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Five Things I learned from the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

StatCast, Mark Cuban, what to not do if you’re a student, and more!

I’m an analytics nerd. I love learning how things work, how to put things together, and how to deconstruct them down to base level. You may not see analytics the way I do, but I see them like building a Lego: you have all these different pieces that need some organization and planning to make sure it all goes together to give you one perfect spaceship (or whatever you want it to be; I like Star Wars spaceships, so it’s going to be a spaceship).

Unlike the Sabermetric conferences, Sloan focuses on sports in the broader sense; there are talks about baseball analytics which are the most advanced, but it also covers hockey, volleyball, digital analytics, ticketing analytics, and even eSports analytics. Yes, I watched a panel about Super Smash Bros Melee analytics, and it was awesome. Anyway, I sat in on the Statcast session to see what’s new for the upcoming season and let’s put it this way; we’re getting closer and closer to quantifying defensive play.

Statcast is data collected by in-stadium cameras and then software tracks every person or item (read: the ball) as the play goes on. It’s provided us wonderful data points like exit velocity off the bat, spin rate on a pitch, and max speed in the field. It doesn’t cover everything; players are still represented by center-of-mass, meaning they’re basically giant blobs in the eyes of the program. We aren’t able to track first step in the field or arm speed on the mound, for instance. That’s the next wave of data points the Statcast guys are doing, but they did preview two new statistics that will be implemented this year and can be found on Hit Probability and Catch Probability.

Hit probability takes defense out of the equation. It essentially takes launch angle and exit velocity and calculates the probability of the ball landing as a hit. The beauty of this statistic is that, unlike any current batting statistics, it takes out the variability of great defenders. A hard-hit ball that Nolan goes Nolan on shouldn’t count against the hitter; he did his job and the best he probably could in that situation. Nolan is just better. Still, those plays take away from true evaluation of a hitter. Two statistics that were introduced last year— aunch angle and barrels—already have started to take defense out of that equation. It’s a measure of consistency; who is squaring up the ball the most and who is providing the best chance at getting a hit on a consistent basis? These are questions that hit probability can give us clearer answers for.

Catch probability is the next step in defensive metrics. Last year we were introduced to three new things on Statcast broadcasts: throwing velocity, max speed, and route efficiency. Catch probability takes into account every player and play that happens at a position. It gives each play a percentage; a few of Nolan’s plays have had a five percent of chance or less of becoming an out, meaning Nolan is one of a select few that even has a chance at making that play. During the session, Mike Petriello from MLB Advanced Media used Matt Kemp as an example. He showed a Matt Kemp jumping catch that looked difficult; Kemp took a terrible route to the ball and made a play with a 75 percent catch probability look like a Billy Hamilton catch. We already know Kemp isn’t a great defender, but this statistic will give us a number to back up what we already know.

Neither statistic is groundbreaking; FanGraphs has something similar to Catch Probability, but doesn’t cover it in as great of detail or incorporate the entire league’s range as a factor. They’re not going to tell us that Kevin Kiermaier is bad in the field. We know he’s good. This should just tell us how good.

Five other things that happened at Sloan:

Mark Cuban is still really cool

Easily the best part of Sloan was listening to Mark Cuban and Nate Silver talk. It wasn’t the most insightful conversation, but when you get two smart people on stage for an hour who are transparent with virtually everything, it’s bound to be entertaining.

The NBA is close to tracking extremities

The second-most entertaining panel was with Nate and Adam Silver for the same reasons Cuban and Nate Silver were entertaining. They’re two very smart people in powerful positions. Adam Silver talked a lot about the future of the NBA, but one thing I’m fascinated by was the talk about tracking extremities. This talk came up in a panel about the future of basketball analytics: tracking extremities - where player’s arms are on defense, for example - is the next thing that coaches and players want to see. They’re already getting tons of information from wearable technology in practice—and will for games sooner than we think—that the next step is extremities.

If you’re a student, talk to everyone

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This is a blanket statement, but I’m always amazed at how little this happens. At this conference, “Students” and “Attendees” are clearly separated by their badges; students were green and attendees were red. I sat next to at least 10 students in panels and only one of them said anything to me and it ended up being the best conversation I had the entire time. I was in that same position a few months ago. Talking to someone you don’t know as a student is hard, but you have to do it if you want to make it in sports.

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Super Smash Bros is still awesome

eSports is here to stay. Accept it and move on.

I’ve played video games my whole life, like many other people my age. I’ve never watched any games being played competitively nor explored the eSports industry until this weekend, but I spent a good amount of time learning about the industry and it’s pretty cool. There was a Super Smash Bros Melee Pro Showcase and it was awesome. They have broadcasters that make you feel the entire match. The players somehow don’t die when I would have died in like 10 seconds (except for one kid who got pummeled by the 7th best player in the world). The nostalgia factor is high, especially for that game, but eSports are becoming a bigger and bigger deal and we have to be okay with that.

Baseball is still miles ahead of everyone else

Nobody beats baseball analytics. Maybe it’s because we’ve been doing it the longest and our sport lends itself to determinable results, but the closest sport is basketball and it’s really not that close. We have arguments over which player valuation is better; they’re still trying to figure out how to accurately value a player. Football and hockey are way behind but should catch up with implementation of wearables and tracking data, but baseball is the leader. Rejoice, my analytic brethren.