By Tim Baffoe-
(CBS) If it’s too loud, you’re too old.
That’s been the retort by the youthful and the creative back at the crusty old establishment that has banged its walking cane on our bedroom doors demanding we turn that infernal racket down ever since Elvis first stole good music and brought it to the masses. Then it was The Rolling Stones. Then it was Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. Then it was The Sex Pistols and The Clash, then Van Halen and Run DMC, then Nirvana and Jay-Z.
Then it was sports analytics. Those scary numbers that drown out all the fuzzy warmth of analyzing sports via try-hardedness and cuts of various jibs.
Dan Shaughnessy of The Boston Globe is the latest to take up the Jurassic fight to not let intangibles go gentle into that good night. He has been at this writing thing for a long time. He was probably good at it at one time if he’s been doing it all this while, but I don’t have access to any mimeograph copies from The Globe.
And as he gets into the winter of his career, he is letting his age show by farting out anti-data fear mongering disguised as a noble attempt to hold on to purity or something. Take Tuesday’s “There are some things in sports you can’t quantify” piece. The headline alone (and I’m aware columnists often don’t compose their own headlines) suggests something really antiquated is approaching. And it is.
Information is good. Every sports team can benefit from data. But why do I feel like there are people who want to erase all scouting and experience from sports? The eighth annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference was held at the Hynes Convention Center last week and drew a raft of A-listers from the world of sports. Owners, general managers, and even some ballplayers and ex-ballplayers are knee-deep in the data.
You feel that there are people who want to erase all scouting and experience from sports because you’re a frightened old man who would prefer to resist a game’s evolution in favor of ignorance. No robots are coming to steal your pills, Mr. Shaughnessy.
But can we just stop the madness and acknowledge that there are some things in sports that never will be quantifiable? And I’m not just talking about heart, character, makeup, leadership, and ability to play hurt and perform under pressure.
Nah, you kind of are talking about those things but are trying to insulate your pointless argument by pre-emptively counting those out so the hip kids don’t mock you. And why do you equate mathematics and sincere attempts at better understanding our beloved games with madness? It’s because anything that’s over your head must be crazy, so insult it rather than try to understand it. Putting down smart people and their work is a great way to make yourself seem morally superior.
Hockey analytics? Really? Calgary hockey boss Brian Burke told the Globe’s Fluto Shinzawa, “I think it’s still an eyeballs business,’’ while explaining that he has yet to see a worthwhile numbers-based system for evaluating hockey players.
You know why he hasn’t seen it? Because it’s impossible to evaluate hockey players with data!
That’s a fantastically wrong statement to make, though I like how you try to make it seem more imperative by typing an exclamation point. Smart readers love exclamation points.
Hockey analytics is a thing. Over at Second City Hockey, JenLC does a fine job bringing data to readers and, like many of her evil numberfascist peers, does so with an attempt to educate and welcome in the traditionalists, even ornery old sportswriters who are angry that a new way of looking at games is a reflection of their inevitable mortality.
Must all the intangibles be sucked from our games until all that is left is spreadsheets and blinking computer screens? Sports trekkies have made significant strides and teams are better for having the information, but it’s still OK to admit that there always will be things in sports that cannot be measured. These are games played by humans. That’s why it’s fun.
Here’s one big misnomer that Shaughnessy and his ilk like to push — all who embrace sabermetrics and advanced stats want to take away the joy from sports. They all want to make your viewing experience homework instead of leisure. But that’s because Shaughnessy fears people smarter than him and in turn takes an opportunity to be educated and makes it an opportunity to be lazy and crap on intelligence.
Another wrong assumption is that numbers people don’t take in games with the same love and awe of athletic feats and competition like everyone else. As though we are are watching games with calculators in hand and spreadsheets on laptops open titled “How to Ruin Dan’s Sports.”
Analytics are an attempt to better understand the games and add to them, not subtract. I still don’t understand much of the science very well, but I know it’s a well-intentioned movement that aims to enhance and not hinder, and I trust these “sports trekkies” (who I guess aren’t human and need to be called names) to help me understand who is good at what and why after the fact and make educated guesses at the future instead of solely relying on my flawed eyes.
Those who use and understand quantifiable data are as passionate as any other fan, actually often more so, hence their willingness to take on the extra work of statistical analysis rather than just consuming and burping out bad opinions.
Sabermetrics and its equivalents are the new voice of sports analysis. And it’s a voice that is growing louder daily as more open-minded people listen.
And if it’s too loud, maybe you’re too old.