Tuesday, June 14, 2011

I wrote last month about the apparent gaping void where proper statistical analysis should exist for major college football programs and I'm reminded of that post by Bill Barnwell's excellent piece on small market baseball teams applying Moneyball principles years after the rise and fall of Billy Beane's Oakland A's. Barnwell makes the point that MLB teams have the money and incentive to attack the difficult problem of grading fielding:

It was clear even at the time Moneyball was written that fielding would become a battleground for teams looking for an edge, but the sort of data that would be required to do robust analysis on a player's fielding ability really didn't exist. Traditional fielding statistics, such as errors, didn't do the actual act of fielding justice. Fielders with great range rack up errors on plays that mediocre fielders would never have a prayer of getting to. That makes no sense.

In 2011, that's no longer the case. Systems like Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR)3 and plus/minus4 usually disagree on the exact level of a player's glove upon team performance, but they represent a dramatic increase in the level of knowledge and accuracy in fielding analysis that's available to the public. Both UZR and plus/minus attempt to determine how many plays a fielder should have made versus a league-average player at the same position.

The "public" part of that statement is particularly relevant because so much of the work that's been done on fielding since Moneyball has been conducted inside the inscrutable walls of major league organizations, which have both the funding and motivation to sink significant sums of money into the sort of video analysis and quantitative research required to produce advanced fielding statistics.

That last sentence has two important implications for college football. First, college football programs should have even more motivation to apply advanced statistical analysis to obtain a competitive advantage. In professional baseball, teams can pay their players, so there is a natural outlet for revenue. If a team wants to win and it has money coming in from tickets and TV deals, then the blindingly obvious solution is to pay for better talent. Statistical analysis enters the picture only in determining how the team should spend its lucre. In contrast, college football teams cannot (legally) pay for talent. Thus, programs have to re-direct their revenue into other channels, like building palatial facilities to attract recruits or hiring top coaches who can then recruit and develop talent. With all of that revenue and a dam preventing it from its most natural outlet, college programs would do well to spend money on armies of nerds to help their coaches in recruiting players and then developing optimal schemes and tactics.

The second implication is that football results can be quantified. Generally speaking, baseball lends itself to statistical analysis more than football because it's a quasi-individual sport. A batter faces a pitcher and there is an outcome. Football doesn't work like that. It's very hard to isolate one-on-one match-ups because the result of a play is the product of two eleven-man units deployed against one another. That said, as Barnwell notes, defensive outcomes are harder to quantify in baseball. That mystery is what has made defense such a cutting edge topic for analysis. Because every Tom, Dick, and Harry can figure out hitting/pitching success, but not fielding success, there is an advantage to be gained by the team that figures out the best way to analyze the latter. The same is true in football. The teams that figure out the best way to grade individuals in a team sport will have a leg up.

Barnwell also touches on statistical analysis as being critical for have-nots in their efforts to compete with the haves. Doesn't this same reasoning apply to college football programs? I'm thinking of the Big Ten in particular. While the members of the conferences are haves in terms of revenue, they are have-nots in terms of access to talent, especially as compared to the SEC or the elite programs in the Pac Ten (USC) and Big XII (Texas and Oklahoma). Without a bevy of four- and five-star players close to campus, Big Ten programs need to think like the Padres, Indians, and Rays instead of the Red Sox, Yankees, and Dodgers. I have a pet theory that staid Midwestern cultural norms prevent Big Ten programs from leveraging their dollars on top coaches, but wouldn't it be a natural fit for those programs to spend money on the best available statisticians so their coaches are armed with a better way to approach recruiting and play-calling? (This assumes that the grad students and professors on campus wouldn't perform the work for free.) If the Big Ten wants to "win the right way" (i.e. remain the whore who won't do that), then what better way than by imitating Billy Beane?

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