to win the game, so every play has some impact on the probability of winning.”

This rise of statistics has changed the way teams, fans and even the media look at sports, but it has not changed the way fans and observers think about sports.

“I think that has not changed the mindset of anyone,” Dunsmore said. “We all know what a good player looks like. It may help people appreciate some other players too.”

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