The end of day two marked the end of the eleventh annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, and one of the many things I left the conference thinking was “When do the tickets for next year go on sale?” The conference, if you couldn’t tell from yesterday’s post, or the beginning of this one, was nothing short of fantastic. The only thing I was disappointed by was the fact that I couldn’t attend every single panel or seminar, as there were several sessions in which I was interested in attending more than one thing. Until they invent the technology for me to be in two places at once (and I wouldn’t put it past them; it’s MIT), I’ll just have to live with the unfortunate truth that I can only be in one spot.
Day two began with a star-studded panel about the art of negotiation, featuring Rockets’ GM Daryl Morey, Warriors’ GM Bob Myers, and mega agent (and NBA Las Vegas Summer League founder) Warren LeGarie. The panelists had a lot of advice to prospective dealmakers, such as ‘When there’s a deal fair for everyone don’t think about it too long. Just make the deal; it’s not worth losing over the last 5%,’ (courtesy of Morey). LeGarie was far and away the highlight of the panel. Not only did he impart tremendous amounts of wisdom, but did it with a great sense of humor and spoke from decades of experience. He referred to himself as a “broker of happiness” at one point during the panel, and when asked whether there are any tricks he pulls out to get deals done, he responded in kind: “There are no tricks, just different ways of seeing the truth.”
In terms of analytics, the three panelists got into the idea of immediately judging their deals, and came to the conclusion that no amount of analytics will be able to determine whether a deal is good or bad at the time it is made. Myers especially stressed the idea that grading trades as soon as they are made is an exercise in futility: “Time will tell.” They did emphasize, though, that analytics must be used to arrive at a deal, and that GMs would be doing a disservice to themselves if they ignored advanced metrics in deal making. In the words of LeGarie, “Don’t miss the [analytics] wave.”
The next panel I sat in on was a basketball analytics panel, and of baseball, football, basketball, and hockey, basketball is probably my least favorite of the bunch, so I didn’t find the panel to be extremely engaging. With that said, I was intrigued by the panel’s discussion of the league’s two-minute report. For those of you that don’t know, the NBA releases a “last two-minute” report after every game in an effort to increase transparency in officiating in the league. The report contains all the missed calls, incorrect calls, and correct calls from the last two minutes, and (I actually did not know this before) was created in order to reassure folks that games weren’t fixed, because apparently, a not-insignificant portion of NBA viewers thought the games were being fixed.
I love the idea of increased transparency, but now that everyone’s on board with the idea that the league isn’t fixed, can we get rid of the report? It just causes anger among fans and teams alike; I don’t want to read that my team should have gotten the call in the last ten seconds of a game, because at the end of the day that doesn’t change whether they got a win or a loss in that game. If they aren’t going to start changing the results of games retroactively, I don’t really see a need for the NBA to publicize the last two-minute reports. I’m all for internal review and evaluation of league officials, but there’s no need to cause the fans and teams any anger over missed calls, especially after the game has already ended. Stop publicizing the report.
After the basketball analytics panel was perhaps the best session of the entire conference: Shark v. Fox: Politics and Forecasting in the Time of the Hedgehog. Mark Cuban and Nate Silver are the shark and fox, respectively, of course. This discussion was the least sports-based of any of the panels that I attended, but was easily the most engaging. Mark Cuban is a straight shooter. He says what’s on his mind, he doesn’t mince his words, and he also knows how to get stuff done. The full conversation is available on the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference Facebook page, but let me just give you a few highlight quotes of Cuban’s:
Silver: Are you prepared to announce your candidacy for the presidency?
Cuban: I’ll have to get back to you on that.
Cuban: If I ever did announce a candidacy, it would be on 4/20 at 4:20.
Cuban: We have the least literate President and Vice President we could possibly find.
Cuban: [Donald Trump] hasn’t read a book in 30 years…he has no contextual awareness whatsoever.
Cuban: If you’re a dumbass motherf****** redneck, you’re going to be a dumbass motherf****** redneck; that’s not going to change.
Needless to say, Cuban doesn’t hold back, and I think all the conference attendees appreciated his level of candor. He talked about sports and analytics, too, but listening to him go off on President Trump was way more fun. Definitely check out the video if you have time.
After that, I attended a panel featuring Mike Petriello and Greg Cain that discussed Statcast. Statcast is a tool MLB has developed which essentially allows teams to measure the launch angle and exit velocity of batted balls, spin rate of pitches, distance covered by fielders, etc. on any given play. I want to save all my talk about this for my upcoming post on Statcast, but it would be unfair to do that without telling you what they announced will be coming to the public for the first time in 2017: hit percentage and catch percentage. In other words, Statcast in 2017 will be able to tell people how frequently a ball hit at a specific launch angle and exit velocity will fall for a hit, and how frequently it will result in a caught fly ball. For example, anything with a launch angle around 30 degrees and an exit velocity of 98+ mph is basically guaranteed to be a HR, so the hit probability for those would be near 99%, whereas anything with a launch angle above 45 degrees is probably going to be a pop out, so the hit probability for those will likely be around 1%. I’ll elaborate more on Statcast and how it’s affecting the game in a post later this week.
The penultimate panel of the day was entitled Getting the Scoop and featured four media titans: Ken Rosenthal, Adam Schefter, Adrian Wojranowski, and Nik Bonaddio. To be frank, there isn’t much analytics that goes into getting stories and publishing them, but it was still very interesting to learn about the day-to-day lives of each of these esteemed reporters, and also to hear about how they got to where they are. Plus, Schefter actually broke a story while on stage. I’m not kidding.
The final panel of the day was one of the most fun for me, but again, I’m a bit biased. The panel was all about the use of analytics in baseball and what the future holds for analytics. At this point, every team has a data analytics department or a data analyst at the very least, but each team implements the available data in different capacities. Dave Cameron, the editor of Fangraphs and one of the panelists, explained that he thinks the use of analytics in baseball will shift from front office decisions to on-field decisions. Everybody in this day and age can apply a horde of sabermetrics to a free-agent signing or a trade and scrutinize it, evaluate it, and give their opinion, but there are not as many people, or even teams for that matter, that are able to apply the sabermetrics to the games themselves. Cameron gave the example of Zach Britton in last year’s AL Wild Card game. Orioles’ manager Buck Showalter let Britton sit on the bench and watch the Orioles lose because a save situation never presented itself and Britton was the O’s “closer.” Cameron assured us that this will never happen again, and that if the Orioles make it back to the WC game in 2017, Britton will probably be entering in the fourth or fifth inning (he was kidding, but the point is that Britton will be seeing some action.) I look forward to the implementation of analytics to the in-game management strategy, and I am curious to see whether the role of the manager will change in the upcoming years. Those on the panel predicted that the MLB manager will become more like the NFL head coach, i.e. they will oversee the clubhouse and deal with players individually, but for the most part, they will not be calling the plays. That will be left to the bench coaches, who will take on the equivalent role of the coordinators in the NFL. Whether this is actually a feasible possibility remains to be seen, but I definitely think it could happen within the next few seasons.
All in all, the SSAC was fantastic, and I highly recommend that you attend it at least once. If there was one thing I wish I had done more at the conference, it would be networking, but with so many interesting speakers and an abundance of information to be taken in, there isn’t really a ton of time to spend socializing. Only a year to go until #SSAC18. Perhaps I’ll see you there.
(Image Credit: MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference)