Category Archives: Innovative Ideas

Visualization: Basketball Game Stacks

Note: On my dad’s advice, I posted another version of the Game Stacks that depicts rebounding rates, rather than just total offensive rebounds. The discussion in this post is a little naive on that point — the new version yields a better analysis of rebounding.

I have a general hang up when looking at the box score for basketball (or listening to announcers list off statistics). I see some rebounding numbers, but I can’t tell who rebounded better without offensive and defensive breakdowns, plus the number of shots missed by each team. And I see shooting percentages and shot attempts, but it’s hard to put it all together into how a team got its points.

I realized that what I really want to see is not complicated. Here’s the list:

  • What each team did with their scoring chances:
    • Two point attempts
    • Three point attempts
    • Free throw trips (2 attempts)
    • Turnovers
  • Efficiency on each type of shot
  • Rebounding advantage in terms of extra scoring chances
  • And, of course, total score

All these stats exist, but there should be an easy way to see all of it at once and get a sense for how the game was won. Here’s my first try, the Game Stack:

Michigan at Indiana 2-2-2013

The picture shows total “plays,” or chances to score, for each team, and total points, broken down by type. In a quick glance, you can see that Indiana was out-rebounded (Michigan got three more chances to score) and turned the ball over a ton. However, on just over 60 non-turnover plays, the Hoosiers Continue reading

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What does Chip Kelly have to do with spotting the ball?

I’m pretty excited that Chip Kelly is coming to the NFL. If you’ve watched the Oregon Ducks in recent years or the Patriots hurry up offense, you’re probably excited too. It’s fun to see teams try something different, and I like seeing fast offenses break defenses’ will using such a simple concept. Sometimes, the defense isn’t even lined up when the ball is snapped. Teams spend tons of energy trying to outsmart defenses, but a fast offense can make it easy.

If the speed game catches on, it has other possible implications. For example, the NFL could shorten the play clock to encourage game pace. Most people would enjoy more football and less standing around. Whether the play clock changes or not, teams will want smaller, faster players on offense and defense, reversing the rapid growth in player BMI over the last thirty years. A size reduction might help with concussions — though force equals mass times acceleration, and acceleration might go up — and it could also help with heart, heat, and other obesity-related illnesses/deaths that lineman face.

So what does this have to do with first downs? Bear with me. The NFL has a credibility problem with it’s measurement technology. I chuckle every time the chain gang trundles out and the ball is measured one link short. Football certainly is a game of inches: in the case of spotting the ball Continue reading

Some questions and some predictions

Predictions

If you read my post last week, you know that the AFC is a two-horse race and the NFC is a mess. All four first-round games agreed with the True Wins predictions. I didn’t trust the Seahawks on the road, but True Wins came through (11 for the Seahawks versus just 9.5 for the Skins). So, what are we left with? Two clear favorites in the AFC (Patriots and Broncos) and two toss ups in the NFC. True Wins alone takes 49ers over Packers (11.5 to 11) and Seahawks over Falcons (11 to 10.5). I’m going to stick with the home teams in both cases, but don’t expect blowouts in the NFC unless the turnover margin is really skewed.

Questions

As part of football month on the blog, here are a couple random questions and answers that I’ve accumulated.

Should the NFL eliminate kickoffs? Greg Schiano, the Buccaneers crazy coach, thinks the NFL should get rid of kickoffs to protect player safety. A Rutgers player was paralyzed running kick coverage while Schiano coached there, so he knows exactly how dangerous kickoffs can be. Never mind that this is the same coach who runs a “kneel down blitz” when the other team is trying to kill the clock, a tactic that might work once when the other team is not expecting it, but will probably never work again.

Continue reading

Raiders – Chargers Notes: Just go for it!

It’s an old mantra for football analysts, but if there was ever a time to go for it on fourth down, it was in the MNF nightcap for Oakland. Their long snapper was out with a concussion early, making punts a risky proposition. However, at the end of the first half, the Raiders signaled their intentions by settling for a field goal on fourth and one from the one yard line, despite trailing 10-3 at the time.

That decision was probably the wrong one — Oakland didn’t get inside the 20 again until the game was out of reach — but failing to score the touchdown would have been a tough on morale, so it’s semi-understandable early in the game (TMQ was frantically scribbling “game over” in his notebook, of course). However, the second half became comical. Oakland had two fourth and ones between the 20s in the third quarter. On the first, the second string long snapper bounced it up to Shane Lechler, who wisely tucked the ball and fell forward to avoid a block (“GAME OVER” in all caps). On the second, the snap was okay, but someone missed an assignment and the punt was easily blocked (“GAME OVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”).

The Raiders defense didn’t get the memo, though, and played their tails off, holding the Chargers to successive field goals (it helped that Phil Rivers seems legitimately afraid of the blitz). When the Raiders faced a third and 21 later on, Continue reading

Instant replay in tennis

This afternoon, I tuned in for the last two games of the Wimbledon semifinal between Andy Murray and Jo-Willy Tsonga. Andy Murray won the match, making him the first British male finalist at Wimbledon in 74 years (no pressure, Andy!).

The winning point was a bit strange, however. Murray hit an aggressive shot that was a tough call for the umpire. The crowd exploded, but then quickly realized the ump called it out. No matter. Murray put a finger in the air and challenged the shot. Under tennis replay rules, players can challenge in or out calls, and the disputes are decided by the Hawk-Eye ball tracking system. Hawk-Eye uses high frame rate cameras to map the trajectory of the ball. The Hawk-Eye trajectory showed the ball nicking the outside of the line, and Murray was through to the finals!

I asked my buddy Tony, a staunch replay opponent, whether he would have felt bad if Murray had lost the match in the absence of replay review. He said no, because he guessed the tennis replay system faces precision issues. This is his standard “blades of grass” complaint. On extremely close plays, there is no way to tell whether a ball (or player, in other sports) is in or out, because it comes down to the deformation of the ball on impact, individual blades of grass, and lack of precision in painted lines.

I set about to prove him wrong, under the premise that a computer-driven system like Hawk-Eye would have definable precision. In one way, I was right. Hawk-Eye’s average error is 3.6 mm. But if that’s the case, why is it used to make calls that are well within it’s margin of error? Continue reading

My Imaginary Baseball Team: The Portland Peskies

During the NBA season this year, I wrote up some parameters for an alternative way to build an NBA winner: The Seattle Scientists. The idea behind the Scientists is the same old Moneyball methodology for small market teams — find the undervalued assets and spend your money there. In the NBA, my buddy Tony and I think effort, defense, and intelligence are the assets to focus on. In the the MLB, there are some related options: bunting, speed, and defense again. We settled on the Portland Peskies for this thought experiment (an over-educated city that would appreciate a non-traditional team), though the Indianapolis Institute and the Las Vegas Vig (“You can never beat the house!”) were also in the running.

It’s no coincidence that I’m writing this while my Tigers play their old nemesis the Twins. The Tigers (outside of Quintin Berry this year) never have any hitters that would fit the Pesky mold. But Twins outfielder Ben Revere (currently snagging a tailing line drive off his shoe tops) would be on the Peskies’ radar for sure, as would Alexi Casilla and Denard Span. Revere has 6 bunt singles this year on 13 tries and 16 steals Continue reading

How much money are college football players worth?

A few months ago, my friend Jeff and I worked out how much University of Florida athletes are worth to the school for ESPN the Magazine. The key to our approach — in contrast to other studies — is that we looked at profits generated by each player, rather than revenue. Revenue is not so relevant if it is outrun by costs. What matters is profit (before subtracting player compensation). Profit tells you how much schools could actually pay their players.

The numbers at Florida

The short answer: the best college football players at Florida are worth millions per year, the best basketball players are worth a few hundred thousand, and all other athletes cost the school quite a bit of money. If you have ESPN insider, you can view the full article online. How much of this profit do football and basketball players see? Very little. Player compensation in the form of scholarships is between $15,000 and $50,000 per year per player at most schools. By contrast, other athletes are getting a great deal. Not only do they get a free education, but Florida spends tens of thousands more on each player to ensure that they have awesome coaching, facilities, and equipment.

Football profits across the FBS

Today, Jeff and I have a related project at ESPN, which will also appear in ESPN the Mag soon. We argue that college football players should be paid. Why? Average profit generated by FBS football players — before scholarships — is about $164,000. The average scholarship payout is just $27,000 by our estimation. So, “non-profit” schools are making an average of $137,000 in profit per player. And if that’s not enough, look at the breakdown by conference (all numbers are from the U.S. Department of Education for the 2010-2011 season):

The SEC and Big Ten are making over $300,000 per player! It’s no wonder we see recruiting scandals every year. They won’t disappear until schools are allowed to pay players closer to what they are worth.

For the curious, here’s the top 10:

Paying players is the right move

We thought about the arguments against paying Continue reading