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KRAGTHORPE: These statisticians go far beyond the box score

Published August 7, 2007 2:13 am

These people are using their powers for good, taking the study of statistics so far beyond the realm of box scores that it can be overwhelming at times.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The guys I was hanging out with for three days during the recent Joint Statistical Meetings in Salt Lake City were too busy studying the results of 10 million golf shots, 36,000 segments of NBA games and 9,000 stolen-base attempts to concern themselves with subjects their colleagues were investigating, including "Coalescent-Based Interference of Population Dynamics with Gaussian Markov Random Field Temporal Smoothing" and "Measures of Volatility and Valency for Serially Sampled Nucleotide Sequences."

Thankfully so.

I mean, somebody with a high degree of expertise needs to be answering whether the pitcher or the catcher is more vital when it comes to preventing stolen bases, why Tiger Woods wins so many major golf tournaments and if former Brigham Young quarterback John Beck projects as a productive starter in the NFL.

These people are using their powers for good, taking the study of statistics so far beyond the realm of box scores that it can be overwhelming at times. But it was fascinating stuff. Here, then, are four things I learned from the real statisticians:

* A runner's base-stealing success or failure is the pitcher's responsibility, far more than the catcher's.

Thomas Loughin of Simon Fraser University determined that caught-stealing percentages among catchers vary little, compared with the effectiveness of pitchers. That's also true for keeping baserunners from running at all, based on the pitchers' pickoff moves and reputation for efficient delivery.

Those findings were of no surprise to Salt Lake Bees manager Brian Harper. "If the pitcher's slow to the plate," Harper said, "the catcher's got no chance."

Of course, he's a former big-league catcher.

* Andrei Kirilenko used to be really good.

A study of the 2005-06 NBA season concluded the Jazz forward was an "elite player," in a class with LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Yao Ming.

Vittorio Addona, a professor, and David Lewin, a student, from Macalester College in Minnesota developed a way to grade players based on whether their team gains or loses points when they're on the floor - a plus-minus system, in other words, with this important twist: It matters who else is also on the floor at the time, on each team.

They turned an NBA season into 36,000 "games" in between substitutions, and determined that only a few other players meant to their teams than Kirilenko meant to the Jazz by the "adjusted plus-minus" rating. The study "captures a player's total effect on the team, not only their numbers in a box score."

Lewin has also analyzed the 2006-07 season, but he's sharing those findings only with the Cleveland Cavaliers, now his part-time employer. He will say, in news that will not surprise the Jazz or their fans, that Kirilenko's value dropped substantially.

Kevin O'Connor, the Jazz's vice president of basketball operations, is aware of such data. He acknowledges that teams such as Cleveland, Houston and a few others have taken statistical analysis to "another level," but it is not as if the Jazz are merely using traditional stats.

"We've done all that for a long, long time; we just haven't publicized it," O'Connor said.

* Beck will succeed in the NFL.

As a Division III football player, Lewin lacks credentials. A junior at Macalester, he's a receiver who caught one pass last season. But as a statistician, even an undergraduate in a Ph.D world, he has some cachet.

Before delving into the NBA, he produced a study for footballoutsiders.com, finding that college quarterbacks who started 35-plus games and completed 57-plus percent of their passes and were drafted in the first two rounds over the past 10 years have all become productive starters in the NFL.

Beck (38 starts, .624 accuracy), a second-round pick of the Miami Dolphins, fits those criteria. So does Notre Dame's Brady Quinn, taken by Cleveland. LSU's JaMarcus Russell, drafted No. 1 by Oakland, does not. Neither did Alex Smith, who started only 22 games for Utah, but improved greatly in his second season with San Francisco.

* Tiger wins as often as he should in majors.

Everybody has ideas about why Woods wins big tournaments: his aura, his closing ability, his intimidation of other players, his collection of red shirts for Sunday rounds. He's a winner, right?

No, he's just a better golfer.

Scott Berry, who operates a statistical consulting firm in College Station, Texas, and whose brother is a golf pro, dismisses all those explanations for Tiger's success.

Berry studied every stroke in PGA Tour events for eight years and conducted 10,000 simulations of major tournaments, factoring in stroke averages and course difficulty from every event to rate the players and apply that information to the majors.

"Robo Tiger," in Berry's simulations, won about 12 1/2 of the 43 majors since 1997, Woods' first full pro season. The real Tiger has won 12 majors.

"He wins exactly what his golf ability says," Berry concluded. "Tiger is 'Robo Tiger.' "

Summarizing his study, Berry said, "The culture of sport is to attach reason to randomness."

That's why terms such as confidence, wanting it more and knowing how to win are so often used in individual and team sports. "Most of these are myths," Berry said.

The real explanation? Skill.





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