Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Motivation Behind A Push For Better NHL Stats

Yesterday, I wrote about rebounds. Specifically, I wrote that they are a missing number that could easily be kept in the NHL's real time scoring system (RTSS) that would help us get a better picture of what happened in a hockey game. In fact, the RTSS system could be significantly improved (for example some events listed in some of the games are clearly incorrect - wrap around shots of greater than 60 feet etc.).

This story was picked up by foxsports.com as I (and several other bloggers) have an agreement with them that they can carry our stories. The story appeared here. In the comments to this story, some people were downright hostile to the idea of having better hockey statistics.

Comments include: "Jesus Christ that article gave me a headache...how bout this....a rebounded shot...we will call that a SOG...and if it goes in...we will call it a goal" and "LEAVE MY SPORT ALONE! This isn't baseball. This isn't a sport which is all about staticstics."

If we take the scenario of the first commenter (danjdevils1) a bit further, why don't we report hockey like this: Last night Edmonton played Chicago and seven goals were scored. We don't because it doesn't carry enough information. Who won? What was the score? Who scored? How did they score? Did player X have a good game? These are all natural questions. In order to attempt to answer them we need some level of statistics. You will notice that the last couple of questions on that list are next to impossible to answer reliably from looking at a standard hockey boxscore.

The second commenter (Thadd) is worried about hockey "becoming baseball" - which is presumably a sport he doesn't like. Of course, hockey will always be hockey no matter how much information we can extract from a hockey game it will still be a hockey game. Hockey does not lend itself to statistical analysis the way baseball does, but that does not prevent the study of sabermetrics and hockey. Nothing will ever replace the thrill of watching a game and seeing how plays develop and how defences react to them. Hockey is a complex game, but that does not mean that we cannot learn about it by looking at the statistics of the game.

In fact, the second commenter has his own blog on foxsports which can be seen here. His most recent post discusses the Edmonton Oilers players who will be restricted free agents in 2008 (from the premise that now that Edmonton signed Dustin Penner they better lock up any useful 2008 RFAs because people may be gunning for them). He looks at eight players who are Oiler property - many of whom have spent more time in the AHL than in the NHL. How does he discuss the players? He uses statistics. For example he writes:

Jean-Francois Jacques(Left wing) - Was a plus and put up 27 points in 29 games in the AHL before come to the NHL to acomplish nothing in 37 games. I'm not sure, but I imagine he was playing 4th line minutes. Landed a -11 and 33PIM. He's a 6"4 217pound beast. This 22 year old 2nd rounder still has some developing to do and it might show next season.

Why does he use statistics? Because it's the only natural way to discuss them. To explain this better I will quote from Bill James

Statistics are simplifications of much more complex realities. It may be unnecessary to say this because, of course, all human understanding is based on simplifications of more complex realities. Economic theories are simplified images of how an economy works, replacing billions of complicated facts with a few broad generalizations. The same is true of psychological and sociological theories, it is true in medicine and astronomy. The search for understanding, wherever it roams, is a search for better simplifications- simplifications which explain more and distort less. Even the understanding gained from experience is, of course, a simplification of experience into the generalizations which are distilled from many experiences.

We all know many things and many different types of things which are not reflected in the statistical record. Acknowledging this, a good statistical analyst is sometimes able to reach out and draw areas of the game which were previously undocumented inside the tent, inside the focus of the statistical record. Sabermetrics is sometimes able to invent a way to correct for one or another distortion of the statistical picture.

So why does Thadd (the second commenter) use statistics to discuss the players? Because it is the only natural way to do it. It's impossible to describe every play you saw the player make in any other meaningful way. So he uses a simplification. He looks at the statistics. All I am asking is that these statistics be as accurate as possible and tell us as much as they can about the underlying reality which is hockey.

Great stuff. I personally don't see how adding statistical analysis makes the 'game' better or worse. More information is better, right?

Maybe it just makes people fearful, because all the 'hockey men' with years of experience playing and watching the game might lose a little value if statistical methods can be developed to measure quality. You don't need to be part of the club anymore to know who's good and who ain't.

The same fear is in baseball too. Even (relatively) smart sportswriters and analysts still reject the concept of OPS as a stat, even though it correlates much better to runs than batting average.

Scared of math? Too bad.
We know that people resist change and this is just another example. For those of us who are curious as to why things happen (and believe there are forces outside "luck", which does exist) this is important business.

One thing that's always surprised me is that people find this sort of information untrustworthy somehow, when Jesus Alou's batting average was the least trustworthy measure of an outfielder on the planet the year he had this line:

510 at-bats
12 walks (2 ibb)
15 doubles
5 triples
4 home runs
55 runs
30 runs batted in

We don't know the hockey equivalent of Jesus Alou, but we're getting there and when it happens all of us who ask questions will have the satisfaction of seeing him replaced with the equivalent of Darrell Evans.

And a LOT of hockey fans won't see it coming.

Or going for that matter.
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