The Advancement of Advanced Stats

The Problem is the Presentation of These Innovative Metrics —

I have something I need to admit.  I grew up a stats geek.

I did.  I spent a good portion of my youth growing up with my head buried in the Winnipeg Free Press gobbling up the latest statistics for whatever sports were in season at the time.  The highlight was always the full raft of NHL stats that were printed every Tuesday – every stat you’d ever want (or so I thought) for every NHL player on every NHL team.  There was a time I likely could have rattled every Winnipeg Jet’s stats off by memory.

As I grew older, my stats geekeness devolved at the same time as my general geekiness grew.  Other things in life started to take way more priority – girls, education, girls, work, girls … you know how it goes.  Statistics for me became more of a general curiosity, an occasional reference and something to give a quick glance before a fantasy draft.  And then the NHL disappeared from Winnipeg.  My passion for the NHL flamed out and my burgeoning sports-writing career suddenly took a sharp left turn into advertising in Alberta

But now, after three seasons of NHL hockey back where it should be in my hometown, the passion has returned.  I have learned over these recent years that my go-to stats from three decades ago are being enhanced, ignored, and in some cases thrown out the window.  Goals, assists, PIMs and +/- are being put on the back burner in favor of Corsi, Fenwick, QoC and 5v5close.  I will readily admit.  I have not gotten deep into these new analytics nor do I plan to.

advanced stats

I’m not rejecting them nor suggesting they don’t have value.  While no stat is perfect, these new measures are clearly useful when properly utilized by folks knowledgeable in such topics.  My functional understanding in how these numbers work is growing but I have no intention to return to my stats geek roots.  I will not become an advanced stat geek and that is by personal choice.

I had been debating writing this for a while but after the Toronto Sun’s Steve Simmons penned a piece, “Why hockey’s trendy advanced stats are a numbers game”, I watched the predictable vitriol from the advanced stats crew and figured I’d chime in.  I expect a similar reaction but on a tiny scale (since his thousands of readers compared to my dozens…maybe).

My problem isn’t with the statistics or their value or whether they deserve credence or not.  They do. There is enough evidence out there over a long enough period of time Corsi has been gaining steam since about the middle of the last decade and has even been tinkered with and improved upon.  The issues I have had with advanced stats are its devotees.

I’m still not sure which is more prevalent in many of the advstat guys I’ve had interactions with or had the opportunity to observe.  They seem to exist somewhere between a desperate need for validation to a pompous arrogance that if you don’t see things as they do you’re a babbling idiot and a lesser human being.  In extreme cases, I’d compare them to those militant evangelical atheists who are just waiting for someone with any kind of belief in a higher power to jump on and ridicule and try to beat into submission with their superior knowledge and facts.

Many of these advstatters, quite frankly, act like their poop don’t stink and anyone who dares disagree they either ridicule or offer a dismissive virtual shrug.  They often offer the same types of indignation towards players who don’t measure up according to the metrics they worship.  The pompous dismissiveness gets old – fast.

And they are apparently never wrong.  As Simmons rightly points out when they are, it is blamed on sample size, or random events, etc.  Even this season when I tweeted about the Colorado Avalanche slipping in the standings, I was informed by one of these guys that it was predictable because of Colorado’s horrible advanced stats.  Didn’t hear much more from the guy the rest of the season as even with their horrible advanced stats.  The Avalanche finished second in the very tough Western Conference with some of the worst advanced stats in the NHL.

The reality is advanced stats are still a fairly recent development in hockey and they continue to grow in acceptance and popularity among hockey fans.  But, they are unlikely to ever become the be-all, end-all of hockey analysis, especially amongst the average fan.  Frankly, getting deep into stats takes a lot of effort that many sports fans just don’t have the time, energy or interest to invest.  Look at baseball.  Advanced stats have been around for decades and decades, and continue to evolve today.  But for the vast majority of baseball fans, the tried and true stats that have been counted on for over a century remain the prime go to.

Advanced stats are here to stay.  For those who choose to invest time and energy into a firmer grasp on how they work, more power to you.  To those who choose to ignore them completely, do so at your own peril.  There is value there even for the casual observer so a basic understanding is worth the time.  But to those who seem desperate for validation, relax and ease off the evangelizing.  Not everyone shares, nor needs to share your obsession to be a knowledgeable hockey fan.

Hockey is too beautiful, too complex, too hostile and too fast for any stat – advanced or otherwise to define it.  As hockey fans, we should all be thankful for that.  Even Steve Simmons, who according to the advanced stats crew is a raving idiot, can understand how special hockey is without anything advanced to help him.

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