Hockey ain't Baseball, stats-lovers

Jason Gregor
January 24 2009 03:29PM

Sabremetrics and Moneyball have worked in baseball, but would the same work in hockey?

To me the sports are just too different to allow statistical data to overtake live scouting. Willis mentioned Sabremetrics as a key to the success of the Red Sox, and while I agree it had something to do with their success, I think JW missed an obvious statistical equation with Epstein and the Red Sox: money.

Look at their salaries compared to other teams. To say it was Sabremetrics that won them the World Series, without at least mentioning their gross salary advantage is a bit misleading.

Moneyball makes a much better argument because Oakland made the playoffs four out of the last nine years with a payroll that was always in the bottom ten of team salaries, and three of those years in the bottom five. They had half and sometimes 1/3 of the salary of the Yanks and Red Sox.

Billy Beane's theory worked to get them to the playoffs, but only once did they win a series. Epstein made the playoffs but the Red Sox were always in the top five in salary, so I think their success is based as much, if not more, on money as Sabermetrics. If anything, the Red Sox championships prove why baseball needs a true salary cap. Sure, the Rays -- after years of being the laughingstock of the league -- made the playoffs last year, but how long before they lose all of their young players to free agency? It's a joke when you have the Yanks at $209 million, which is $70 million more than any other team, and almost FIVE times more than the Rays $43 million. I think Moneyball and Sabermetrics was more a product of survival than anything else.

The other reason why stats work better in baseball is that every play starts the exact same way. The pitcher pitches, and the batter tries to hit it. Sure there are lefties and righties to take into the equation, but the play always starts in the exact same spot.

That is not the case in hockey, nor will it ever be. Players have to react much more quickly in many different areas of the game. That doesn't mean stats aren't valuable in hockey, and are becoming more common, but the variables in hockey differ from play-to-play and situation-to-situation much more than they do in baseball.

Baseball junkies don't pipe up and say that hitting a fastball or change up is harder, because I agree it is super tough, but that is more of a twitch muscle reaction and great hand eye coordination. The game of baseball is not as fast, thus split second decisions in hockey happen more frequently. An average hockey player has to make 500-600 decision a game, (based on 13 minutes of icetime), and most of them have to made instantly.

In baseball it's different, thus the stats can better show the attributes of a player. In hockey, for the same type of stats to work, you would have to break every play down, with every variable. Teams forecheck differently, sometimes a D-man makes a pass with no pressure, while other times he is pressured by the opposition. Are some D-men better at passing across their body, or straight up the ice?

Face-off stats for example could be more accurate if you had: taken on forehand v. backhand... and whether the opponent was on his forehand or backhand. Most guys are naturally better drawing it back on their backhand. I'm sure those stats are coming, but in a game that relies a lot on pure instincts and split second decisions, I think it's harder to find accurate statistical data that will back up whether a player is contributing to his team.

In baseball, a great defensive infielder has amazing reaction time, and the error stat backs it up. In hockey, I don’t see giveaways as an accurate enough stat, especially because guys who handle the puck more often will obviously have more giveaways. Hemsky has led the Oilers in giveaways for many years, but no one thinks he can’t handle the puck.

Also in Sabremetrics, they feel that drafting a college ball player has a much higher rate of success than drafting a high school player. We will need to see at least a 15-20 year study to see if this is indeed true. That doesn’t seem to be the case in hockey. Almost all of the top young players have come from Major Junior or the European leagues the last ten years, and beyond. Crosby, Kane, Oveckin, Phaneuf, Getzlaf, Carter, Richards, Malkin to name a few.

Currently in the top 30 scorers the only two to play college were Zack Parise, and he left after two seasons and Todd White (**Side note -- Todd White top 30 in scoring: I’d love the statistical breakdown on how that is possible. Todd freaking White! Nothing explains why he's there

But I digress. I'm never one to automatically shun something just because it is different, and I think that some statistical analysis can show sides of a hockey player we never looked at before, but at the same time I think too much of it could make the game robotic.

The best part about hockey is the raw emotion and excitement. The end-to-end rush, a tic-tac-toe goal, a bone-crushing hit, the elation of the crowd, the willingness of a player to try and block a Souray or Chara shot (I’ll take Souray in an upset in the hardest shot later today -- 105 for Souray, 104 Chara), a spirited scrap and most of all the mistakes that lead to odd-man rushes or even better goals.

The speed of the game is increasing all of the time, thus the players have to react even quicker, and that will lead to great plays, but also mistakes which the game needs.

I appreciate baseball for the nuances it has, but I also realize it is a much slower game and for me personally not nearly as exciting. Hockey is too fast to break it down in the same fashion as baseball, and that is what makes it great.

Of course hockey could use an upgrade in certain statistical areas, but to breakdown every aspect of the game would be too difficult and I can’t see how the data would be accurate. The guys making the grades are just as likely to make mistakes as the players on the ice. Like I said, I can see areas that it could help, but until they come up with stats for heart, determination, a willingness to compete and battle I just can’t see how a contact sport can rely on statistical data as much as a non-contact sport like baseball.

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One of Canada's most versatile sports personalities. Jason hosts The Jason Gregor Show, weekdays from 2 to 6 p.m., on TSN 1260, and he writes a column every Monday in the Edmonton Journal. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/JasonGregor
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#51 Rick
January 26 2009, 09:48AM
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Tyler wrote:

Well no, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they had an advantage in the playoffs because of money. .... ... given that Oakland was benefitting from a ton of players whose value wasn’t recognized and guys who were still in the cheap years of their contracts, I’m not convinced that the money difference means that muhc.

Baseball is at best a passing interest for me so I have no clue as to how the teams you guys are comparing were made up but how much does experience play a part in the comparison?

If Oakland's success was based on getting production from players in the cheap years of their contracts I would assume a lack of inexperience is also a part of that. If the Yankees for example are overpaying then I would assume that they are overpaying in part because of experience.

When it comes to the playoffs inparticular I would think having players with experience must be enough to account for the "luck factor".

And if that is the case then certainly money spent plays into the equation.

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#52 Ducey
January 26 2009, 11:10AM
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Gregor, you might know something about hockey but don't pretend to be an expert on baseball.

I am not an expert either but ...

a) the difference in drafting college guys vs high school guys in baseball has to do with age. HS guys are 18. College guys are typically 21 due to the eiligibility requirements. Beane and JP Riccardi have traditionally decided that you can make better judgements on where a guy will be when he is 25 when you are looking at a 21/22 year old. As well, the studies show that pitchers tend to get injured at a high rate - especially at a young age. HS pitchers are not a good bet. I could go on, but the point is that this discussion is not applicable to the the hockey draft because everyone is 18.

b) the college discussion is useful in judging guys who were not drafted. Many guys can develop significantly in college due to being late bloomers, taking advantage of good programs, becoming more mature etc. The Ducks have done very well with college undrafted guys such as the Oilers signing Brian Lerg.

c) Moneyball has more to do with taking advantage of players who are undervalued by the other teams than stats. Oakland recognized that OBP is the most important aspect of an offensive players value. A player who hit .300/.335 is worth less than a player who hits .250/.360 yet the baseball community valued the former as more valuable. This concept of buying low is directly applicable to hockey. Detroit has done so with Europeans, the Ducks with College seniors, the Oilers even tried with drafting guys like Pisa and Jussi M. Areas to be exploited include overcoming the bias regarding size, Europe etc.

d)Oakland's success had more to do with great starting pitching than anything. Hudson, Mulder and Zito would make any GM look smart. Since they have gone, Beane has not been as successful.

e)In hockey, the draft is a complete crapshoot. Figuring out where a player will be when he is in his prime at age 18 is very problmematic. However, simply taking a players stats and looking at his points produced based on time on ice might have reduced Schremp's value somewhat as his high point total was based not only on his talent but his high playing time in London. This is stats. Looking at a players value at even strength also seperates out guys who make a living on the powerplay. This is stats too. I imagine lots of GM's look at a guy in junior and see 39G 60A and figure this guy is going to be a scorer in the NHL. If they were to do a little analysis, they would realize the guy likely won't be on the PP in the NHL and that they should be looking at the his Even Strength production. If 25 goals were scored on the PP, maybe this guys isn't a first round pick anymore.

f) baseball analysis is greatly enhanced by the fact that there are limited number of outcomes from an at bat and that players play static roles. Even the mighty Bill James would admit that the baseball world has not been able to adequately judge defence based on range etc do to the many variables involved (depth, speed of ball, surface, speed of runner etc).

g) you are correct in that hockey will never be able to judge the value of a player based solely on stats because there are simply too many aspects to judge and players play both ways. A goal against is due to many factors including the goalie. However, I think your bias is that stats are not worth much. In fact they are. A good GM will apply statistical analysis the numbers to a bunch of players allowing him to target certain players that are being overlooked. He then can scout that player more specifically. I expect a GM that will do this will win more trades and more games than the traditional Don Cherry types.

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#53 Jason Gregor
January 26 2009, 01:28PM
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Ducey wrote:

Gregor, you might know something about hockey but don’t pretend to be an expert on baseball.

I don't recall saying I'm an expert anywhere on Baseball. I said that baseball uses more stats and I think it is a sport where stats can tell more of the story than they do in hockey.

Ducey wrote:

Beane and JP Riccardi have traditionally decided that you can make better judgements on where a guy will be when he is 25 when you are looking at a 21/22 year old.

Why even mention Riccardi in the same boat as Beane? He hasn't had near the success rate, and the Jays record shows that his ability to evaluate talent is not where it needs to be.Ducey wrote:

However, I think your bias is that stats are not worth much. In fact they are. A good GM will apply statistical analysis the numbers to a bunch of players allowing him to target certain players that are being overlooked. He then can scout that player more specifically. I expect a GM that will do this will win more trades and more games than the traditional Don Cherry types.

I never said stats aren't worth much, but rather the way hockey is played it makes it harder to find stats that are applicable. Of course stats are useful, I just don't see how they will match up to the statistical analysis of baseball.

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#54 Hawerchuk
January 28 2009, 06:52PM
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I think there's a bit of a definition problem here. The view of "statistics" you present here is dated. Baseball has moved beyond the stationary view of the game and the (X+Y)/(A+B) approach that Bill James used because he didn't have any other data at his disposal.

Just a couple of simple examples: Ultimate Zone Rating (now at least 8 years old), which uses observations of the speed and trajectory of every batted ball to measure fielding ability; and Pitch-F/X, which gives you release point and location data for every pitch thrown. This data's being tracked because people realized that baseball is not a stationary game that you can measure using the basic statistics that were developed in 1876.

Interestingly, a lot of the analysis you see of this new kind of data is really simple - the big deal is that you've got reams and reams of what amounts to subjective (or objective in the case of Pitch-F/X) scouting information, and someone is looking for patterns in it.

If you don't think this kind of thing can be applied to hockey, I'd point to Dennis' work over at Mudcrutch's site. He's doing something very simple - watching games, recording when there's a scoring chance, and writing down who's on the ice - and then he just adds all the chances together. He's scouting the game, except he's being rigorous and recording everything - but his final "statistical" analysis is really, really simple - yet extremely powerful.

I don't see how you could argue that you get less out of Dennis' approach than you do out of "watching the game" without objectively keeping track of what happened. Indeed, I'm sure that the best teams employ people to watch film and count exactly the kinds of things that Dennis counts.

In terms of analysis, hockey's about 20 years behind baseball, and that long ago, it didn't seem like all this "math" was going to have an impact on the game. But if the NHL were to stick RFID tags on every player and the puck and track their location throughout the entire game, we'd have some very simple but significant analytical results with a matter of years.

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