Sports are often celebrated as games of intangibles. Qualities like character and work ethic are praised and sought after. These qualities cannot be measured or assigned a numerical value. However, there is a field of study aiming to alter the way we view sports by utilizing numbers to prove that intangibles do not play a significant part in athletic performanceare, in fact, numerically measurable. Analytics, also known as “advanced statistics” or “advanced metrics,” is a broad category of statistical analysis used in sports where teams are utilizing non-traditional statistics as a means to rigorously assess team and player performance.

The practice received much publicity in the wake of Michael Lewis’ book, “Moneyball.” The 2003 book takes a look at Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s. Beane built a roster composed of players who demonstrated strength in certain statistics he deemed more useful than the conventional assessment of hits, home runs, batting average, steals and RBIs.

Beane felt such conventional statistics were easily distorted by teammates’ performance and other factors beyond the individual’s control. Instead, he turned to analytics in the hopes of using statistical analysis as a more efficient and accurate measure of performance. Beane turned to statistics like on-base percentage — a measure of the frequency a player is able to get on base through any means other than error or fielder’s choice. He also analyzed slugging percentage, a statistic that divides the number of bases the player reached by the number of at-bats. These stats provide deeper insight into batter efficiency and power.

Beane coveted players who demonstrated strong advanced statistics and who otherwise flew under the radar. This formula meant that the A’s could sign dark-horse players at a cheaper rate, and still end up with higher levels of performance.
Beane’s philosophy resonated throughout Major League Baseball after the 2002 A’s finished with a record of 103-59, including a 20-game win streak as they easily clinched a playoff berth. The Oakland general manager changed the way many managers look at the game and gave building a roster a distinctly more economic flavor. Today, most MLB teams, and the league itself, put significant money and effort into analytics with even deeper levels of nuanced statistical examination. All 30 MLB stadiums now feature a system called PITCHf/x that tracks the speed and trajectory of pitches. The data gathered is used to assess pitchers at an incredibly deep level. For example, it can show with significant detail how much movement a curveball has.
Analytics has shown promise in other major sports as well. The National Basketball Association is currently going through its own analytics revolution. According to NBAstuffer.com, a basketball research website, 25 of the 30 teams either have analytics experts on their staff or take advantage of outside statistical consulting. These teams are utilizing statistics such as player efficiency rating (PER) which measures a player’s production per minute played.

The National Hockey League has also opened up to analytics. The Los Angeles Kings, winners of the Stanley Cup in 2012 and 2014, have attributed much of their success to advanced statistics. Analytics in hockey focus largely on puck possession, and the most commonly used statistic is called Corsi. It looks at team shot attempts, both for and against, when a player is on the ice and is a strong measure of puck possession. During their 2014 Stanley Cup-winning campaign, the Kings had the NHL’s best puck possession.

Analytics has been met with some skepticism from critics who accuse advocates of giving the numbers too much weight and forgetting to simply watch the players. However, the impact of these new calculations cannot be ignored. Advanced statistics provide an alternate dimension to gauge sports performance. Whether or not this calls for an overhaul in how we view sports, it does bring to light sports phenomena we would otherwise attribute to intangibles.

Daniel Litke is a senior in the College. Capitals Hill appears every Friday.

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