Friday, February 20, 2015

Fancy Stats: An Average Fan's Perspective

I wanted to tweet how I feel about fancy stats, but it's just too much for 140 characters.

A great divide has come between those who use fancy stats and those who don't.  There has been discussion lately on my timeline between the two sides and it seems that the attitude and "smugness" is what's turning more fans away from learning more.

I understand fancy stats and their usage.  I believe that they are a wonderful tool for coaches and GMs to use, combined with watching players closely for whatever other intangibles that specific player can bring to the game.

I am not a coach. I am not a general manager. I have no desire to be either.  I also have no desire to be hired by an NHL team to work in their analytics department.  Perhaps this separates me from the people who are obsessed with using these statistics to create a story.

For the past few days, I have been trying to figure out why I am so bothered by much of the fancy stat discussion that I see on twitter.  Then I saw one tweet that made me just stare at my timeline for a minute.  I had to process this because it felt almost like a personal attack.  Of course, it was a tweet from someone that I do not communicate with and someone who likely does not even know that I exist.  Regardless, it gave me insight into how the other side feels.  To paraphrase, it said that people who don't want to use fancy stats are comfortable in watching the game without completely understanding it.

I understand the game.  I watch the game and see what happens.  I understand what fancy stats mean and why they are useful.  While I do not necessarily agree that shot attempts for and against are a perfect measurement of possession, I do see the correlation.  I also completely understand that there is a correlation between having the puck and winning the game.

Tweets like that however, are why people feel that there is an aura of superiority within the fancy stat community.  The tweets and blog posts filled with charts and explanations of why that chart is more important than what you saw when you watched the game.  They imply that if you don't care about the stats then you are comfortable being an ignorant fan.

Here is my response.  I am a fan of hockey.  I am a fan of both the New York Rangers and the Chicago Blackhawks.  I watch the game for the intensity of hockey as a sport.  I watch the game to be frustrated when there's a lane open and no one shoots the puck.  I watch the game to laugh at the people who yell "shoot" when every lane is sure to produce a shot block.  I watch games that don't even involve my two favorite teams because I love the sport.  The fancy stats community is telling me that I enjoy the sport wrong because I don't have any interest in analyzing who was on the ice for the most shots for or shots against.

It's no secret that Derek Stepan has been one of my favorite Rangers since he put on his first blueshirt.  This year, fancy stats tell me that he has been one of the worst players on the ice.  Fine, let the stats say that.  Let those who tweet about how important these stats are telling me that he has been awful this year and isn't worth the contract that he is sure to get in the off season.  I will watch him on the ice and enjoy the way his incredible vision and intelligence are on display.  I will look at the stupid, boring statistics like how many points he has and how drastically different the team's record is with and without him in the lineup.

I don't think Tanner Glass is a very good hockey player and I don't need numbers to tell me that.  However, Alain Vingeault has won 500 hockey games as a head coach in the greatest league in the world.  While he has not won a Stanley Cup, he has brought two different teams to the Final.  He has won President's Trophies.  I have to believe he knows what he's doing.  But what do I know? I don't want his job.

Here's one last thing that I learned in law school that seems relevant: there is always going to be a statistic available to support the story that you want to tell.