This is natural. Sports are physical. At the highest level, they demand a kind of physicality — speed, strength, power, willpower, commitment, nerve, tolerance of pain, countless hours of practice — that eludes analytics and defies systematic thinking. No amount of number-crunching can inspire someone to stand in the pocket against the rush or foul off a 99-mph fastball when they were looking for the curve.
You could understand, to an extent, athletes in the arena and coaches under the microscope being dismissive of those people calculating odds and percentages and best practices while sitting far from the fray in what Herm Edwards dismissively calls their “air-conditioned offices.”
“Nobody gets fired for typing in the wrong number,” Edwards said.
OK. But ignore the math at your peril. One of the great conceits of sports has always been this idea that it’s better to trust the eyes and the gut. But the eyes are often looking the wrong way — Bill James points out that the difference between a .275 hitter and .300 hitters is one hit every two weeks or so.
Eleven hits in 40 at-bats equals a .275 batting average. Twelve hits in 40 at-bats equals a .300 batting average.
You can’t see that — not without keeping a running total. And that’s batting average, one of the simplest and least useful statistic. If you couldn’t legitimately tell a .275 hitter from a .300 hitter without keeping totals, how in the heck are you going to see which center fielder has the best range or which NBA player has the best on-ball defense or which cornerback is best in man-to-man coverage.
The eyes might see things the analytics miss; sure, nobody denies that. But the analytics definitely see a whole lot the eye misses.
And what the eyes miss, the gut miscalculates.
The data is getting more and more comprehensive — and, yes, there are dangers in that too. It’s easy to become too reliant on data or misread the numbers or lose some of the humanity of the games. People chime those warnings all the time — repeatedly at Sloan.
But in the end, the greater danger is being too sure and getting left behind. Some of the new analytics are complicated and scary. But most of it is sensible if you are willing to open your mind.
An example: On the Football Analytics panel, NFL Stats founder Brian Burke explained what the numbers said about the Baltimore Ravens' fake field-goal attempt near the end of the first half of the Super Bowl. It was 4th and 9 and Baltimore led San Francisco 14-3.
But Herm Edwards and former Jacksonville Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio had questions. Lots of them. What if instead of a fake field goal, they had tried a conventional fourth-down play? Would that have made a difference? What if the Ravens had been able to block Patrick Willis (who made the tackle)? What if the Ravens had a different quarterback? What if the 49ers had a different quarterback?
Burke looked bewildered. He tried to explain that he wasn’t trying to coach nor call the play nor make judgments about the Ravens or 49ers. He just wanted to give that bit of information — based on the league’s history, unless you are 65 percent sure you will get the first down, kicking would give your team its best chance to win. (It should be noted — and was noted more than once by Herm Edwards — that the Ravens did win the game.)
It seems like coaches should love to have that kind of information to use however they see fit. Many do. But, for all the talk about the changing world, it’s pretty clear that many still don’t.