Man, I never thought I'd get a chance to link to that video. This is already a great day.
Anyway, I'm a touch behind on this (story of my life), but Staples has a fairly interesting post up about the
battle tension between "traditionalists" and "stat guys," or those who, broadly speaking, prefer to rely on their own observations versus those who like to rely on numbers and shit. Lowetide has, as per usual, a very smart take up on it already, but there's a few things I thought were worth adding (and I wanted to encourage more people to go read it, because if nothing else, I think it's a useful primer to a debate that's entirely worth having).
Before I start though, I should point out, in case it isn't readily obvious, that I really like the new stats work that's being done around the internets. I'm pretty much a fan of anything that encourages people to think more, and a lot of the new stats shows, if nothing else, a real willingness for people to engage with hockey beyond the usual beer-and-bitch way. I certainly don't have the patience or inclination to come up with this stuff on my own—which makes me appreciate those who do all the more—but most of the stats I've come across have changed the way I look at hockey, like to the point that I'm trying to figure out my Corsi number in beer league games (incidentally, the Corsi numbers still say I suck).
Anyway, to get to my first point, as a stat guy, one thing that frequently bothers me is the above characterization, which kind of boils down to, in my mind, people who watch versus people who read and do math. Staples isn't the worst offender in this particular post, but he is drawing on a tradition that I think is just entirely unfair. There is a certain thread that basically casts "traditionalists" or "gut thinkers" as these kind of grizzled, sports-watching veterans, people who spend their lives tucked into a fedorah and a trench coat at the back of an arena, coffee spiked with JD, soaking up the kind of knowledge that can only come from freezing your ass off on bench seats; on the flip side, stat guys are latte-drinking metrosexuals, crunching numbers on their MacBooks (yeah, I have one: want to fight about it?) and barely even bothering to turn on the radio to catch a game, because what could watching hockey possibly tell you about it, when you have all these beautiful numbers?
Obviously, I think that's crap. I would actually argue—even if I'm biased—that the difference between traditionalists and stat guys is that one group is satisfied in the knowledge they have, and the other is inquisitive and wants to understand the game as best as possible. I wouldn't go so far as to say one approach is necessarily better than the other—it's a game, interact with it however you like—but that doesn't mean their isn't a profound, almost prideful ignorance in a statement like the one Staples attributes to Robin Brownlee: "I'm not the least bit interested in these numbers. I know what I see and I know what I think." Forget even if the new statistics are of any use: that's a man who loves hockey enough to make it his career openly saying he doesn't give a whit about anything that might disagree with his established way of thinking.
Not that I think the so-called "new stats" would. As Matt Fenwick likes to frequently point out, generally speaking if a stat disagrees greatly with what you see on the ice, it's probably misguided. I think us stat guys—or at least certainly myself, and I assume from my interactions with other people—use stats to help us confirm or refute our observations, so we can better understand what we're seeing.
Just as a personal example, I never liked Raffi Torres: I generally thought he was a marginally useful player, made far more popular then he deserved due to a penchant to take the body and a bull-headed attitude in the offensive zone. I guess there's no real harm in my thinking that, but after delving into some of the new numbers, I got a better understanding of him. Simply put, I'd say I was half-right: offensively, Raffi has some issues, but it turns out he was a fairly useful player, because he could manage to at least play the other team's quality players to about a draw. Anyway, though, the point is that I used the stats to further my understanding of what I was seeing, not as any kind of substitute.
(Which isn't necessarily to say that statistics aren't a substitute for watching the game: obviously a large reason why we have statistics at all is so we can tell what happened/what kind of players these are without having to watch every single NHL game in a season. Still, that holds true for old statistics or new: I would simply argue that the new ones are, again, trying to give us a more in-depth understanding than the old.)
Now, again, Staples' post is hardly one of the worst offenders out there for this, but there's still a definite undercurrent of this kind of experience-versus-computers mindset. Far from being guys who only analyze numbers, though, I think it's better to characterize them as people who both watch games and analyze numbers, versus people who just watch games. To put it another way, Staples says, "... scouts might rely on statistics to help them identify which players they should go see and focus upon, but the scouts always test the numbers with their own observations": conversely, then, I'd say stat guys always test their own observations with the numbers. I'll leave it to the individual to decide which method might be more effective, but I think it's fairly obvious where I stand.
The second thing I wanted to point out was Staples' characterization of Desjardins work. Though hee does praise it—as well he should, Behind the Net should be essential reading for anyone who wants a broader perspective of the game—Staples adds the following caveat: "Desjardins' work on quality of competition lead[s] the way [in new statistical analysis], even if it is based on the old botched concept of plus/minus."
This is mostly for the benefit of anyone who comes across Desjardins' numbers (and if you read the Oilogosphere, it should be fairly regular occurence), but to characterize the numbers he uses as based on "the old botched concept of plus/minus" is to misunderstand what Desjardins is doing. He does use a plus/minus system, but it's far more complex, and I would argue far more effective, system. Far from just taking the standard tally, Desjardins comes up with a player's plus/minus per 60 minutes based on a sum of the differences between the goals for and against when a player is on-ice and off-ice. Standard plus/minus only takes into account on-ice statistics, with no thought to either how the team performs without said player, nor how often said player is on the ice. Desjardins aptly named advanced plus/minus isn't entirely perfect, but it does factor in both per-minute contributions and a player's standing versus the rest of his team (the lack of the latter is one of the chief problems with plus/minus), which puts it far ahead of the old plus/minus. That's something that's important to consider, especially when we're debating the usefulness of certain stats.
Anyway, back to looking up '90s one-hit wonders on YouTube.
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