Analytics Have Transcended Sports But Is It Ruining The Art and Purpose of Sports?

Analytics have absolutely revolutionized the entire team sports world — beginning with baseball and the sabermetric principles explained by Bill James and Michael Lewis in Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, which chronicled the Oakland Athletics, a low-budget baseball franchise (perennially ranked in the bottom 10 of MLB team payrolls) needing to use unconventional and contrarian methods to compete against big-budget MLB franchises. Under Beane (from 1998–2020), the A’s won the sixth most games in the entire league and reached the playoffs 11 times, while getting the second-most value out of every dollar spent (behind the Tampa Bay Rays).

While Beane could never field a team that achieved any sort of playoff success — Oakland only won two playoff series during Beane’s entire 23-season tenure — his legacy of instilling analytics has permeated all over baseball, with team data analytics R&D staffs growing league-wide at a high rate throughout the past decade.

Analytics Have Revolutionized Baseball

Premier baseball front offices have utilized an Ivy League Culture — filled with people who have NOT played the game at any level — to use data-driven insights to construct rosters, manage workflows, and make situational in-game decisions. For budget-constrained teams like the Tampa Bay Rays — who perennially have one of the lowest payrolls in the league — analytics breeds innovation — such as four-outfielder defensive alignments or having relief pitchers start the games as “openers”. These unorthodox methods provide smaller market teams a better chance at competing and differentiating themselves against the big-money teams.

The Rays have used analytics to their advantage: since 2008, they have achieved seven 90-win seasons and an AL-leading 40-win season in the condensed 2020 season, which led them to the World Series. Those seven 90-win seasons since 2008 are as many as division rivals Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees have each had during the same span, a staggering comparison when comparing the resources of these franchises (and unlike the Red Sox and Yankees, the Rays were on pace for 90+ wins in a 162-game standard season in 2020).

Tampa Bay has also established a tree filled with analytics gurus leading other MLB franchises, including Andrew Friedman from the reigning World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers (Friedman spent 9 years on the Rays before moving to the Dodgers).

NBA’s Analytics Revolution Has Led to 3-Pointer Galore

The sustained success of MLB franchises like the Rays and A’s — two resource-starved franchises compared to the rest of the league — has shown the power of data-driven decision making, which has translated to other major team sports, most notably the 2010s Houston Rockets. Daryl Morey and “Moreyball— who prioritized layups and 3-pointers and effectively devalued the midrange shot from today’s NBA — helped the Houston Rockets become the second-most winningest franchise during Morey’s tenure (from 2008) behind the San Antonio Spurs.

Morey’s numerically driven approach has grossly minimized the number of isolation plays, post-ups, and any 2-point shots taken outside of the lane, as transition-focused offenses with three-pointers and attacks to the basket began to take off. During the 2018–19 season, James Harden alone attempted 1,028 three-point attempts; no player had ever shot over 900 in a season until then. Harden and Stephen Curry own the 5 single-most 3-point field goal attempts in a single season and with the team successes of the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors from 2015–2019, seemingly every team has tried to adopt the same strategy of shooting more three-pointers.

Unquestionably, analytics will only (and should) continue to revolutionize sports, as we have only scratched the surface of the possibilities that analytics can have on gameplans, strategies, decision making, player utilization, injury prevention, and so much more. Analytics provides facts-based analysis to better inform players, coaches, and managers to make the best possible decisions at any given moment.

Physical Sports Are Played in Reality

Yet, a significant problem persists: unlike in technology, physical sports are played in-person…NOT on the computers.

A group of real human beings — filled with emotions and feelings — competing against another group of real human beings in a physical activity with tens of thousands spectators screaming and hollering while watching these athletes battle at a unified moment in time. This unites people (with the focus on the games being played and NOT on sensitive topics), which creates stories that can inspire millions around the world to be their best selves.

Over the course of a long season, data-driven decisions from large sample sizes/datasets usually lead to many successful outcomes. In single-game situations with numerous variables at play though — such as the Rays’ Kevin Cash removing a dominant Blake Snell from Game 6 of the 2020 World Series (with the Rays leading 1–0 and Snell only throwing 73 pitches up to that point) — data-driven decisions can lead to devastating outcomes, as the Rays wound up losing the game and series to the Dodgers.

Let me be clear: the Rays did NOT single handedly lose the game because of this one decision — there’s no telling what would have happened if Kevin Cash decided to keep Blake Snell in the game — but what Cash did was PREVENT Snell from accomplishing a lifelong dream and creating a memorable moment in baseball history. A Cy Young award winner pitching in the biggest moment of his life to give his team an opportunity to win a championship during a period when the entire country was in peril. Oh…and he was pitching a dominant shutout up until this point in the game.

With numerous intangible variables at play — the environment of a venue, the feeling of the players, circumstances of the game — numbers cannot fully tell the whole story of making momentary decisions. Maybe that’s why Billy Beane admitted that “my shit doesn’t work in the playoffs.”

Sports are designed to create impactful memories.

Why do baseball fans closely remember Madison Bumgarner’s historic 2014 World Series run with the San Francisco Giants or David Freese’s epic 2011 clutch moments with the St. Louis Cardinals?

Why do basketball fans closely remember the epic 3–1 comeback by the Cleveland Cavaliers over the 73-win Golden State Warriors?

Why is the late Kobe Bryant and his Mamba Mentality so revered universally?

Why is Brandi Chastain’s game-winning penalty kick in front of a packed Rose Bowl crowd still cherished over two decades later?

Why are Eli Manning and David Tyree (and his Helmet Catch) timeless legends in New York after preventing the New England Patriots from accomplishing a perfect season?

Why is Malcolm Butler a hero in New England for his game-winning interception to win the New England Patriots a championship?

Why are Arike Ogunbawale’s two Final Four game-winners forever etched in Notre Dame lore?

Why is Diego Maradona’s goal in the 1986 World Cup against England still revered over a generation later?

The list goes on and on and on. Sports provide captivating stories.

Communities spanning multiple generations unite to watch people play and compete. Young children look up to professionals to emulate skills and artistry to the game. Older people get inspired with underdog and relatable comeback stories — like baseball phenom Josh Hamilton’s battle with drug addiction to develop a successful Major League career or an undersized Kemba Walker leading a legendary 2011 run with the University of Connecticut.

These stories are meant to provide inspiration and deep meaning to life; with the clear understanding of the parameters within a game, sports provide these kinds of opportunities to captivate people with a variety of unique stories.

Physical Sports Carry an Artistic Element to Them

All kinds of athletes play uniquely, regardless of the sport. It could be Mark Fidrych and his unorthodox pitching motions and behavioral attitudes on the mound with talking to himself. Or Rick Barry has his underhanded free throws or quarterback Philip Rivers’ unorthodox throwing motion.

Athletes exhibit unique skills. Whether it’s footwork or throwing a ball, the bravado of an action executed so elegantly provides inspiration to the millions watching the most elite performers exhibiting their crafts.

In basketball, analytics have taken away the value of the midrange shot and isolations, but wasn’t it the midrange shot and isolations that that propelled the greatness of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Allen Iverson — legends whose impact spanned well beyond the basketball court?

Should we want every young player out there to learn to shoot three-pointers and develop highlight reel plays, rather than develop the fundamentals and mind-body coordination skills that will allow them to successfully age in their playing careers and beyond?

Physical sports are a competition on who wins a game at a moment in time, but the artistry of sports draws so many unique participants and viewers to the game, which only grows that particular sport. We should want more people to play these particular sports, and the artistry provides the beauty of any particular craft by exhibiting unique mind-body coordination skills.

Analytics Cannot Measure Heart and Passion

Emotional stories and moments do not have any numbers attached to them. They’re ingrained in the hearts of living beings. Sports provide people with these kinds of “where were you when this happened” moments that few other activities can offer.

Many of these moments occur in the thick of battle, with players and teams mentally and physically worn out yet needing to fight through the struggles together to prevail victorious.

We saw in The Last Dance how Michael Jordan’s 1990s Chicago Bulls needed to overcome the Detroit Pistons — who had knocked the Bulls out of the playoffs for three straight years — to build the mental fortitude to lead to winning. Or the late 1980s Pistons needing to get through the Larry Bird era Boston Celtics to develop the toughness to win in the playoffs. Or Dirk Nowitzki’s 2011 Dallas Mavericks overcoming years of failures to triumph with a legendary championship run. Or LeBron James needing to overcome the Boston Celtics to develop the inner strength and understanding to win in the big games.

Overcoming adversity provides meaning to winning.

In the past few years, we have seen players now collude to team up spontaneously — particularly with the establishment of superteams in the NBA — which has arguably contributed to a damaging viewership problem for the league.

With this, fewer meaningful stories have emerged; does Kevin Durant leaving a championship contending OKC Thunder team to join a 73-win team that came within a few minutes of winning consecutive championships provide people with powerful, inspirational, and memorable stories? Or Anthony Davis forcing his way out of New Orleans to join forces with LeBron James and win a championship with the LA Lakers deeply inspire people?

There is NOTHING wrong with player empowerment. The best players have earned the right to choose their destinies. However, we need to establish a fine line between the purpose of competition and sport and chasing wins and championships; sports are meant to unite people and bring out the best in everyone to be the best version of themselves.

People should not discredit legendary careers like Reggie Miller, Charles Barkley, and Patrick Ewing for not winning a championship but leaving an indelible impact on the game. All three players had LEGENDARY battles with Michael Jordan and produced Hall of Fame careers.

Is winning championships the end-all be-all of everything? Or should we embrace the PROCESS and JOURNEY and the PURSUIT of winning more than the actual outcome itself?

While analytics can help people make better and more informed decisions, numbers cannot create the full picture. There are so many intangible factors that go into sports — particularly the moment-to-moment decisions — that can only create a deep, meaningful impact with a wholehearted presence, such as the Blake Snell’s quest for a complete game World Series shutout that would have placed him in baseball lore. World Series moments come once in a lifetime for players, and any analysis cannot comprehend the emotional meaning of a moment. Now, Snell is left playing the “What If?” game.

What is the right balance between analytics and the purity of sport?

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