New studies change how you see sports

These research papers will make you see sports in a whole new dimension. Brian Rea for ESPN

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's March 4 Analytics issue. Subscribe today!

Who says the game isn’t played on paper? At the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference taking place March 1-2, eight studies are vying for research paper of the year, presented by SAP and 42 Analytics. One paper also will win the fans’ choice award, presented by The Mag. Naturally, that’s where you come in -- you can read each finalist at espn.com/ssac, then vote for your favorite. To activate your neurons, we offer teasers for each study here. Game on.

The Hidden Foundation of Field Vision in English Premier League Soccer Players

By Geir Jordet, Jonathan Bloomfield and Johan Heijmerik

The big idea: In soccer, with 22 players trying to put one ball into two nets on a 7,000-plus-square-yard field, accurate passing is everything. This study looks at the relationship between “visual exploratory behaviors” -- movements 
to more clearly see your surroundings -- and performance. The result? Players who scan the field before receiving the ball tend to be more effective passers.

And we quote: “The maximum effect [from exploratory behavior] can be gained for midfielders when they attempt to hit creative forward passes.”

The Dwight Effect: A New Ensemble of Interior Defense Analytics for the NBA
By Kirk Goldsberry and Eric Weiss

The big idea: Serge Ibaka blocked 6.46 shots per 48 minutes last season. Incredible, but what about those defenders whose mere presence deters shots from being put up in the first place? That’s the Dwight Effect, and this paper introduces new spatial analytics to assess interior D. Best defender from within five feet of the basket? Not Mr. Howard or Ibaka. It’s Pacers center Roy Hibbert.

And we quote: “The presence of a truly dominant interior force can augment the spatial behavior of the offense in the same way that a dominant cornerback changes the behavior of a quarterback.”

The Value of Flexibility in Baseball Roster Construction
By Timothy Chan and Douglas Fearing

The big idea: How much of an advantage is it to roster a player who can handle multiple positions? According to this study, it depends on how a team’s roster is constructed and on the likelihood of that team enduring injuries. Don’t look now, but scrappy, first-base-sliding Nick Punto -- yes, Nick Punto -- might provide the most defensive value in the game.

And we quote: “The Athletics roster is the most robust [to injuries]. This is in part based on the balance of the lineup. If Yoenis Cespedes is injured, the players pushed into the lineup as a result ... would be able to cover almost two-thirds of the resulting loss.”

Going For Three: Predicting the Likelihood of Field Goal Success With Logistic Regression

By Torin Clark, Aaron Johnson and Alexander Stimpson

The big idea: Does icing the kicker work? Not so much, according to this study that looks at which factors -- regular season vs. postseason, home vs. away, altitude, field type, temperature and precipitation, among others -- are most significant in predicting a made field goal.

And we quote: “Icing the kicker actually has the opposite effect from what is desired: Kickers who were iced have a higher make percentage than those who were not.”

Acceleration in the NBA: Toward Algorithmic Taxonomy of Basketball Plays

By Philip Maymin

The big idea: This paper identifies the players and 
teams that most use bursts of speed -- i.e., acceleration. According to the analysis, which employs Stats’ SportVU’s high-speed photography, using real-time acceleration stats can more tangibly measure game-play execution. Pace is so passé.

And we quote: “The Rockets and the Spurs spent the least time accelerating, the Knicks and the Nets the most ... Centers have more bursts than guards, partially because they are more likely to set picks.”

Live by Three, Die by Three? The Price of Risk in the NBA

By Matthew Goldman and Justin Rao

The big idea: Game theory suggests that trailing teams should assume more risk by shooting more threes, while a leading team should do the opposite. In practice, according to this study, this is in fact what most teams do -- yet defenses are often slow to adjust.

And we quote: “This finding 
can help explain why teams tend to stage more comebacks than they ‘should.’”

Total Hockey Rating (THoR): A Comprehensive Statistical Rating of National Hockey League Forwards and Defensemen Based Upon All On-Ice Events

By Michael Schuckers and James Curro

The big idea: Baseball has WAR, basketball has PER and hockey has nothing of the sort. Until now. This analysis introduces an individual-performance, wins-added metric that accounts for faceoffs, hits, giveaways, takeaways, blocked shots, missed shots, shots on goal, goals and penalties while considering other players on the ice and where a shift begins.

And we quote: “Based upon our analysis, the top players are worth over five wins per season for their respective teams.”

To Crash or Not to Crash: A Quantatative Look at the Relationship Between Offensive Rebounding and Transition Defense in the NBA

By Jenna Wiens, Guha Balakrishnan and Joel Brooks

The big idea: In the time between when a shot is released and when it hits the iron, offensive nonshooters can pursue the rebound, get back on defense or maintain position. This paper quantifies the impact of those choices and concludes that crashing the glass beats backpedaling on D.

And we quote: “Moving toward the basket immediately following a missed shot can increase a team’s probability of getting the offensive rebound, but still, even the best offensive rebounding percentage is much less than 50 percent.”