In early March, Turnkey attended the 2014 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston. This year’s conference was as strongly attended as ever, featuring, as usual, some of the brightest minds in sports and business. Panelists included Nate Silver, Daryl Morey, Johnathan Kraft, Malcolm Gladwell, David Epstein and Adam Silver.

Major themes of this year’s conference included analytics stemming from player position on the court/field, and examining the value and ability to measure team chemistry. On the fan and ticket sales sides, there was a focus on how properties can keep games exciting for fans (but still fair) and finding innovative ways to promote fan engagement (and increase ROI).

The main attraction of the conference was the unveiling by MLBAM of their new on-field technology to document various distance and speed metrics, measured by players’ positions on the field. This data will be made available to both teams and fans, ideally in real time. Metrics available through this system will include a pitch’s spin rate, a batted ball’s speed and launch angle, fielders’ first step reaction time and route efficiency, a baserunners’ lead off the base, etc. The technology will be implemented this season for both teams and fans at 3 stadiums (Citi Field, Miller Park, Target Field) and is planned to be released at all stadiums by Opening Day in 2015.

This technology should prove very useful to teams interested in precisely tracking (with the goal of improving) player performance in these areas, and should provide additional knowledge and entertainment for fans watching the broadcast. It could lead to the development of new metrics to more suitably evaluate a player’s more subtle skills.

In my opinion, the most entertaining panel at the event was Malcolm Gladwell’s one-on-one with Adam Silver, in which Gladwell pressed the NBA Commissioner on various issues. Gladwell noted the fundamentals of Marxism (“from each according to ability, to each according to his need”) and how “overwhelming” it was to have billionaire Republicans corroborate a draft and a luxury tax system that perfectly underlines this (in a previous panel, Nate Silver noticed this as well, and further contrasted it by noting the irony that European sports’ relegation systems are Capitalistic). Regarding the draft, Silver said the NBA has evolved well from the past (where draft order was simply a 1-to-1 correlation between worst record and top pick). Though he said he was “open to take a fresh look at it”, Silver also noted that the current system is a good way to create competition among the teams.

Gladwell also grilled Silver on the Dolan family’s long-running property tax break on Madison Square Garden, which Silver justified by mentioning the “enormous net plus” the Knicks (and Nets) bring to NYC (Gladwell: “They’re not the Medicis!”). Other topics the pair debated included the NBA’s current playoff format, which Silver doesn’t propose changing (he likes the “narrative” of the current format). However, he enjoys the way the NCAA tournament works, and seemed receptive to the idea of a play-in tournament for the NBA’s 8-seeds to accommodate teams who got an injured player back or played better in the second half of the year.

The topic of age restrictions came up when Gladwell asked Silver what he would change in the NBA today if he could have a “wave of the magic wand”. Silver said he’d like to raise the minimum age. He wants to focus more on the “one-and-done” rule, and likes Gladwell’s proposal of the option to draft a player and keep them in college for an extra year (although it violates current NCAA rules).

On the topic of NBA basketball in Seattle, Silver said he’d like to have a franchise there again in the future, but also mentioned San Diego, Kansas City, and Vegas as potential expansion cities (though not while some teams are not “economically healthy”).

Some other interesting highlights from other panels included asking pitchers if they would rather be great for 3 years or good for 10 years (this was met with much debate), and examining often overlooked stats that may not be well measured yet, like defensive shifts, positional versatility, catcher framing, and chemistry.

On the topic of in-game innovations, reasons were presented why never punting is a viable strategy (i.e., unless a team is between the 40s, it should never punt). For example, if a team punts from its own 20, the likelihood the other team will score on the ensuing set of downs is very high and the difference if the team were to go for it on 4th down and fail is low. Another interesting note was for any yard line, if a turnover occurs at that yard line, the opposing team is twice as likely to score a touchdown as compared to a ball punted to that same yard line.

As usual, the research papers presented by the students and graduate students were very interesting as well. Papers included a model-based methodology to recognize when a pick-and-roll is occurring on the court by using data mining to evaluate how players are moving relative to each other, the ball, and the basket; a study showing that all umpires are biased (they tend to call borderline pitches balls when there are 2 strikes in the count or there were 2 strikes in a row previously, or call borderline pitches strikes when there are 3 balls) and how knowing these biases can be exploited by pitchers and hitters (but they aren’t); and research showing that over the years, the percentage of wins explained by payroll is decreasing and at an all-time low, while the emergence of youth shows a much better correlation to wins (which in turn leads to an inverse correlation to payroll, since younger players are paid less than vets).

Overall, I enjoyed attending the conference for my third year, and left very excited to see the MLBAM technology implemented in action. I picked up a few modeling techniques from some of the research paper sessions as well. The lack of a lockout occurring this season helped focus the true analytics and stats sides of the panels much more than has been in case in each of the past 2 years, which was a welcome change. I look forward to attending again next year, and seeing the results of how the MLBAM technology plays out.

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