A Comprehensive Review of the Sloan Analytics Conference

This past weekend will undoubtedly be one of my favourites of the year. I was lucky enough to attend the 10th annual Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, and what a weekend it was. If you’re like me and occasionally enjoy ‘people watching’, Sloan is one of the best venues. At this year’s conference there were nearly 4,000 attendees, and I can say with decent assurance that every single one of them is a huge nerd; myself included. Sloan is one of the few places where you can see a geeky university student break through his social awkwardness and strike up a conversation with two-time NBA champion Shane Battier, and that’s fantastic. I am going to recap what I enjoyed about the weekend, and breakdown a few of conference’s cutting-edge topics of debate. The majority of my recap will not be about baseball, nor will it make many direct ties to the Blue Jays, but good ol’ Goose Gossage might come up once or twice.

The conference started with an absolute bang. If there is a more desirable first panel than ‘Moneyball Reunion,’ I’m not sure what it would be. Michael Lewis, Bill James, Paul DePodesta and Jackie MacMullan walked onto the main stage at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center and things were off and running. The discussion varied substantially, with Michael Lewis recounting memories he had with James, DePodesta and even Billy Beane. The flow of conversation moved naturally as the panel discussed the ‘Greek God of Walks’ or the man more commonly known as Kevin Youkilis. DePodesta remarked that the Youk was the player who changed the Oakland A’s draft strategy. He was a guy that fit all the parameters that Beane and DePodesta wanted to fulfill, yet they felt reluctance from their scouts. I know, I know, you’ve all likely read Moneyball, but what I thought to be particularly interesting is that the A’s didn’t get Youkilis because their scouts were adamant he could be selected in the tenth round.

When the Red Sox drafted Youkilis in the 8th round, you could hear a pin drop in the draft room, according to DePodesta. This was apparently an absolute anomaly on draft day, due simply to the sheer amount of debate that occurred on Youkilis. It was intriguing to hear DePodesta state that at that time, the draft produced one major league player per team on average. In 2001, there were 50 rounds, so each team threw a dart at the board and hit the bulls-eye 1/50 times. Beane and DePodesta were aiming to hit the bulls-eye three times. They wanted to stack the odds in their favour so that they failed only 94% of the time opposed to 98%. That’s still astronomical “failure,” but they believed their team could be set up for the future if they were able to get 2 or 3 major league players out of each draft for multiple years in a row.

Later during the panel, Lewis called baseball players ‘fat’, ‘ugly’ and ‘stupid’ within a span of 30 seconds. Of course, he was referring to the early-2000’s Oakland A’s. DePodesta didn’t necessarily agree but did relent that Billy and he were value investors and at that time, you could find a lot of value in players who weren’t in great shape or had some sort of deformity or irregularity.

The panel concluded by Jackie MacMullan, the moderator, asking about their thoughts on Goose Gossage’s recent comments. Bill James capped the panel off quite well by saying “you used to have to pay attention to those guys, now you can just ignore them.” I find Bill James to be particularly fascinating. He did so much work in bringing statistics and analysis to the game of baseball, but he did this for no one’s edification but his own. He wanted to answer a question he had about the game and all he did was to build a structure that allowed him to do so.

The conference solidified another opinion that I held: Brian Scalabrine is the man. He is a former NBA player who won a championship with the Boston Celtics and was on the Basketball Analytics panel that occurred early Saturday morning. Most people will remember Scalabrine for being the King of the Press Conference. Alongside him on the panel was Mike Zarren, the assistant GM of the Celtics; former Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, and Brian Kopp, the North American President of Catapult – a wearable technology company. Moderating this panel was none other than ESPN writer Zach Lowe, who I believe to be the best current basketball writer  out there (R.I.P. Grantland). Despite Scalabrine being somewhat junior relative to the panel, he was invaluable in providing a natural flow of conversation and jokes, even if the butt end of the joke was often himself.

Basketball, like baseball in recent years, has begun to integrate analytics into day-to-day operations. Analytics in basketball, however, are currently utilized in a different manner than in baseball. To drastically simplify, in its infancy, baseball used analytics to evaluate player performance, with an aim to find value where others cannot. In basketball, teams use the information they are generating to help improve the team’s efficiency on the court. Coach Thibs stated that analytics will be used in basketball to support theories that the coaching staff see on film. For example, you see that when the Bulls run a pick-and-roll, Derrick Rose knocks down a lot of floaters in the lane from just below the elbow. Thibs would then go to the analytics department and ask to check the numbers that Rose shoots in this situation and see if they are better relative to league average. If the analytics supports this claim, Thibs would then approach Rose and tell him he needs to try and find this shot more often to improve the team’s efficiency on pick-and-rolls.

Mike Zarren agreed with Thibodeau about his approach and usage of analytics. While attempting to establish analytics in Boston, Zarren says he and the coaching staff would tell players to attempt specific shots, or try and force the opposing team into difficult shots. For example, Kevin Durant doesn’t like to shoot over his left shoulder on the block, so your defense wants to force Durant into that situation. The resistance he got from the players would occur when Durant would inevitably hit that shot. The difficulty was to get the players to understand that over multiple iterations of forcing the opposing team into bad shots, they would eventually miss substantially more than they would make. They had to trust the process. In fairness to the players, it is difficult to trust a process when you don’t frequently see the people who generate the numbers that are driving the issue. Most analytics departments don’t have frequent exposure to the players which would allow them to build that trust. That is something Zarren and the Celtics are trying to change; they want to develop more integration and flow between the coaching staff, players and the analytics department.

The Player Analytics panel was the other premier panel at the conference. Shane Battier and Sue Bird were the former players on the Player Analytics panel that also consisted of Jeff Van Gundy, a former coach and current ESPN broadcaster; and Dean Oliver, the Vice President of TruMedia. Jeff Van Gundy was rattling off the best players in the NBA: LeBron James, Chris Paul, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and linked them all by their intelligence. “Dumb gets you beat” he said, and I couldn’t agree more. All of these players have embraced analytics and they’ve utilized their mind as well as their extraordinary physical condition to gain a competitive advantage. If an athlete is unwilling to embrace the mental aspect of their sport, and truly understand what is happening on their field of play, they are unlikely to reach their full potential. Analytics can be a tool to get an edge mentally in any sport.

Against my better judgement, I also attended the one-on-one interview with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. Even my low expectations for the panel weren’t met. If you have never heard Bettman utter the phrase “I don’t want to potentially expose myself to…” then you’ve likely never heard a Bettman interview before and you would have gotten your fill at Sloan. Moving on!

Every year there are certain buzz words around the conference. These buzz words traditionally give an indication of where the analytics movement is headed. This year was no different. The conference couldn’t get enough of wearables. Wearable technology seems to be the direction that all teams, in all sports are moving. Wearables have two main focuses: injury prevention and strength & conditioning. They allow teams to track important in-game metrics such as heart rate, workload, horizontal acceleration and more. Monitoring these metrics from practices to games will give teams an understanding of when their player is undergoing too much exertion or when they are slowing down, both potential signs of impending injury. Teams will also be able to push their athletes to the limit during practice and training sessions without going over the edge. This was a big part of Marcus Stroman’s miraculous recovery from last year’s ACL Tear. Detailed brilliantly in this Grantland piece by former BP writer Ben Lindbergh, the sensors on his wearable let him push himself right to the point before overexertion, which accelerated his recover. According to panelists at the conference, wearable technology will be a widespread tool utilized in all sports within 5-10 years.

Beyond the panels themselves, a major factor that makes Sloan so enjoyable is talking with all the other sports fans and getting their opinions on the what/who they’ve seen. I personally loved Brian Scalabrine and what he brought to the basketball analytics panel, but one conference-goer I talked with absolutely hated him because he had little to no analytics knowledge. I am of the opinion that you need your naysayers, you need the Vinny Del Negro’s and the Brian Scalabrine’s of the world, to force the panelists to keep discussing the value of analytics. I also enjoyed when the topic went away from sports and to other fields. There was a substantial amount of discussion about politics during the one-on-one interview with statistician Nate Silver. Silver is well known for developing PECOTA – which Baseball Prospectus uses to forecast player performance – and for correctly predicting 49 of 50 states in the 2008 presidential election. He delved into the difficulties Donald Trump has given him and his team in developing an appropriate predictive model, due to the unpredictability of his supporters.

Another panel at Sloan was focused on the rise of eSports and how a variety of different businesses can be successful within that scene. The panel discussed that the the largest tournaments for the games Dota 2 and League of Legends are generating more viewership than The Masters and the NBA Finals. This was certainly a surprising bit of information.

Those are my thoughts from one of my favourite weekends of the year, and I can’t wait until 2017 to do it all again. In previous years at Sloan, there was a discussion regarding the impact starting pitching can have on a ball club as we entered the Year of the Pitcher. My hope is that maybe next year there will be a panel with the opposite outlook, largely driven by the success the Toronto Blue Jays have had while constructing a roster primarily focused on producing runs. My dream might not be that far off from reality.

Lead Photo: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

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1 comment on “A Comprehensive Review of the Sloan Analytics Conference”


Love it!

Can’t wait for an opportunity to go back. Plenty of fond memories of Bill James not giving a shit and I can only assume he gets more curmudgeonly year-by-year.

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