Top 10 Moments from the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference 2012

Bill James on the B.S. Report with Bill Simmons, taped live at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

Dorkapalooza. That’s what Bill Simmons called the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in 2009. Back then, a bunch of mathematically inclined dudes like Dean Oliver and John Hollinger debated advanced stats in a classroom. However, things have changed. Simmons’ article made the conference popular among more main stream sports fans. The 2012 version was Suitapalooza. The average attendee was a few months from earning an MBA, dressed in a suit and spent the conference begging for a job in the sports world. This year, they even stuffed the research paper talks in the far corner of the Hynes convention center in Boston. I didn’t go for the math; I went to talk with people in the halls. Here is my very personal take on the 2012 conference.

10. The gambling panel. When Daryl Morey asked Jeff Ma to participate on this panel again this year, Jeff said he wouldn’t do it unless he could be the moderator and pick the panel. Morey acquiesced, and the panel morphed from stale last year to exciting this year. Bob Stoll of Dr. Bob Sports dished out the football analytics behind his consistently winning picks. Michael Craig of Right Angle Sports was in the audience. The presence of these two companies, the only sports handicappers with profitable picks over the long run, legitimized the entire conference. Add in some tension between other panelists, and it became the hit of the conference. Of course, I wasn’t there because I was at the…

9. The football analytics panel. Disappointing. Can it really be a football analytics panel when no one says the words “expected points”? It didn’t even come up when they discussed Bill Belichick’s famous decision to go for it on 4th and 2 from their own 28 against the Colts. Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Stats used this concept to show that Belichick’s decision was reasonable. Expected points is the cornerstone of football analytics, a concept we explained in this article. No one mentioned it once.

8. Total QBR. I left ESPN’s talk about their Total Quarterback Rating more impressed than when I arrived. Unlike the football analytics panel, they mentioned and even used the concept of expected points. Moreover, the team with a higher Total QBR wins the game 86.8% of the time, a higher percentage than with the traditional quarterback rating. However, they also count clutch plays more, even though no one has ever found statistical evidence of clutch hitting in baseball, a sport with a much larger sample of events. Talking heads like Trent Dilfer insisted on the inclusion of this clutch factor.

7. The line for Bill Simmons. There was no line for the food at lunch. There wasn’t even a line for drinks at the cocktail reception, most likely because each attendee was limited to single free drink. However, there was a long line to get Simmons to sign the copy of Grantland that came in the goodies bag. Just further evidence how his column in 2009 has grown this conference to over 2200 attendees this year.

6. Moneyball. The stage behind many of the panels showed the original cover of Moneyball, the classic book in which Michael Lewis brought Bill James and baseball analytics mainstream. Bill Simmons may have popularized this conference, but Michael Lewis brought numbers in sports from weird hobby to real job possibility for the hundreds of MBA students. Without Moneyball, Sloan sports analytics might refer to an elective class instead of huge conference sponsored by ESPN.

5. Dean Oliver. A few month ago, my friend Chris Ritchie saw my copy of Basketball on Paper on my shelf. He mentioned that Dean Oliver, the author, used to work at his environmental engineering firm and had even interviewed him before leaving for the sports world. Oliver is now part of the analytics group at ESPN, and I told him this story at the conference. He didn’t remember Chris, but he certainly remembers taking time off to write Basketball on Paper, the seminal work on basketball analytics. Dean showed genuine interest in The Power Rank, particularly how our college basketball rankings contrasted with their own Basketball Power Index.

4. Chad Millman. This author of The Odds and the gambling blog on ESPN recently became editor of ESPN The Magazine. He’s done an amazing job with improving the writing in the magazine. The recent analytics issue features excellent stories on how Brandon McCarthy used analytics to save his pitching career and marry a model (see her on the cover) and how Floyd Fielding earns six figures as an old fashion bookie. I caught Chad in the hallway and complimented him on this work at the magazine. He asked for more features on The Power Rank. They’re coming, Chad. Look for a makeover this upcoming college football season.

3. The NFL’s sophisticated technology. The NFL tracks who takes the field on every play. To do this, they have people take pictures from a few different angles around the stadium. The images are transferred to a human team that writes down the identity of each player by hand. Are you kidding me? Commissioner Goodell, there’s been a recent invention called the personal computer. It sits on your desk and can analyze images. Some smart people in Silicon Valley have already started applying this invention to sports video analysis.

2. Training the German national team. At last year’s conference, Mark Verstegen of Athletes’ Performance was on the opening panel that discussed the 10,000 hours in developing an elite athlete. Only later did I learn that Verstegen was the man Jurgen Klinsmann hired to train the German national team before the 2010 World Cup. I’ve always been interested in the fuzzy, nonscientific side of athletic performance. For example, Born to Run by Christopher McDougall discusses how happiness and joy carries the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico through hundreds of miles of running. Verstegen also believes in this fuzzy side of athletic performance, as his team worked with the Germans to build a culture that supported their fitness program. I didn’t get many details, but elite athletic training is more than just science.

1. Shaking hands with Bill James. This conference would not exist with Bill James. Enough said.

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