Is big data behind scoring drought in professional sports? And your business?
As spring training brings the familiar sounds of baseball, and the annual renewal of foolish optimism that this might be the Cubs' year, Major League Baseball is hoping for something even more dramatic -- more runs. From anyone.
Baseball is in a crisis not seen since the 1960s. Pitchers ran circles around hitters last year, with runs per game and batting averages at decades-long lows. There was an epidemic of defensive 2-1 ball games last year -- this at a time when baseball is struggling to remain popular with younger, supposedly attention-span-challenged fans.
But it's not just baseball. The National Hockey League has an offense problem, too. The game's biggest star, Sidney Crosby, has only 20 goals three-quarters of the way through the season. Goals per game have shrunk since the 2005-2006 season. And in the NBA, hot-shot scoring has also declined. In the2007-2008 season, there were 27 players who averaged more than 20 points pergame. Today there are 15.
What in the wide-wide-world of sports is going on here? If you own spreadsheet software, you know that advanced analytics are the biggest change to hit professional sports in the past decade. As Michael Lewis explained in his book "Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game" that popularized the revolution, sports franchises will do almost anything to get a leg up.
Geeks with video cameras track everything now. Baseball has its spray charts. Defensive shifts based on those charts are so effective that some critics have suggested banning them. Hockey has its Corsi and Fenwick, which measure shot attempts during ice time. The National Basketball Association uses PPP, or points per possession now.
But a funny thing is happening on the way to refining these sports -- big data had chosen sides. Moneyball tactics seem to help the defense more than the offense. The tiny tweaks and refinements suggested by nerds are simply better at stopping players than enabling them.
It's a lot harder to find and exploit defensive weakness than offensive weakness. There's a lot more available data on what offenses are trying to accomplish than on what defenses are trying to suppress. To play a little loose with an aphorism, it's a lot easier to criticize than create.
You might have noticed that glaringly omitted from this sports discussion is the National Football League, and you probably know why. Scoringis up in the NFL. And by any measure, it's never been more popular. That's because the NFL has constantly invoked rule changes that favor offensive creativity. No hitting quarterbacks, no clutching and grabbing wide receivers. They are ensured plenty of space to create highlight-reel moments. Who would you rather be -- the NFL or Major League Baseball?