Which teams are working the angles best? Which have embraced data the most? In the four major pro leagues, we ranked the 10 teams leading the way in putting analytics to good use.
NUMBER OF LOTTERY PICKS AGE 21 AND UNDER AT START OF 2015-16
When Philly hired Sam Hinkie in May 2013, the team became a test case for the GM's plan: dump overvalued mediocrity, lose (a lot) with cheap role players and load up on picks. With five staffers devoted to picking apart the CBA, mining player health and minting theories on roster construction, Hinkie has topped his former boss, Rockets GM Daryl Morey, as the NBA's most ardent analytic master. "He has a vision," says Sixers forward Robert Covington. "We're going to turn this around."
NUMBER OF LOTTERY PICKS AGE 21 AND UNDER AT START OF 2015-16
UPWARD TREND OF TEAMS WITH MOST DEFENSIVE SHIFTS ON BALLS IN PLAY LAST SEASON
While not as drastic as the Sixers' scorched-earth model, Houston has made metrics the foundation of its revival. Before 2012, owner Jim Crane hired GM Jeff Luhnow and director of decision sciences Sig Mejdal, formerly of NASA, and the duo now lead a nine-man sabermetrics staff that includes a medical risk manager and a mathematical modeler. How impactful have they been? Their unwavering devotion to gaining an edge with defensive shifts has commish Rob Manfred considering a leaguewide ban.
UPWARD TREND OF TEAMS WITH MOST DEFENSIVE SHIFTS ON BALLS IN PLAY LAST SEASON
LOWEST PERCENTAGE OF MIDRANGE SHOTS TAKEN SINCE 2013-14
In 2006, owner Leslie Alexander tapped Daryl Morey, a littleknown SVP of operations and information for the Celtics, as GM to relaunch the Rockets, who employed multiple analysts before most teams had even one. Now "Moreyball" -- an up-tempo system that eschews midrange shots in favor of fast breaks and 3s -- is the NBA standard. The Sixers may be on the come, but "the Rockets continue to increase investment in analytics," Morey says, "and we try to stay ahead of the competition."
LOWEST PERCENTAGE OF MIDRANGE SHOTS TAKEN, PAST THREE SEASONS COMBINED
AVERAGE ROSTER COST PER WIN OF TEAMS WITH BETTER THAN .500 RECORD SINCE 2008
With all due respect to Mr. Beane, the Rays were the first MLB team to go all-in on analytics and reach the promised land. Since 2008, when it appeared in the World Series, Tampa Bay has been No. 1 in defensive efficiency and has produced six winning seasons. And it's all thanks to a staff of eight R&D specialists who find numerical advantages not only in every defensive shift but in every roster move -- just four Rays have made $10 million or more in a single season since 2008.
AVERAGE ROSTER COST PER WIN OF TEAMS WITH BETTER THAN .500 RECORD SINCE 2008
MOST PITCHES SEEN PER GAME SINCE 2003
After 84 years without a Series win, the Sox were salvaged in '02 by John Henry, an owner whose fortune grew from data-driven investments. Henry whiffed on hiring Billy Beane but landed like-minded sabermetricians Bill James and Tom Tippett and made wunderkind Theo Epstein GM. Using Moneyball means, the Sox have since won three crowns, spending smartly on overlooked stars, valuing OBP and slugging over batting average, and abusing opponents' rotations by milking at-bats and raising pitch counts.
MOST PITCHES SEEN PER GAME SINCE 2003
BALLS IN PLAY AT THIRD BASE CONVERTED TO OUTS WITH AND WITHOUT CHASE HEADLEY
Sure, the Yanks' 22 straight winning seasons owe, in part, to deep pockets. But don't overlook a stable front office -- GM Brian Cashman since 1998, manager Joe Girardi since 2008 and director of quantitative analysis Michael Fishman since 2005 -- and a reliance on metrics. Girardi consults with Fishman on tendencies before each series, and Cashman talks constantly with a 15-deep analytics staff, saying he used "hit velos" (ball speed off the bat) to justify last year's deal for third baseman Chase Headley.
BALLS IN PLAY AT THIRD BASE CONVERTED TO OUTS WITH AND WITHOUT CHASE HEADLEY
MINUTES PER GAME AMONG STARTERS SINCE 2013-14
During their run of five titles in 16 years, the Spurs paved the way for several analytical tenets now gospel in the NBA, the foremost being that the corner 3 is the game's most efficient shot. They've taken more and made more than any other team in the past decade. San Antonio was also an original subscriber to SportVU cameras, which track player-location data at a rate of 25 times per second, data that has optimized Gregg Popovich's emphasis on resting aging stars for deep playoff runs.
MINUTES PER GAME AMONG STARTING FIVES, PAST TWO SEASONS
MOST WIN SHARES PER 48 AMONG ACTIVE PLAYERS IN THEIR AGE 35 AND 36 SEASONS
"Analytics have been an important component of who we are since I walked in the door 15 years ago," says owner Mark Cuban, an early adopter of adjusted plus-minus. Roland Beech, VP of basketball strategy and founder of 82games.com, was the NBA's first bench "stats coach" when Dallas won the 2011 title, and Cuban's faith in tech company Catapult, which gauges player workload to keep vets like Dirk Nowitzki healthy, is so strong he invested several million dollars in it just last year.
MOST WIN SHARES PER 48 AMONG ACTIVE PLAYERS IN THEIR AGE 35 AND 36 SEASONS
Moneyball is alive and well in Oakland, but since that seminal book was published in '03, the league has upped its investment in sabermetrics, closing the gap on Billy Beane. Still, even after Oakland's brain drain -- Mets VP Paul DePodesta ("Peter Brand" in the movie) and Dodgers GM Farhan Zaidi -- Beane continues to thrive with buy-in from manager Bob Melvin, whose teams have averaged 93 wins a season since '12 and ranked No. 1 in both walk rate and WHIP and No. 3 in defensive efficiency.
HIGHEST CORSI FOR% SINCE 2009-10
In 2009, GM Stan Bowman became one of the first NHL execs to hire an outside analytics firm -- half a decade before 2014's "Summer of Analytics" hit the ice. Now the Hawks, with two Stanley Cups in that span, are seen as pioneers in Corsi and Fenwick ratings, which value players by possessions, not points. Bowman says next-level metrics have given Chicago a sharp edge on a league that, like the NFL, is slow to adapt: "I use them a lot, but I don't talk about it a lot-it's not about me, it's about how it helps us."
HIGHEST CORSI FOR% SINCE 2009-10
Does your team have a clue what it's doing? Does it value data or just rely on the good ol' eye test? We found the 10 teams in pro sports who do the least with analytics.
The Lakers infamously had the only NBA front office without a rep at the 2013 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, and their old-school approach hasn't progressed much. Exhibit A: signing a 35-year-old coming off an Achilles tear to a two-year, $48.5 million extension. Analytics will always tell you that's a bad idea -- even if he's Kobe Bryant. So far, Bryant has been worth minus-0.2 win shares since last season and is modeling suits courtside with a torn right rotator cuff. To be fair, the Lakers are waking up, if late, to the movement. GM Mitch Kupchak hired four staffers to comb through data from SportVU cameras, which track player locations at a rate of 25 times per second, data that he says has "changed this whole business." Still, coach Byron Scott's open hostility toward the 3 -- the team ranks 25th in 3-point attempt rate -- demonstrates the Lakers' disbelief in implementing metrics on the court.
With Rex Ryan as coach, the Jets remained well behind the analytics curve in a league that is barely keeping up in its own right. Don't get your hopes up for a change with Ryan gone. New GM Mike Maccagnan and new coach Todd Bowles likewise sport old-school credentials and were not hired to spearhead a stats awakening for Gang Green -- Maccagnan brings a scouting background (read: the good ol' eye test) from Houston and Bowles comes from Arizona, two franchises that remain skeptical of analytics.
While the thrifty Marlins might have broken convention by shelling out $325-million for Giancarlo Stanton, they're still reluctant to spend big on sabermetrics. After going through five managers and five losing seasons in five years, they are looking to hire, um, interns to get their analytics program off the ground. Baseball America has called Miami "among the game's more scouting-orientated organizations," which is simply code for a non-sabermetric approach. GM Dan Jennings has a scouting background and new skipper Mike Redmond doesn't have an inclination for metrics, having spent most of his catching tenure with the Marlins and Twins, who are also analtyics skeptics.
Last season, Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt said he was "not really" into analytics. The Titans have no chief data analyst and no advocate among their football leaders. Tennessee flunked NFL Analytics 101 when it gave RB Chris Johnson a contract extension in 2011 with $31 million guaranteed for a position that could have been filled by a bargain. (Johnson didn't top 280 carries over the next three seasons and averaged just 3.9 yards in 2013 before the Jets made a worse mistake by picking him up.) The Titans, coming off a 2-14 season, tell ESPN they "have begun to integrate analytics into player evaluations over the past couple of years."
Last season, the Avalanche were Central champions, however their Corsi for percentage, which indicates productive puck possession, was 25th in the league, indicating their success would not last. This season, the Avs are cellar-dwellers. Colorado has assembled impressive young talent, yet it continues to struggle in possession efficiency metrics. Coach Patrick Roy has reinforced the Avs' reputation as the team most consistently disdainful of the NHL's analytics wave, dropping to 29th in the league in Corsi for percentage, just ahead of the Sabres.
The good news: Brooklyn hired an analytics director. The bad news: GM Billy King couldn't be less interested. He's resisted the integration of metrics and consistently undervalued draft picks in favor of expensive (and old) free-agents Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett -- in fact, the Nets don't own their first-round pick outright until 2019. Coach Lionel Hollins, formerly with the Grizz, protested the influence of the analytics movement when Memphis hired former ESPN Insider John Hollinger. So is Hollins changing his viewpoint in his first-year in Brooklyn? Hollins told the New York Post that "every coach uses stats. Now, do I understand some of the stats that are out there that are new? No. But I can learn them."
When it comes to playing the numbers on fourth down, an area in which advanced stats separate the believers from the pagans, Chargers coach Mike McCoy says, "I'm going to go with my gut decision on those things. No one can tell me on a piece of paper this is the right thing or the wrong thing to do." And that close-mindedness shows: Since 2012, San Diego has ranked second-to-last in the league according to win probability gained on fourth-down, which determines how much a team improves its chances of winning by going for it when the metrics recommend it. GM Tom Telesco emphasizes the importance of "good football decisions," based on instincts and "hard old-school scouting." Upon joining the Chargers in 2013, he indicated an openness to bringing stats to his evaluations. But his background is in scouting, and he cut his teeth in an Indianapolis Colts front office led by Bill Polian, who vocally opposes the use of analytics in football, especially in regard to personnel decisions.
In 2006, the Redskins infamously fired economics Ph.D. Jeff Dominitz just seven weeks after hiring him as a statistical analyst. "We're still about people here," then-coach Joe Gibbs said in shunning Dominitz. The situation has hardly advanced the past five years with Bruce Allen as the general manager, and new GM Scot McCloughan, who is merely "a really good scout," according to one NFL analytics consultant. There is no full-time employee devoted to analytics and no evidence that it is part of the team's approach. For proof, look no further than the six picks the Redskins gave up for Robert Griffin III.
Phil Jackson won 11 rings as a coach in the 1990s and 2000s, but the Zen Master's basketball philosophy is as out of fashion in 2015 as isolations and midrange jumpers, both of which are hallmarks of the triangle offense. Jackson, who privately scoffs at analytics, has tweeted, "3ptrs are not always the key" and set out to prove it in the Big Apple, where the Knicks lead the NBA in attempting midrange shots and the Eastern Conference in losses. The Knicks have deep enough pockets to spend even a marginal amount on metrics, yet, according to sources, ignore analytics altogether, content to watch Carmelo Anthony pound the ball -- and the franchise -- into irrelevance.
The Phillies famously disdain analytics: GM Ruben Amaro bragged in 2010 that his team is "not a statistics-driven organization by any means" and would likely never have "an in-house stats guy." Emblematic of their innumeracy, the Phils then signed Ryan Howard, already under contract for two more years, to a five-year, $125 million extension. Howard's production and Philadelphia's fortunes have suffered in the years since, and his contract now has the team in a bind, with the former MVP at age 35 and no longer a productive player -- projecting to be worth minus-1.8 WAR through 2016. Despite that failure, the Phillies still don't seem to demonstrate any real faith in the analytic approach.
In a Moneyball world, a number of teams remain slow to buy into sabermetrics
By Ben Baumer, Special to ESPN | February 23, 2015
Former algorithmic trader John W. Henry bought the club in 2002 and promoted little-known Theo Epstein, a then-28 year old Yale graduate with a law degree, who became the youngest general manager in baseball. Epstein built a team based on sabermetrics, and two years later the Red Sox had their first World Series championship in 86 years, with two more to follow in the next nine years.
Henry has also hired sabermetrics godfather Bill James as a senior advisor and Tom Tippett as director of baseball information services. Tippett helped create Carmine, the team's proprietary baseball information system. Carmine puts customized data just a few clicks away, allowing the Red Sox to combine various kinds of data and estimate future performance.
Henry and the Sox have shown time and time again that they are playing the long game, willing to make unconventional moves and suffer through short-term failures for a higher expected return.
With Epstein's 2011 departure for the Chicago Cubs, his assistant GM Ben Cherington stepped into his shoes as GM and kept the Sox rolling in the same direction. For the past two seasons, manager John Farrell has followed suit, giving the team a cohesive approach to implementing sabermetrics.
Unlike the A's, whose "Moneyball" strategies were designed to overcome payroll limitations, the Red Sox appear to have an almost unlimited budget for players. That plus their dedication to sabermetric principles makes Boston the leading Big Moneyball team.
Owner Tom Ricketts and team president Theo Epstein have been busy remaking the Cubs into a Midwestern version of the Red Sox. Ricketts hired Epstein away from Boston in 2011, giving him the authority to reshape the Cubs' front office. Based in part on Epstein's implementation of sabermetrics, the Red Sox broke an 86-year World Series title drought in 2004. Cubs fans hope Epstein's magic touch has made the trip to Chicago, as the Cubs haven't won the World Series since 1908.
In Chicago, Epstein partnered with Bloomberg Sports to create a customized baseball info system, grabbed Shiraz Rehman from Arizona to help oversee development of the system and signed Tom Tango, a leading sabermetrician and co-author of "The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball," to an exclusive contract. This offseason, Epstein swiped Joe Maddon, perhaps baseball's most analytically inclined manager, from the Tampa Bay Rays.
Epstein's R&D group, led by Chris Moore, a former algorithmic trader with a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience from Princeton, builds its own models. Moore studied machine learning and shares his knowledge of predictive modeling with his department, which includes a systems architect and three analysts, and they are looking to add another developer and another analyst.
"We have a mandate to answer any analytical question," Moore told ESPN.com about what Ricketts and Epstein expect. So while the Cubs aren't quite as far along as the Astros or Rays yet, they have the buy-in from the top and the talent they need to keep moving in the right direction and quickly.
The Indians earned a reputation for investing heavily in analytics in the years following "Moneyball" under Mark Shapiro's leadership, and they have shown no signs of deviating from that course. Shapiro is now the team president, and his protégé, current GM Chris Antonetti, commands a staff with a diverse and deep set of skills.
The Indians grabbed one of the best in the business when they made Keith Woolner their director of baseball analytics in 2007. Woolner has technical degrees from MIT and Stanford, and his prior experience includes time with both a database company (Oracle) and a statistical software company (SAS) in addition to his work as an influential author at Baseball Prospectus.
Unlike some clubs, wherein statistical analysts give something akin to expert witness testimony, the Indians have integrated analytics into everything they do, so that both technical and non-technical staff members are up to speed on the metrics the team uses.
The Indians have dedicated IT support for their mature baseball information system, which frees their analysts to focus on long-term statistical modeling projects. Assisting Woolner with this work are Sky Andrecheck and Max Marchi, both of whom have graduate degrees in statistics. Marchi literally wrote the book on analyzing baseball data in the increasingly popular programming language called R.
No team has fewer wins than the Astros over the past 10 seasons, but the team's commitment to analytics is second to none. After the 2011 season, GM Jeff Luhnow brought former NASA analyst Sig Mejdal with him from the Cardinals, and they have put together a unique collection of data scientists, with colorful titles to boot: director of decision sciences, medical risk manager and analyst, and mathematical modeler.
Not only did the Astros commit a full-time position to medical analysis but also they brought in PITCHf/x expert Mike Fast (a former engineer) to focus on that data source.
In 2014, their baseball information system - named Ground Control -- received a flattering profile in Sports Illustrated. Shortly thereafter, Luhnow was calling other GMs to apologize after hackers breached Ground Control and leaked months of secret trade discussions, which was picked up by Deadspin.
After 2014 top pick Brady Aiken's physical revealed abnormalities, they lowered their offer and failed to sign him, earning criticism for negotiating ruthlessly and being, well, calculating. But a player who saw a benefit from their analysis is pitcher Colin McHugh. After being waived by the Rockies in the 2013 postseason, McHugh adapted what pitches he threw based on the Astros' data-driven insights. Mere months later, McHugh became a starter for the Astros, and he posted a 2.73 ERA last season.
All signs point to the Astros being the mystery team that purchased a Cray supercomputer last spring, allowing for fast computation of large amounts of data, and they are learning how to translate their analytical prowess into realized gains on the field. Their use of defensive shifts evolved through back-and-forth between the field and front office staff, culminating in the Astros deploying the shift more often than any other team in baseball last season. Without a doubt, the Astros are all-in.
The Yankees were known for tumult during much of the George Steinbrenner era but have had a remarkably stable front office in recent years, with GM Brian Cashman serving since 1998, analytics director turned assistant GM Michael Fishman since 2005 and manager Joe Girardi since 2008.
Cashman has boasted of having 14 analytics staffers in addition to Fishman, who consults with Girardi before each series. Cashman's public comments -- such as his invocation of Chase Headley's muzzle velocities -- reveal the integration of analytical information into his decision making.
The current staff includes Scott Benecke, who holds a Ph.D. in applied statistics, three other research analysts, four developers and several interns. The Yankees' nearly unlimited ability to spend on players extends to the front office as well.
Whether the Yankees use sabermetrics consistently enough has been questioned, in part because of some huge contracts providing minimal return between the lines. It's a fair critique when a team that spends like the Yankees misses the playoffs in consecutive seasons. At the same time, the Bombers are playing a bit of a different game, chasing both star talent at high marginal cost and World Series titles, and have posted 22 consecutive winning seasons and counting while doing so.
As they move into the future, the Yankees appear poised, with their large, deep staff, to adapt quickly as new tracking data comes to the fore.
Thanks to "Moneyball" (the book and movie), the world knows the A's and their longtime GM, Billy Beane, have made a strong top-down commitment to analytics. And since 2011, Beane has had the perfect manager in Bob Melvin, a UC-Berkeley grad whose intelligence and strong grasp of Beane's analytical approach have put sabermetrics into action on the field.
One issue for Oakland over the years has been a brain drain -- including the recent loss of Farhan Zaidi to the Dodgers -- leaving them with a somewhat less advanced staff than teams like the Royals, Yankees, Astros and Cubs.
But with Dan Kantrovitz returning after a stint with the Cardinals and having obtained a graduate degree in statistics from Harvard, as well as the recent hiring of Andrew Thomas, a stats professor at the University of Florida, Beane has begun to close that gap. Thomas, who is serving as a consultant, is described by long-time Padres analytics director Chris Long as being "at the very top tier among analysts."
As one NL executive told ESPN.com, "The A's keep evolving and coming up with innovative ways to build their roster on a modest budget, most recently with creative platoons, among other things, so I wouldn't doubt their ability to continue to do so moving forward."
After posting their 15th straight losing season in 2007, the Pirates hired Indians exec Neal Huntington as GM. While the team didn't win right away, Huntington did change the way the Pirates did business, and 2013 and 2014 were the Bucs' two best seasons since Barry Bonds prowled left field.
Huntington vowed to bring sabermetric evaluation to the Pirates, and more specifically to integrate "objective and subjective analysis." He brought in software architect and former Baseball Prospectus writer Dan Fox to oversee the team's analytics department. Fox leads a team of three baseball operations staffers with strong backgrounds in computer science and statistics, and he gets additional support from two dedicated IT people and two interns.
The staff includes Mike Fitzgerald, a former Celtics intern and MIT football player with a rare combination of skills: He can write code and be comfortably embedded in the clubhouse, as a Grantland feature detailed. Having a member of the analytics group with the team has improved communication, and other organizations have followed suit.
"The way that we are integrated is a strength," Fox told ESPN.com. As Fox and his staff continue development of the Pirates' baseball information system, he says he believes the team has the resources to adapt to the next set of challenges that player tracking data will bring.
Most important, analytics have a voice in Huntington's decision making. "One of the best things about Neal is his inclusiveness," Fox adds, "he is always willing to share his thought process and listen to ideas."
Shortly after "Moneyball" was published in 2003, the Cardinals became early adopters of analytics, with new executive Jeff Luhnow assembling a team of consultants. Initial success was mixed -- manager Tony La Russa reportedly did not appreciate some of the analysts' suggestions -- but the sabermetic efforts solidified when NASA engineer Sig Mejdal was hired in 2005.
Mejdal and Dan Kantrovitz helped the Cardinals restock their big league club through the draft, and the team has a slew of playoff appearances and the 2011 World Series championship trophy to show for it. But Luhnow and Mejdal left for Houston in 2012, and Kantrovitz is now in Oakland.
GM John Mozeliak and assistant GM Mike Girsch have replenished their analytics department with Chris Correa, who left a Ph.D. program in psychology at Michigan to join the Cardinals full time in 2009. Correa works with analysts Dane Sorensen and Matt Bayer and a developer to further the Cards' sabermetric efforts.
The Cardinals were cited often by our sources as being especially adept at blending data and traditional sources of baseball info. One industry insider told ESPN.com, "Everyone in the Cardinals' organization is analytical," and another marveled at their proactive use of analytics in player development.
The Rays' success with analytics is well-documented, with the most prominent example being Jonah Keri's book "The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First."
Our sabermetric intensity metric, which summarizes how well teams use analytics, shows exactly how the Rays did it on the field. During the five-year period from 2003 to 2007, Tampa Bay ranked second-to-last in sabermetric intensity. By 2008 the analytics approach championed by the Stuart Sternberg-Matt Silverman-Andrew Friedman owner-president-GM troika started paying dividends.
The Rays went from a historically poor defensive efficiency rating in 2007 to the league's best in 2008. The dramatic improvement propelled the Rays -- whose offense actually scored eight fewer runs than the previous season -- all the way to the World Series. In the five-year period ending in 2012, the Rays had baseball's highest sabermetric intensity rating.
Chaim Bloom is the first former Baseball Prospectus writer to become vice president at a major league club. James Click -- who like Bloom graduated from Yale and came to the Rays from BP -- oversees a staff of no less than eight full-time staffers in the baseball research and development department. Click's group develops the Rays' baseball information system and keeps up with cutting-edge research.
This offseason saw Friedman and manager Joe Maddon leave for the Dodgers and Cubs, respectively, but with the Rays' first-class infrastructure remaining intact and a continued top-down commitment to analytics, they should stay near the front of the sabermetric pack.
Baltimore has a long history with respect to analytics. In 1964, Johns Hopkins engineering professor Earnshaw Cook published the innovative book "Percentage Baseball." In subsequent years, Orioles manager Earl Weaver and front office executive Eddie Epstein were also pioneers in the use of analytics.
That tradition lives on with GM Dan Duquette (for the time being), manager Buck Showalter and pitching coordinator Rick Peterson, all of whom are respected for their analytical thinking.
Behind the scenes, Duquette is advised on player moves by consultant Stephen J.K. Walters, a sports economist at nearby Loyola University Maryland. A longtime confidante of Duquette, Walters has written several papers on baseball, including an analysis of the rate of return on draft picks. Clearly, Duquette believes that Walters' proprietary sabermetric methods give him a leg up on other GMs.
In the office, Sarah Gelles -- like Duquette a part of the strong Amherst College pipeline -- oversees the O's analytics department, which reaches into both pro scouting and video advance scouting. Gelles built the Orioles' database from scratch, and the team has added Kevin Tenenbaum -- a math-econ major who wrote research papers with Dave Allen at Middlebury College -- and Pat DiGregory in the past year.
While the Orioles have the analytics talent and mindset to qualify as believers, they need a more coherent, holistic approach and a stronger investment to compete with division rivals Tampa Bay, Boston and New York.
When Dayton Moore left Atlanta to become K.C.'s GM in 2006, it seemed he would bring a Braves-like emphasis on scouting and player development to the small-market Royals. As the losing continued, the daggers came out. Not helping was manager Ned Yost, whose managerial style flies in the face of analytical orthodoxy and inspires some of the Internet's finest vitriol.
A funny thing happened on the way to the dustbin of history -- Moore quietly assembled one of the most talented analytics departments in baseball, and the Royals nearly won the World Series in 2014.
Moore's men might be the best-educated young crew in baseball: Mike Groopman (Columbia grad), John Williams (Yale, MIT) and Daniel Mack (Notre Dame, Columbia, Vanderbilt) jointly share the title of director of baseball analytics. Analyst Guy Stevens co-authored a paper on player forecasting that appeared in the "Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports" while he was still pitching for Pomona.
The machine learning techniques used in Stevens' paper are beyond what most club analysts are familiar with. But not Mack, as his Ph.D. work focused on machine learning. Mack gives the Royals' outfit rigor that most other teams simply don't have, and together they have carved out space to work on weighty long-term projects. In this fast-paced, competitive industry, that kind of commitment by an organization takes foresight.
Owner David Glass has been the chairman of MLB Advanced Media -- the rapidly growing cash cow that has given us PITCHf/x, among other things -- and a willing investor in analytics within his front office. The Royals have shown marked improvement on the field, becoming leaders in formerly tough-to-quantify areas. Over the past two years, they've led all of baseball in both runs gained via baserunning and defensive runs saved, according to FanGraphs, and they've been among the most frequent deployers of defensive shifts.
Skepticism about Moore and Yost might persist, but meanwhile the Royals are moving toward the head of the class.
At the moment, the Dodgers are the most difficult team to assess. They paid a record $35 million for new president Andrew Friedman, snatching him from the Tampa Bay Rays. The Dodgers also lured Farhan Zaidi from the A's to be general manager. Their new president-GM combo -- with Friedman a former Bear Stearns analyst and Zaidi a Berkeley economics Ph.D. -- has the talent to make the Dodgers the analytics leaders in baseball.
But under the current five-headed ownership group and CEO Stan Kasten, the Dodgers have not been a strong analytics organization. Over the past few years, the Dodgers were nearly a bottom-tier team despite canyon-deep pockets. And Dodgers fans have seen this play out badly before, when a previous ownership regime hired "Moneyball" legend Paul DePodesta as GM, then fired him after two seasons. Friedman and Zaidi have started hiring, but the group of analysts they've inherited is nowhere near the cutting edge.
That said, this rating reflects our expectations that the Dodgers' expensive new front office hires send the signal that the Dodgers are now believers and are ready to continue investing, with the potential to move up into the upper echelon quickly.
Few executives are more universally respected than Sandy Alderson, both in the analytics world and in baseball at large. Originally a lawyer, he introduced sabermetrics to the Oakland front office in the 1980s, mentored Billy Beane in the '90s and later served as an executive in the league office. Now he runs the Mets.
With no scouting background, Alderson's greatest strength as a GM is his objectivity, and with him at the helm, analytical information is as likely to be put into practice in Flushing as it is anywhere in the game. Alderson's first two moves as Mets GM were to bring in former A's executives Paul DePodesta and J.P. Ricciardi. Both have been hyped as analysts because of "Moneyball," but they're underrated as scouts.
With DePodesta overseeing amateur scouting, and analytically minded executives Adam Fisher and Ian Levin directing baseball operations and player development, respectively, the Mets have a tightly integrated group that shares ideas freely -- both within the front office and with the field staff. Manning the keyboards of a mature baseball information system are T.J. Barra and developer Joe Lefkowitz.
One significant limitation: Though the Mets are a big-market club, they have a mid-market payroll and just haven't made the investment in highly trained personnel that teams like the Royals and Cubs have made in recent years.
(Disclosure: I worked as a statistical analyst for the Mets from 2004 to 2012.)
With respect to analytics, the Padres have been the class of the NL West for 10 years. Chris Long, a data scientist with an advanced degree in math, started building San Diego's baseball information system in 2004.
The Padres' upper management has been largely receptive to analytics over the years. For four years, Sandy Alderson, Billy Beane's baseball godfather, served as CEO, and "Moneyball" hero Paul DePodesta had significant input in the front office even while GM Kevin Towers was analytically tolerant at best. All three men left in 2009, with three-year terms following from Jed Hoyer and Josh Byrnes, both of whom had been integral members of Theo Epstein's Red Sox front office.
New GM and Cornell graduate A.J. Preller is a wild card who has made a big splash with a number of transactions in his first offseason with the club. Preller has a scouting background and is coming from the Rangers, whose relationship with analytics is murky. But the early indications are that Preller will be willing to listen to what the numbers say.
Long credits assistant GM Josh Stein for buying into analytics, particularly on the concept of catcher framing, one of the newer sabermetric discoveries. Long told ESPN.com that "the value and trust that Stein placed on analytics led directly to the signing of Rene Rivera, whose minor league framing numbers were outstanding."
Rivera was in turn a piece of the trade that landed Wil Myers in San Diego -- one of many bold moves this offseason aimed at turning around an offense that was historically unproductive in 2014.
In the epilogue to "Moneyball," the Blue Jays were anointed as the direct descendants of Billy Beane's A's, having hired Beane protege J.P. Ricciardi as their GM and Keith Law, an alum of both Harvard and Baseball Prospectus, as a special adviser. Four years later, Ricciardi was the keynote speaker at the inaugural MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.
But Ricciardi -- who is revered for his scouting acumen -- never embraced sabermetrics to the extent that Beane did. He and Law (now an analyst for ESPN.com's Insider) had a falling out around the time of Law's departure in 2006, and the Jays fired Ricciardi in 2009.
These days the team's analytical operation is run by Joe Sheehan, who also has experience in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization.
Last year, the Jays lost assistant GM Jay Sartori -- who had overseen Sheehan's development of the Jays' baseball information system -- to Apple, but solidified their development team by plucking Jason Pare from the Indians. While the Sheehan-Pare pair make a formidable combo and current GM Alex Anthopoulos has indicated interest in expanding even further, the promise of a mid-market, Canadian version of the "Moneyball" A's has never been fully realized.
Nationals GM Mike Rizzo is a former scout who respects analytics and listens to input from his staff. When it comes to what the numbers have to say, assistant GM Adam Cromie and director of baseball R&D Sam Mondry-Cohen make sure of that.
Cromie came through the UMass sports management pipeline, holds a law degree from Georgetown and has worked as a video scout at Baseball Info Solutions. Hired by the Nats in 2006, he taught himself how to code and began building databases.
Mondry-Cohen came from Penn, where he studied with the creators of S.A.F.E., arguably the most advanced defensive metric in the public domain. We know these lessons sunk in because the Nationals maintain their own defensive metrics and WAR. Mondry-Cohen's group, which includes two more analysts, scours the public domain for ideas and builds its own predictive models.
As the Nats have begun showing love to analytics, the numbers are loving them back. The Nationals led the NL in wins last season, and going into the 2015 season, Washington has the best odds to win the World Series, at 5-1.
ONE FOOT IN
One team that seems to revel in its reputation as stat-agnostic is the Chicago White Sox. That stems in part from the style of Sox executive VP Kenny Williams, who served as general manager from 2000 to 2012 and has expressed his preference for old-school ways over sabermetrics. On the other hand, Rick Hahn, promoted to GM in 2012, takes a friendlier view of analytics.
The man at the center of the White Sox's analytics operation is Dan Fabian, who describes himself as a "stathead" and is well-respected within the industry (but just pretty good at baseball trivia). He has overseen the development of the White Sox Scouting Portal and has recently brought on Dan Strittmatter, a former math major at Notre Dame, to coordinate baseball information.
But in contrast to the Cubs across town, led by Theo Epstein and new manager Joe Maddon, the White Sox are stuck in neutral, with no signs they're doing anything innovative.
Enthusiasm abounds for Angels GM Jerry Dipoto among our sources. Former Reds GM Jim Bowden, now an ESPN analyst, said: "I see Jerry Dipoto in the line of [Cardinals GM] John Mozeliak and [Cubs president] Theo Epstein in terms of really getting the proper balance of scouting and analytics. I think he is going to grow into one of the top GMs in the game because he gets the full picture."
Unfortunately, the Angels had no significant analytical infrastructure in place when Dipoto took the job three years ago. Justin Hollander, now director of baseball operations, was there, but other key contributors have joined the front office only recently. Hollander oversees a group of four analysts including Jonathan Strangio, formerly with the Mets. Dipoto calls Strangio, who played ball at Harvard, "one of the smartest people I've ever worked with." (No rebuttals here about my former colleague with the Mets.)
As coordinator of advance scouting, Jeremy Zoll furthers the MLB trend toward relying on advance scouts who integrate video and statistical information and communicate directly with the field staff.
While the Angels need time to deepen their application of analytics, they are off to a strong start with their current staff and the data support they get from a partnership with Bloomberg Sports.
The real concerns now are in the owner's suite and the manager's office. Both owner Arte Moreno and longtime manager Mike Scioscia are traditionalists, and that limits how well the Angels integrate analytics, making them a classic "one foot in" team.
Despite GM Doug Melvin's background in scouting and old-school reputation, the Brewers are definitely not in the dark on analytics. Melvin calls himself "a big believer in ballpark effects," challenges his analytics staffers to bring him useful information, and cites their work when they've helped him make a move.
The evidence shows up between the lines, too. The Brewers have been aggressive adopters of defensive shifts, and they signed catcher Jonathan Lucroy and outfielder Carlos Gomez to team-friendly long-term deals before each had a breakout year.
Lucroy, in particular, is an interesting case, as he has proved to be a master at pitch framing. According to breakthrough research at Baseball Prospectus, the effects of this skill are much larger than previously believed, and the Brewers were early to realize Lucroy's value -- which some estimates place at nearly the same level as Mike Trout's.
All of this does not mean the Brewers live on the cutting edge. Melvin and manager Ron Roenicke could hardly be described as true believers. While the Brewers have a relatively large analytics staff, including two analysts and three programmers, the overall approach in Milwaukee appears to be less sophisticated than that of the top sabermetric teams.
GM Brian Sabean and manager Bruce Bochy have reputations for being old-school baseball types, but it's not accurate to call them anti-"Moneyball."
San Francisco has a small, stable front office that doesn't talk much about analytics; that's to avoid taking credit from the players, CEO Larry Baer told the New York Times. But Sabean and others insist the Giants have always incorporated statistical information and resultant strategies.
For instance, Bochy utilized the stolen base and sacrifice bunt less than any other NL manager in 2014, saying, "I believe in going for the bigger inning." And one of the pivotal plays in Game 7 of the last World Series went the Giants' way specifically because of their use of defensive analytics.
Being so close to Silicon Valley, the Giants have built-in advantages that have helped -- they have happily served as a guinea pig for Sportvision, whose technology center is in Mountain View, California, and therefore had access to PITCHf/x and FIELDf/x data before any other team.
OK, the Giants aren't exactly the baseball embodiment of Google, but with three World Series titles in five years, who cares?
When GM Jack Zduriencik and special assistant Tony Blengino blew into Seattle after the 2008 season, there were great expectations surrounding the team and their use of analytics.
With Blengino supplying "Trader Jack" with sabermetrics, the Mariners traded for Franklin Gutierrez, who gobbled up fly balls in record numbers, and the team posted a winning record despite being outscored (hint: foreshadowing).
But the Mariners dived in the standings, suffering through four straight losing seasons, and in 2013, things got ugly. Blengino and manager Eric Wedge were dismissed, and a Seattle Times article portrayed a front office in disarray.
Some of the most memorable statements about Zduriencik came from Blengino (who is now an MLB analyst for ESPN): "Jack never has understood one iota about statistical analysis. To this day, he evaluates hitters by homers, RBI and batting average and pitchers by wins and ERA. Statistical analysis was foreign to him. But he knew he needed it to get in the door."
Now baseball operations analyst Wesley Battle and quantitative analyst Jesse Smith are running the numbers, and Zduriencik is supportive of their work. But among the analytics community, Zduriencik's reputation remains tarnished.
When a 28-year-old Jon Daniels became the GM of the Rangers in 2005, he joined with Thad Levine and A.J. Preller to form an exceptionally young front office. Daniels and Preller were fraternity brothers at Cornell, and Levine played baseball at Haverford.
But being young and being sophisticated with stats are not the same thing. Contrary to some of the hype suggesting the Rangers were an analytics-oriented team, Daniels himself has refuted that the Rangers are heavily into sabermetrics. This offseason, he said the Rangers are in the bottom third of baseball in resources dedicated to analytics.
That said, the team is making strides. One big step was replacing manager Ron Washington -- who was much admired but very traditional -- with Jeff Banister, who comes fully invested in the analytical approach to advance scouting he embraced while with the Pirates. And Todd Slavinsky has stepped in as analytics director after developing the Rangers' baseball information system for three years.
The Rangers have the beginnings of a stable infrastructure, but they need to expand further -- especially toward statistical modeling -- in order to keep up with their division rivals.
In 2014, Tony La Russa became the Diamondbacks' chief baseball officer. When he brought Dave Stewart aboard as GM in November, La Russa was asked about analytics, and replied, "We'll use it. It stops before the first pitch is thrown. ... It's not that we devalue it. We value it when it's used appropriately. We do not value its intrusion into the game."
Stewart followed suit, admitting he didn't know much about analytics and adding, "We're not going to be an organization that's going to [run on] 70 percent metrics. That's not going to happen."
These statements and others seemed to put Arizona in the "nonbelievers" camp, and that might prove to be an accurate description. But taking La Russa at face value, there are clues that he and the Diamondbacks won't entirely ignore analytics.
La Russa hired a longtime friend, Ed Lewis, as analytics director for Arizona. The retired veterinarian hardly fits the stereotype of the analytics wizard, but he has played a role over the decades, as far back as 1979, in deepening La Russa's appreciation of sabermetrics.
While La Russa subsequently earned a reputation as a critical, creative thinker, and is already in the Hall of Fame for his managerial success, his vision of baseball doesn't appear to have a place for a robust, analytically minded front office. That makes him a skeptic in our book.
In 2005, Georgia sportswriter Bill Shanks proffered "Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way to Build a Winning Team" as a rejoinder to "Moneyball." As Nate Silver wrote, Shanks' book lacked real insight, but it did highlight the traditional methods on which the Braves had built their long-running success.
Likewise, the fictional 2012 film "Trouble with the Curve" used the Braves' front office as the setting for an old-time scout played by Clint Eastwood to show the number-crunchers how it's done.
Skip ahead to fall 2014, when the Braves fired general manager Frank Wren and replaced him with a two-headed monster of John Hart as president and John Coppolella, Hart's successor in waiting, as assistant GM. Coppolella has earned praise from people on both sides of the scouting vs. stats aisle and is seen as a star for his ability to seamlessly blend both sources of information.
Matt Grabowski, a Princeton operations research grad, was promoted to assistant director of scouting and analytics by Hart. With Grabowski managing the team's baseball information system along with just an intern and a database administrator, the Braves' outfit is small but making progress. Grabowski, whose work now extends into all facets of baseball operations, told ESPN.com, "We have models for the amateur draft that we are very happy with."
No longer do the Braves fit the bill as the anti-Moneyball organization. It remains to be seen how quickly and eagerly the Braves will make up for lost time.
The Reds have made a relatively small investment in analytics. Their operation is run by Sam Grossman, a former math major at Northwestern with a background in actuarial work who was recently promoted to senior director of analytics. Grossman oversees development of the Reds' baseball information system, builds databases for use in the amateur draft and generally infuses the Reds' front office with analytically minded concepts -- that is, thinking about players in terms of runs, wins and dollars.
Grossman's promotion and the hiring of a new developer are a start, but overall the Reds remain a front office with a traditional composition.
That's because of Walt Jocketty. After losing a power struggle in St. Louis with Jeff Luhnow, now the mastermind of the Houston Astros' massive foray into analytics, Jocketty brought his more old-school approach to Cincinnati, becoming GM in 2008.
While Jocketty, whose background is in scouting and player development, is not entirely antagonistic towards analytics, his vision for the constitution of a baseball front office is fundamentally different from Luhnow's.
Until October 2014, Dan O'Dowd served as the Rockies' GM for 15 years -- the last three of which were spent in a strange power-sharing arrangement with Bill Geivett. O'Dowd favored traditional baseball methods, stating his views in a 2013 interview: "I think human analytics are just as important as statistical analytics. Hard to measure it because there's no statistical formula for that, but really understanding what's inside a guy is actually more important than what comes out of a guy."
Geivett, on the other hand, revealed in 2014 that the Rockies were computing their own version of WAR. And while both men are now gone, indications are that Colorado's use of analytics is likely to expand under new GM Jeff Bridich, a Harvard alum, and assistant GM Zack Rosenthal.
Rosenthal has overseen the development of the Rockies' baseball information system since joining the team in 2006, and he's now assisted by Matt Obernauer, Trevor Patch and new hire DomenicDi Ricco. The technical contributions here come from Patch, who is working toward a master's degree in Predictive Analytics at Northwestern.
The Rockies haven't made a name for themselves in analytics yet, and their new approach is a work in progress, but the signs are promising.
Under legendary manager Jim Leyland, analytical information was allegedly disregarded.
That attitude changed, at least from the dugout, when Dartmouth grad and recently retired catcher of 18 MLB seasons Brad Ausmus became the manager after the 2013 season. One of Ausmus' initial hires was Matt Martin, the team's defensive coordinator.
Martin isn't a "stat guy" -- he's a former minor league manager and coach -- but he and Ausmus are using the statistical information curated by statistical analysis coordinator and former Swarthmore right-hander Sam Menzin, info that Leyland's staff simply ignored.
Otherwise, the Tigers' investment remains very small and focused mainly on the advance scouting side. The front office decision-makers are consumers of information who, lacking the personnel to develop their own system in-house, have signed a long-term contract with TruMedia to provide them with a cloud-based analytics platform. While these recent changes get the Tigers in the game, Detroit isn't keeping pace.
When "Moneyball" author Michael Lewis turned his attention to baseball, looking for a small-market team on which to focus, he approached the Minnesota Twins before deciding to write about Billy Beane and the Oakland A's.
Imagine how that would have worked out with GM Terry Ryan: "I don't look at stats unless we have a particular interest in a player. I believe in people." Or Ron Gardenhire, the Twins' manager for 13 years until he was fired in 2014: "Numbers lie a lot. I have a hard time believing all that stuff."
Ryan is conversant on sabermetric talking points like batting average on balls in play (BABIP), and now says he never makes a move without consulting with Jack Goin, his manager of baseball research who earned an MBA from the local University of St. Thomas. While the Twins are widely regarded as one of the least sabermetrically inclined teams, Goin says the team is more middle of the road.
Between the lines, the signals are mixed at best: The Twins employed defensive shifts more than the average team in 2014, increasing their usage fivefold. But their pitching staff has the lowest strikeout percentage over the past four seasons -- and the highest ERA (outside of Colorado) -- showing an overemphasis on "pitching to contact."
New manager Paul Molitor will bring more openness to analytical discussions, but with Ryan keeping sabermetrics at arm's length, this crew has a long way to go to catch its division rivals in Cleveland and Kansas City.
The Marlins have a small, tight-knit baseball operations department in South Florida that has shown very little interest in analytics.
Team president Michael Hill was a two-sport athlete at Harvard, but like GM Dan Jennings, is a former player with a background in player development and scouting. The job of keeping the Marlins aware of analytics trends falls to director of baseball operations Dan Noffsinger, a longtime staffer who majored in applied math and economics at Harvard. Noffsinger has a good reputation but a broader, less technical skill set than the leading sabermetricians being hired by other organizations.
In a sign that the Marlins might be ready to change their ways, they are looking to hire their first analytics interns this year to get their program off the ground.
No team was singled out more often by our sources as stubborn nonbelievers in analytics. Thanks to Bill James and generations of sabermetricians, baseball is further down the analytics road than the other major sports -- which means the Phillies are further behind than any other team in sports.
In 2010, GM Ruben Amaro boasted, "We don't have an in-house stats guy, and I kind of feel we never will. We're not a statistics-driven organization by any means."
Shortly after, Amaro signed slugging first baseman Ryan Howard -- already under contract for the next two years -- to a five-year, $125 million extension covering his age 32 through 36 seasons. Howard was coming off of his fourth straight monster season according to traditional Triple Crown stats, but he didn't rate nearly as well in advanced metrics such as WAR in large part because of his liability as a defender. Giving that much money that far in the future to a large, immobile, power hitter at that age left the sabermetrically inclined scratching their heads.
Howard's production and the Phillies' fortunes have suffered in the years since, and his onerous contract now has the team in a bind.
In 2013, the Phillies hired Scott Freedman as manager of baseball analytics, but Amaro downplayed Freedman's importance, saying, "I don't know if it's going to change the way we do business, necessarily." Although not a programmer, Freedman is described as "a talented individual" and a "creative thinker" by former supervisors Dan Halem (MLB) and Adam Fisher (Mets) respectively. Freedman's ability to pull the Phillies into the 21st century will require more support from upper management than it appears willing to provide.
Advanced stats are changing the game and leaving some big markets behind
By Kevin Pelton, ESPN Insider | February 23, 2015
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is one of the NBA's foremost champions of analytics. A frequent panelist at Daryl Morey's annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, in 2011 Cuban appeared onstage sporting a T-shirt that said "Talk Nerdy To Me."
In 2000, upon buying the team, Cuban reached out to his former Indiana University professor Wayne Winston, who (along with sports statistician Jeff Sagarin) created the first version of adjusted plus-minus. Later, Cuban brought in 82games.com founder Roland Beech, who was on the bench as the NBA's first "stats coach" when Dallas upset the Miami Heat to win the 2011 NBA championship.
After that victory, former ESPN Insider John Hollinger highlighted Rick Carlisle as "unquestionably the most cerebral and stat-friendly of the league's 30 head coaches." Carlisle cited lineup data as a key reason he made the move during 2011 NBA Finals to start J.J. Barea and use Brian Cardinal as a backup to Dirk Nowitzki.
Cuban has usually been the loudest analytics voice on the player personnel side, and the results speak for themselves. The Mavericks have averaged 54 wins a season under Cuban, even if critics say his bold moves -- including the recent acquisition of Rajon Rondo -- aren't always supported by the numbers. Beech, who has been promoted to vice president of basketball strategy, continues to play an important role and now oversees three new analysts -- a ramped-up investment that became a talking point in the feud between Cuban and Houston general manager Daryl Morey, who suggested the Mavs were imitating the Rockets.
Cuban's belief in the value of the physical-performance data tracked by Catapult Sports is so strong, he invested several million in the company last year, and Dallas has been a pioneer in investing in technology and new ideas on the health side, with Don Kalkstein serving as their full-time "psychology coach."
"Analytics have been an important component of who we are since I walked in the door 15 years ago," Cuban told ESPN.com. "What's changed is that all teams now use all the data available to them to make personnel decisions, so the market has become more efficient. We have strived to introduce new and exclusive sources of data so that we can improve performance of our players."
No single event has played a more important role in the NBA's analytics evolution than when Rockets owner Leslie Alexander brought in Daryl Morey to run basketball operations.
It was a bold move. Morey had been a little-known VP with the Boston Celtics, where he did analytics work on the business and basketball sides, when Houston hired him in April 2006. (He wouldn't co-found the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference until the following year.) No team had previously turned over its operations to someone such as Morey. Only one other team has since hired a general manager who made his reputation in analytics. In 2013, the Philadelphia 76ers hired Sam Hinkie, Morey's right-hand man, away from the Rockets.
Morey's now regarded as the NBA's leading proponent of analytics, but the GM gives credit to Alexander, calling him "the pioneer in bringing analytics to the NBA as the first team to fully commit to using it as a primary tool in all decision-making."
Morey and the Rockets employed a staff of data experts well before most other teams had made a single hire. Despite seeing some of their top people move on, "the Rockets continue to increase investment in analytics people and systems to maintain a differentiation in this area," Morey told ESPN.com, "especially as XY SportVU data comes online and we try to stay ahead of the competition."
Earlier in February, TNT analyst Charles Barkley called Morey "one of those idiots who believe in analytics" and questioned whether advanced stats had truly played a part in the acquisition of James Harden. In fact, the trade for Harden was the signature analytics-driven move of Morey's tenure, as Houston spent years accumulating assets via "arbitrage" moves and then grabbed Harden from Oklahoma City when the Thunder hesitated to offer their sixth man a max contract. Based on Harden's per-minute stats, Morey recognized his potential to become a superstar in a larger role.
While the influence of analytics on the personnel side has long been obvious, it's only in the past three seasons that the Rockets have played the game on the court so differently from everyone else. More than any other team, with the blessing of coach Kevin McHale, they've emphasized high-value shots at the rim and beyond the 3-point line. According to NBA.com/Stats, 74 percent of their shots this season have either been 3s or at the rim, far higher than that of any other team.
Philadelphia went all-in on analytics in May 2013, when a new ownership group led by Josh Harris and David Blitzer, who come from a background in private equity, hired Sam Hinkie as GM and president of basketball operations. While assistant GM with the Houston Rockets, Hinkie worked hand in hand with GM Daryl Morey to utilize cutting-edge statistical analysis and exhaust every avenue for building a competitive team.
"I'm trying to use information to make decisions. The same way you do," Hinkie explained when he was introduced to the media. "You use analytics when you open your iPhone and try to figure out if it's going to rain today. All you're using is lots and lots of data, and it's helping you make an informed decision about whether you should bring an umbrella or not. That's the way I think about it."
In some ways, the 76ers are closer than the Rockets to a pure experiment in team-building driven by analytics. Morey inherited a competitive Houston team led by stars Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, whereas Hinkie is starting from scratch in Philadelphia. While the Rockets rebuilt without falling out of contention, the Sixers' ownership group signed off on a complete teardown that resulted in a record-tying 26-game losing streak in 2013-14.
All that losing is in the name of long-term benefit, as explained in a recent ESPN The Magazine feature. After acquiring two first-round picks before last week's trade deadline, Philadelphia could have as many as four in this year's draft to go with recent lottery picks Joel Embiid, Nerlens Noel and Dario Saric. And the 76ers have stockpiled 15 second-round picks over the next six drafts by renting out their cap space to use in trades while hunting for steals.
Hinkie has surrounded himself with executives with analytics-heavy backgrounds. He hired Ben Falk from the Portland Trail Blazers and Sachin Gupta, formerly of the Rockets, giving both promotions to vice president.
Because the Sixers are still early in the rebuilding process, it's tough to see the influence of analytics on the court. But under Hinkie's hand-picked coach, former San Antonio Spurs assistant Brett Brown, Philadelphia is playing a fast pace and getting good shots. Only the New Orleans Pelicans have taken a higher percentage of their attempts at the rim this season, per NBA.com/Stats.
During his diatribe against analytics on TNT earlier in February, Charles Barkley asked, "What analytics do the Spurs have?"
The answer, Barkley might be surprised to learn, is plenty. Quietly, the Spurs have been leaders in applying and integrating analytics for years.
The Spurs' famously fluid style of play comes in large part from the wisdom provided by the numbers. The Spurs get into their offense quickly and relentlessly seek out open shots from the 3-point line and at the basket. No team has attempted more corner 3s than the Spurs over the past decade, and under Gregg Popovich they've also excelled at taking away 3-pointers and shots at the rim, forcing opponents to the midrange.
General manager R.C. Buford explained at the 2013 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference how the Spurs had, years earlier, married Popovich's coaching instincts to analytics: "I think Pop got interested when he saw areas that weren't traditional basketball philosophy that were important to him supported by the data. He started asking different questions."
The Spurs relied on consultants for years, and one, Gabe Farkas, was eventually made director of basketball analytics. The Spurs have one other full-time analyst and are known to utilize a number of outside experts and data services.
The Spurs were early to recognize the value in SportVU player tracking, as one of the four original teams to install cameras in their arena and have used the data extensively. They also have been leaders in health, often resting players by cutting minutes and recording exertion in practice using Catapult Sports' GPS tracking technology.
As an illustration of the depth of the Spurs' process, Buford explained how the team adjusted to the data and improved their defense after slipping to 11th in defensive rating in 2011-12:
"I think we were valuing some things that weren't nearly as important as what the data showed. We learned from the Celtics on defensive rebounding. While they were really high in defensive efficiency, they weren't very high in defensive rebounding. It made us question, 'Is that really where we should be paying attention?' Those were discussions that were then brought to Pop from our coaches and from our analytics team. Some great discussions came from that that then led us to re-evaluate what's important for us."
The Hawks' rise to the top of the Eastern Conference has been informed and fueled by statistical analysis. General manager Danny Ferry, currently on administrative leave because of the comments he read about Luol Deng on a conference call last summer, brought adjusted plus-minus pioneer Dan Rosenbaum to Atlanta in 2012 after employing him for several years in Cleveland when Ferry was GM there.
It's a lean staff. Since the 2014 departure of Neil Paine, the former Basketball-Reference and ESPN Insider contributor who now writes for Nate Silver and FiveThirtyEight.com, Rosenbaum is the only regular analytics employee, other than interns, and he has maintained his day job in the economic-policy division of the White House's Office of Management and Budget. Still, Rosenbaum's influence is felt, as Ferry and assistant GM Wes Wilcox have relied heavily on his input. Rosenbaum's work played a large role in the crucial acquisitions of newly minted All-Stars Kyle Korver and Paul Millsap, and the Hawks have continued to make savvy decisions about whom to go get and whom to let go.
Like Ferry, coach Mike Budenholzer came from a San Antonio Spurs culture that makes statistical analysis part of the decision-making process. Budenholzer's staff gets high marks for their openness to input and for enhancing the on-court value of the roster, and likewise the front office listens to "Coach Bud" -- in fact, he's a lead decision-maker in Ferry's absence.
The Hawks are now considered Spurs East, and the DNA they share includes a healthy respect for what the numbers say about how to build a team and how to play.
Boston is a leader in analytics investment. Before he was the "Dork Elvis" of analytics, Daryl Morey got his NBA start with the Celtics. Upon departing for the Houston Rockets, Morey left Boston's analytics department in the hands of Mike Zarren, a lifelong Celtics fan and a fixture at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference who has risen to assistant GM. Zarren was a leading candidate for the Philadelphia 76ers' GM job that eventually went to Sam Hinkie.
On the coaching side, Brad Stevens made headlines at Butler by hiring former ESPN Insider contributor Drew Cannon to crunch numbers, and Cannon made the move with Stevens from college to the Celtics. Stevens is one of the coaches most interested in advanced stats, even as he tries to avoid the stathead label.
The biggest question about Boston is how much president of basketball operations Danny Ainge ultimately believes in statistical analysis. Ainge's scouting instincts guide his decisions, and he tends to rely on his son Austin, the team's director of player personnel, more than the analytics department.
On the other hand, Ainge's dogged pursuit of star talent and the high value he places on draft picks -- Boston will have as many as 10 first-round picks over the next four years -- follow from the numbers, indicating he has been willing to listen to Morey and Zarren.
"I like our group of people," Ainge told USA Today last year. "I love talking to them. I'm trying to teach them about basketball, and they're trying to teach me about analytics. And I think it's important, so I think it's all good."
Cleveland majority owner Dan Gilbert and other members of the ownership group have finance-based backgrounds and have been willing to fund the growth of a Cavaliers' analytics department led by Jon Nichols and, until recently, Ben Alamar (now the director of production analytics at ESPN). As sources note, Gilbert aspires to have the best of everything and will spend to win.
Under former general manager Chris Grant, the influence of analytics was muted, but his replacement, David Griffin, has championed statistical analysis during his days with the Phoenix Suns and now the Cavs. As Charles Barkley could tell you, it doesn't take a stats wizard to value LeBron James, but Griffin's acquisitions of Kevin Love, Timofey Mozgov, Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith were solid moves by the numbers, as were the decisions to let go of recent lottery picks Dion Waiters and Anthony Bennett.
Coach David Blatt has proved receptive to the far larger amount of statistical resources at his disposal in the NBA as compared to coaching in Europe.
"I believe in [analytics] and their usefulness, and I understand the limitations of them as well," Griffin told the Cleveland blog Waiting for Next Year. "It's something we believe very strongly in. Because ownership supports us to such a huge degree, we can invest in those processes."
Don't be fooled by the grumbling he did about stat geeks in his two years as a panelist at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference: Stan Van Gundy is a believer in well-done analytics, and few coaches are as informed about the concepts developed by the statistical community.
By the numbers, Van Gundy was an especially savvy coach in Miami and Orlando, and his tenure in Detroit has reinforced that rep. He has demonstrated the power a coach can have over shot selection, especially when he has final say in player personnel. According to NBA.com/Stats, the Pistons attempted more midrange shots than 3-pointers in 2013-14. This season, they've attempted nearly two-thirds more 3s than shots from midrange, the league's second-highest ratio behind the Houston Rockets.
On the front office side, Van Gundy and GM Jeff Bower have instilled an analytical mindset. They inherited respected analyst Ken Catanella, who was brought on board to build an analytics department not long after the ownership group led by Tom Gores purchased the team in 2011. Van Gundy promoted Catanella to assistant GM and has devoted additional resources to the growing department.
Overall, you might describe the Warriors as "cautious believers" in analytics. Their large, diverse front office -- which includes two primary owners, plus Jerry West, GM Bob Myers and other prominent voices -- is unlikely to be in complete agreement about anything, but a key segment of the organization led by co-owner Joe Lacob speaks up on behalf of data.
"I'm a great believer [in analytics], we're great believers in always listening and trying to integrate statistics with what we see," Lacob told Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury-News in 2012. "We want to be on the cutting edge, but you can't be all statistics because that doesn't tell the whole story."
Lacob's son, Kirk, oversees analytics as assistant GM. Golden State employs the expertise of Silicon Valley to make sense of the massive data set provided by SportVU camera tracking (the Warriors were one of the first six teams to pay for SportVU), relying on local startup MOCAP Analytics. Despite Golden State's investment, a handful of sources around the league expressed skepticism that the Warriors have gleaned as much from SportVU data as they have publicly claimed.
The heady acquisitions of defensive stoppers Andrew Bogut, Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green speak to Golden State's respect for the numbers. Iguodala was third in the NBA in real plus-minus last season, and this season the Warriors have four of the top 30 players on the RPM leaderboard -- Stephen Curry (No. 1), Klay Thompson, Bogut and Green. New coach Steve Kerr has brought an improved offensive scheme and an open mind to his early tenure, and he has proved willing to make adjustments based on feedback from the Warriors' analysts.
In 2012, the Grizzlies made a bold splash in the analytics world when they hired ESPN's John Hollinger as vice president of basketball operations. Hollinger's pioneering work in advanced stats had brought him into the orbit of Jason Levien, the Grizzlies' CEO, who valued analytics.
When principal owner Robert Pera ousted Levien in 2014, the team's analytics focus was in doubt, but Pera retained Hollinger, who continues to play an important role under general manager Chris Wallace. Beyond Hollinger, the Grizzlies haven't invested as much as some other teams, though they have recently been looking to add analytics talent.
Many of the Grizzlies' moves in the past two years have been shaped by the numbers. The Grizzlies famously traded away Rudy Gay, featured efficient stars Marc Gasol and Mike Conley in more prominent roles, retained Zach Randolph on a team-friendly deal, extended defensive stalwart Tony Allen and acquired Kosta Koufos and Jeff Green -- all analytics-informed moves. They have been rewarded with a trip to the 2013 Western Conference finals and the NBA's third-best record this season. Even smaller recent moves show the influence of analytics. Memphis selected UCLA guard Jordan Adams and Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes, two players whose statistical projections exceeded the scouting consensus, in the 2014 draft, and signed plus-minus favorite Vince Carter as a free agent.
Wallace, the founder of "Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook" known for his emphasis on scouting in his roles with seven NBA teams, has been receptive to advanced stats. He originally hired Aaron Barzilai, who subsequently served as director of analytics for the Philadelphia 76ers, as a consultant in 2009.
Coach Dave Joerger's reputation as a believer in analytics is overstated because of his youth and the contrast with predecessor Lionel Hollins, who came out against analytics after the Gay trade. But with the help of more shooting on the perimeter, Joerger has gradually moved Memphis toward a more efficient style of offense without sacrificing the Grizzlies' grit-and-grind mentality. He has Memphis in contention in the tough Western Conference.
The tight-lipped Thunder say little publicly about analytics, but their track record demonstrates they are, on the whole, believers. GM Sam Presti, a panelist at the inaugural MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in 2007 while working in the San Antonio Spurs' front office, established an analytics department when he joined the then-Seattle SuperSonics later that year.
Presti's first analytics hire was Ben Alamar, who later worked for the Cleveland Cavaliers and is now director of production analytics at ESPN and the author of "Sports Analytics." These days, Oklahoma City employs Jesse Gould as director of basketball research and analysis with another analyst below him. Financial resources have been a limitation for the Thunder's analytics efforts, though they were one of the original four subscribers to SportVU camera tracking.
As well-versed as Presti is in analytics concepts, his draft picks have run the gamut statistically. Andre Roberson, a surprising first-round pick in 2013, was a statistical darling. But Presti has also been willing to draft players with limited statistical profiles, such as 2010 second-round pick Ryan Reid and 2014 first-rounder Josh Huestis.
In contrast to Presti, coach Scott Brooks does not rely on statistical concepts. In particular, Oklahoma City has been more willing to concede 3-point attempts on defense than other analytics believers. Still, Brooks recently told Bleacher Report, "I'm getting more into analytics -- I think it's important."
Among NBA head coaches, nobody has made better use of statistical analysis than Portland's Terry Stotts. Having used statistics in his formative years as an NBA coach under George Karl with the Seattle SuperSonics, Stotts saw the power of analytics when he worked as an assistant coach for the Dallas Mavericks with Roland Beech under analytically minded Rick Carlisle.
"Going back to Seattle, I did my spreadsheets," Stotts told ESPN The Magazine in a 2013 feature. "But when we hired Roland, that took it to another level."
When the Blazers hired Stotts, he opened his coaching meetings to then-basketball analytics manager Ben Falk, who had been working primarily on player personnel. And before the 2013-14 season, he rebuilt Portland's defense around preventing high-value shots at the rim and beyond the 3-point line.
Timed with the addition of rim protector Robin Lopez, the scheme helped the Blazers jump from 26th in defensive rating in 2012-13 to 16th last season. Despite Lopez missing two months this season, Portland has jumped into the league's top five in defensive rating. No team in the NBA allows fewer high-value attempts.
GM Neil Olshey admittedly comes from a more skeptical background. His former team, the L.A. Clippers, made little to no investment in analytics. But Olshey was won over by Falk's analysis. "When I got hired in Portland," he told ESPN.com, "I realized Ben Falk was the smartest guy in the room, and it was probably a good idea if I listened to him once in a while."
While Falk's departure for a larger role with the Philadelphia 76ers was obviously a blow to the Blazers' analytics department, Olshey promoted Zach Williams (who worked under Falk) and thus is attempting to maintain the Blazers' momentum.
ONE FOOT IN
Consider the Hornets one of the league's most improved teams in terms of analytics. They had essentially made no investment in the field when Rich Cho arrived as general manager in 2011. Cho's engineering background (he worked at Boeing before going back to law school and joining the Seattle SuperSonics as an intern) gives him an analytical mindset. One of his first major projects with the Sonics was building a database that compiled player statistics and scouting reports. Cho has built a staff of four in the analytics department and upgraded the team's internal database.
With Michael Jordan as owner, however, Cho doesn't get the last word on decisions. According to a source familiar with Charlotte's inner workings, the voice that MJ relies on most is that of Curtis Polk, an analytics agnostic who conducts Jordan's business affairs and serves as the Hornets' vice chairman. And with pressure from Jordan to accelerate the Hornets' efforts to contend, the team made the ill-fated decision to sign Lance Stephenson over the objections of the analytics staff.
While not a true believer, coach Steve Clifford is versed in the concepts of statistical analysis (he's known to drop references to per-possession stats with the media). Like most coaches from the Van Gundy tree, Clifford employs a style of play that is analytics-informed. So far, that has translated on defense but not on offense, where the Hornets have been dependent on midrange jumpers because of their personnel.
The fundamentals of the Pacers' defense, the NBA's best on a per-possession basis in 2012-13 and 2013-14, were built on statistical principles. With the guidance of basketball analytics coordinator Ryan Renteria (a retired hedge fund manager), head coach Frank Vogel designed a scheme to protect the basket (taking advantage of Roy Hibbert's size and ability to contest without fouling) and the 3-point line, forcing opponents to the midrange. This season's drop-off without Paul George demonstrates the importance of personnel, but the scheme remains sound.
On the front office side, Indiana GM Kevin Pritchard is a former player and scout who believes in advanced stats, having instituted an analytics department while with the Portland Trail Blazers that grew into one of the league's best. In addition to Renteria, who works primarily with the coaching staff, the Pacers also employ manager of basketball administration Spencer Anderson as a full-time analyst.
While Pritchard is a believer, president of basketball operations Larry Bird, who has final say on personnel moves, is more skeptical. Bird has historically favored the scouting process, drafting a series of older prospects -- Brandon Rush, Tyler Hansbrough and Solomon Hill -- with mixed results. But Bird's scouting eye also paid off in the form of 2010 draft picks Paul George and Lance Stephenson.
(Disclosure: I served as an analytics consultant for the Pacers between 2010 and 2012.)
When analytics skeptics point out that coaches have been using numbers for decades, Miami Heat president Pat Riley is commonly cited. As coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, Riley famously devised his own efficiency rating for players. He passed that interest along to protégé and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who speaks the language of analytics.
Riley devised a system the Heat still use today to grade each defensive possession based on 54 criteria, focusing on the process of executing the team's system rather than the results. The evaluations are done by Brian Hecker, Miami's director of basketball information technology, who's responsible for getting the pertinent numbers to Spoelstra.
In addition to lineup data, Spoelstra also has relied heavily on the simulation model developed by analyst Bob Chaikin. He has worked for the Heat since 2008, following a stint as a consultant for the team during the 1990s, when Riley first arrived in South Florida as coach.
"I look at [stats] to evaluate our team, to compare us to other teams, particularly defensively, where we stack up against the best," Spoelstra told NBA.com in 2011. "I also use it to make points to the team about things we need to improve. I use it also for scouting, when we're trying to come up with a game plan for the opponent."
Riley's fondness for statistical analysis doesn't seem to have carried over to his player personnel work as team president. Miami has regularly punted valuable draft picks in favor of stacking the bench with fading veterans. The Heat's success, including three titles in the past decade, has made it easy to justify sticking with an old-school approach. To get back to that level, Miami's front office may have to embrace details like analytics and international scouting that have gone neglected.
Under a new ownership group led by Wesley Edens and Marc Lasry, the Bucks have been ramping up their analytics efforts as part of a larger overhaul of the organization. That includes such far-flung efforts as hiring a "facial coding expert," the benefits of which are in doubt, as well as more conventional methods.
Milwaukee had already put more emphasis on statistical analysis since hiring David Morway as assistant GM in July 2013. (Disclosure: Morway hired me as a consultant while GM of the Indiana Pacers.) Vantage Sports, which provides unique metrics based on detailed video tracking, announced a partnership with Milwaukee last summer.
The aptly named Michael Clutterbuck serves as the Bucks' director of basketball analytics. Clutterbuck replaced Jon Nichols, who left for the Cleveland Cavaliers before the 2013-14 season. Edens and Lasry, who come from the financial world, have allotted additional resources to growing the department.
In his second season on the sidelines and first with Milwaukee, Jason Kidd has developed a reputation for being information-oriented and utilizing analytics to communicate with his players.
"We've made significant investments in technology and data over the past year and a half to become an extremely informed team, whether it is draft-related, personnel-related, or just game day preparation," Milwaukee GM John Hammond told ESPN.com. "We're at a point where we can ask almost any question and get a numbers-based answer very quickly. Our ownership is into it, our coaches were into it since their first day here, and I'm into it."
Orlando GM Rob Hennigan is a natural fit in the rising generation of executives who marry a scouting eye with a respect for analytics. Given his age (30 when hired by the Magic in 2012, Hennigan is still the NBA's youngest GM) and experience with two leading organizations (the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder), it makes sense that Orlando CEO Alex Martins cited Hennigan's "utilization of analytics in the decision-making process of player personnel" as one of the reasons he was chosen.
Hennigan has hired an analytics-friendly staff, bringing in Matt Lloyd, who stood out during his time with the Chicago Bulls by embracing statistical analysis, as assistant GM and George Rodman from the Spurs' organization to serve as basketball operations manager. Another staffer, David Bencs, has transitioned from applying analytics to the business side of the organization into a role as basketball analytics manager.
The Magic's rebuilding process has been slow to produce results. Earlier in February, Hennigan fired coach Jacque Vaughn less than three years after hiring him. While Hennigan's moves have sometimes been informed by analytics and the roster abounds in young prospects, the team has yet to find a cornerstone star or develop a coherent roster or defensive philosophy.
In recent years, Phoenix has worked with several industry leaders responsible for conveying basketball analytics to a larger audience, including real plus-minus co-creators Jeremias Engelmann and Steve Ilardi, John Ezekowitz (who has written for FiveThirtyEight) and Zach Bradshaw (now with ESPN).
The Suns employ an unorthodox front office in which the business and basketball sides of the organization share analytics resources, as overseen by Zaheer Benjamin, VP for business planning and basketball analytics. According to sources, that structure has led to tension and miscommunication between the two groups.
But a source familiar with the Phoenix front office says the organization has begun to work through the issue, with more dedicated analysts available to basketball operations. Suns GM Ryan McDonough comes from a scouting background, but his formative experience with the Boston Celtics has given him an appreciation for statistical analysis, and assistant GM Trevor Buckstein gets high marks for his understanding of analytics.
"It's been a tool for me," McDonough told SportsBusiness Daily after being hired in Phoenix in 2013. "In Boston, we were at the cutting edge of some of that stuff, and certainly guys like Daryl Morey and Mike Zarren were smarter and further along with it than I am. I learned a lot and we're trying to emphasize that here."
Suns coach Jeff Hornacek, an accounting major at Iowa State, has followed through on a promise to Grantland's Zach Lowe to improve the team's shot selection. Phoenix had the league's fourth-highest ratio of midrange attempts to 3-pointers in 2012-13, but the fifth-lowest ratio in 2013-14, Hornacek's first season at the helm.
When new owner Vivek Ranadivé and new GM Pete D'Alessandro arrived in Sacramento in 2012, they inherited a front office that had been left behind by the analytics movement. Their attempts to catch up have been fascinating.
Leading up to the 2014 NBA draft, the Kings announced their plan to "crowdsource" statistical projections for what they called Draft 3.0. As documented in a pair of short films on Grantland, the Sacramento front office brought in a handful of applicants to provide feedback during the draft process.
Having seen what amateurs had to offer, the Kings opted months later to hire the most experienced possible candidate: Pioneer Dean Oliver was the NBA's first full-time statistical analyst with the Seattle SuperSonics and later worked for the Denver Nuggets before joining ESPN as director of production analytics.
"I couldn't think of a better person to be part of this thing," D'Alessandro said in October 2014 when introducing Oliver, who was named director of player personnel and analytics. "To me, it's almost like a player acquisition in some ways. I feel really happy about it."
Hiring one analyst -- even one as qualified as Oliver -- doesn't automatically make the Kings "believers." The key for any team is how well it integrates analytics into its decision-making process, and the Kings have been puzzling on that front. In the past nine months, they've drafted Nik Stauskas despite red flags in his defensive statistics, let Isaiah Thomas walk in free agency and changed coaches twice. Ranadivé's attempts to bring Silicon Valley business principles to Sacramento have led the Kings down blind alleys, as detailed in this ESPN The Magazine story.
New Kings coach George Karl, who took over during the All-Star break, worked with D'Alessandro and Oliver in Denver. While Karl often seems an analytics skeptic, his interest in statistics dates back to playing for the late Dean Smith at North Carolina. Smith pioneered possession-based stats in the 1950s, long before he was a coaching legend.
A detailed 2013 Zach Lowe feature on Grantland pulled back the curtains on the Raptors' front office, revealing not only a strong analytics team making creative use of SportVU data but also tensions about how to put those insights into action.
Shortly after that story, Toronto hired Masai Ujiri as GM, replacing Bryan Colangelo, who sources say had allowed a rift to develop in the organization. Outside sources who know Ujiri describe him as a creative thinker, talented scout and good manager, but not a champion of analytics. While with the Denver Nuggets, he worked with Dean Oliver but opted not to replace him after Oliver left the organization for a role at ESPN. With the Raptors, Ujiri retained consultants Alex Rucker and Keith Boyarsky, who built the SportVU interface Lowe detailed along with team staffer Eric Khoury.
"It's a great part of the game to know," Ujiri told the National Post in 2013. "I think the NBA is trendy. I don't want to say it's the trend now. But that's the nature of us. I think analytics are a huge part. We have a good department that studies the game that way. I study the game that way."
Ujiri's moves in Toronto have given mixed signals about the role of analytics. He quickly traded overpaid Andrea Bargnani and Rudy Gay for high value, but was also willing to trade then-underrated Kyle Lowry for a meager package to begin rebuilding. Only when the New York Knicks declined a proposed Lowry deal did it become apparent that the Raptors had built an unexpected winner.
The structural issues in the organization have had the unfortunate effect of painting coach Dwane Casey as an archaic stat-hater, which is misleading. He worked closely with Oliver as an assistant coach in Seattle and Roland Beech as part of Rick Carlisle's staff in Dallas and gets high marks from both for being open to using analytics.
For years, under the pairing of coach Jerry Sloan and GM Kevin O'Connor, the Jazz successfully played an old-school style that featured few 3-pointers. In year 3 under new GM Dennis Lindsey, Utah has stepped away from the Sloan model, building a new culture -- modeled off the San Antonio Spurs -- that features analytics in an important role.
The Jazz hired their first full-time analytics employee last summer and also have relied on outside resources. They've worked with the BYU statistics department, and count among their consultants two prominent writers.
Like Lindsey, first-year head coach Quin Snyder spent time in the San Antonio organization. He also served under former Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer last season in Atlanta. Snyder has encouraged his big men to work on 3-point shots rather than long 2s, and the Jazz's shot-distribution stats have improved at both ends of the court.
"You're playing a percentage," Snyder recently told the Salt Lake Tribune. "You're going to give something up. Do we want to give up this shot in this situation? Or would we rather give up this shot? I think that helps drive a lot of our decision-making or confirm it."
The Bulls' front office has long been based on old-school scouting concepts, but it does employ a manager of basketball analytics, Steve Weinman.
Coach Tom Thibodeau has shown interest in Weinman's work and called him "terrific" in 2013. The Bulls coach was mentored by Jeff Van Gundy, who's well-versed in analytic concepts. Thibodeau expressed a cautious perspective on analytics in a 2013 interview with CSN Chicago, saying, "I think there is a place in our league, and I think it's good. It may be getting overplayed somewhat right now. I think the trained eye is very important, but numbers are a part of the equation."
Thibodeau's innovative defense excels at preventing 3-pointers, and while Chicago's offensive shot chart isn't optimal, the team traded many long 2-pointers for 3-pointers after Thibodeau's arrival.
The Bulls' executive duo of John Paxson and Gar Forman stems backs to the Jerry Krause era and bases its decisions on scouting, not analytics. Paxson and Forman emphasize character and pedigree -- when looking at numbers, they are, according to one observer familiar with the front office, as likely to look at how often a prospect attended class as they are his advanced stats.
A few years ago, the Nuggets were leaders in the analytics field. In 2006, then-GM Mark Warkentien hired Dean Oliver as director of quantitative analysis before most teams had invested anything in analytics. But Warkentien left Denver in 2010, and Oliver followed him out the door in 2011, joining ESPN. The Nuggets didn't replace Oliver until last season, when new general manager Tim Connelly added Tommy Balcetis as manager of analytics.
As ESPN's Kevin Arnovitz detailed in a feature on the Denver organization last November, ownership is hesitant to spend top dollar on the front office. And while Balcetis had experience in the financial sector, he was a newcomer to basketball analytics.
To the Nuggets' credit, their 2014 draft shined by the numbers. Two of their picks (centers Jusuf Nurkic, taken 16th overall, and second-round pick Nikola Jokic) rated in the top five of my WARP projections. Nurkic has already paid dividends, claiming Denver's starting center job as a rookie. Additional savvy moves like that could rebuild the Nuggets' reputation in terms of analytics.
The Clippers have moved from nonbelievers to skeptics over the past year.
With new owner Steve Ballmer's willingness to spend, the Clippers hired Jud Winton as director of analytics and former Houston Rockets intern Greg Peim. Assistant director of scouting Jason Piombetti, who previously was the team's liaison to the analytics community, is also a believer.
The problem is the lack of buy-in from coach Doc Rivers, who is also the president of basketball operations, running the front office along with Kevin Eastman, Dave Wohl and former general manager Gary Sacks. None of the four has demonstrated much faith in basketball analytics, although Rivers has become an enthusiastic champion of Harvard professor Dr. Charles Czeisler's research on the value of sleep for NBA players. He's built the team's schedule around Czeisler's insights.
On the player acquisition side, the Clippers have tended to go after players with poor numbers who are overrated based on Rivers' experience with them. Byron Mullens, who had 25 points and 18 rebounds against the Celtics in 2012-13, signed with the Clippers the following season. That pattern has continued with the acquisition of former Celtic Glen Davis, former Eastern Conference stars Danny Granger, Antawn Jamison and Hedo Turkoglu and, most recently and infamously, Doc Rivers' son Austin Rivers.
With their new staff, the Clippers could rise in our ratings in the future, but only if their analytics efforts aren't undone by Rivers and a skeptical front office.
As head coach, president of basketball operations and a minority owner, Flip Saunders carries great weight in the Minnesota organization. While one source described Saunders as an analytics enthusiast, there is little actual evidence of this -- in fact, of the NBA "skeptics" in our ratings, the Wolves were the team most often singled out as "old school" by our sources familiar with their operation.
Minnesota was an early adopter of SportVU player tracking, installing cameras in the Target Center for the 2011-12 season in a project spearheaded by manager of basketball analytics Matt Bollero. But that effort predated Saunders' return to the Timberwolves organization.
In particular, according to a source, Saunders eschews analytics in terms of game planning, and he favors inefficient shot distribution. Only the Washington Wizards -- Saunders' former team -- have a higher ratio of midrange attempts to 3-pointers. That's not a new trend. In Saunders' 17 seasons as an NBA head coach, only the 2005-06 Detroit Pistons attempted 3s at a rate higher than league average.
On the personnel side, Saunders has tended to favor draft picks whose potential outstrips their past production. While Shabazz Muhammad showed promise before his recent injury (good PER, but low real-plus minus), 2014 lottery pick Zach LaVine is the league's lowest-rated player by real plus-minus, with Timberwolves teammates Chase Budinger and Anthony Bennett just ahead of him.
Relative to most teams in the "skeptics" tier, the Pelicans have invested heavily in analytics. Director of basketball operations Shane Kupperman manages the department, which added former Houston Rockets intern Somak Sarkar last season and also has made use of outside consultants.
Still, it's challenging to find examples of how analytics have penetrated New Orleans' decision-making, and sources confirm that GM Dell Demps and coach Monty Williams are not engaged in incorporating advanced stats.
Despite the widespread existence of research indicating players on rookie contracts are more cost-effective, the Pelicans have tried to accelerate the process of building around star Anthony Davis by trading lottery picks for veteran players. Demps dealt their 2013 (No. 6) and 2014 (No. 10) picks for Jrue Holiday, then traded this year's pick (top-three protected) for Omer Asik. The last lottery pick the Pelicans did keep, Austin Rivers, the 10th pick in 2012, had weak numbers coming into the league and failed in New Orleans before being traded away in January.
The cumulative effect of the Pelicans' misuse of draft picks has been to deplete the team's depth. Beyond their top six players (by minutes played), the Pelicans' bench has combined to rate 2.8 wins worse than replacement level.
Williams' offense relies heavily on relatively inefficient isolation plays. Per Synergy Sports, only the Cleveland Cavaliers have finished more of their plays out of an isolation. Meanwhile, Williams has struggled to craft a defensive scheme that prevents high-percentage looks. Despite the presence of big men Asik and Davis, the Pelicans have allowed far more shot attempts at the rim than any other team in the NBA.
The Wizards' front office has shown moderate interest in analytics, which is more than their coach has shown. Before the 2013-14 season, Washington promoted Brett Greenberg to director of analytics/salary-cap management. In that role, Greenberg has worked with consultant Joe Sill, who won the 2010 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference research paper grand prize for his key improvements to adjusted plus-minus models.
On the court, Washington lags in terms of applying the lessons of analytics to its shot chart even in the midst of the team's best season since 1978-79. The Wizards' ratio of midrange shots to 3-point attempts is the second highest in the NBA. That would be understandable if Washington struggled from beyond the arc, but the Wizards rank fourth in the league in 3-point percentage (37.4 percent). As a result, Washington is just 10th in the benefit derived from 3s, as measured by ESPN's 3-point index, far lower than it could be.
Personnel is a factor in the Wizards' limited use of the 3. They've played traditional big men rather than floor spacers. However, point guard John Wall has taken the fifth-most 2-pointers beyond 15 feet this season, per Basketball-Reference.com, and coach Randy Wittman is comfortable with this arrangement.
"We're going to take open shots," Wittman told the Washington Post during the preseason. "If a team wants to give us midrange open shots, we're going to take them. I'm going to tell a guy that has a wide-open 15-foot jumper to take three steps back and shoot a 3? I'm not going to do that."
Earlier this season the Nets hired former Kansas City Royals intern Glenn DuPaul, giving the newcomer to basketball statistics and recent college graduate the title of "director of analytics."
Still, our sources familiar with the Brooklyn front office indicate that ownership is behind the team's investment in analytics, while GM Billy King has little interest. Dating back to his time with the Philadelphia 76ers, King has consistently undervalued draft picks in favor of expensive free-agent contracts. The Nets don't own their first-round pick outright until 2019, having traded the maximum number of picks in that span to the Boston Celtics along with the right to swap picks this year (with the Atlanta Hawks) and in 2017 (with the Celtics). King infamously tossed a barely protected lottery pick to Portland for Gerald Wallace, allowing the Blazers to nab Damian Lillard.
Brooklyn coach Lionel Hollins' reputation as anti-analytics, which stemmed from clashing heads with a new Memphis Grizzlies front office including analytics star John Hollinger, might be somewhat overstated. Hollins has bristled at input from the front office, but he's not completely opposed to statistical analysis.
"I'm going to take a breath," Hollins told the New York Post, "and say it's the dumbest thing I've ever heard because every coach uses stats. Now, do I understand some of the stats that are out there that are new? No. But I can learn them."
The Lakers were the only NBA team without a representative at the 2013 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, symbolic of their disregard for advanced stats. Two years later, they say they have begun to take steps toward adopting a new approach, but the progress is invisible so far.
Former Lakers head coach Rudy Tomjanovich and his son, Trey, have been providing basic statistical analysis to the front office for years, but it's only recently that the Lakers have invested in an analytics department. GM Mitch Kupchak told ESPN.com that SportVU data has "changed this whole business" and that he has brought aboard a group of four employees to interpret the data.
But the Lakers were slow to embrace SportVU data, not being willing to pay for the cameras before the NBA stepped up and installed them in every arena. And while Kupchak indicated most SportVU analysis is directed toward the coaching staff, with assistant coach Mark Madsen as a conduit, it's hard to find any evidence of Byron Scott putting those insights in play on the court.
Scott's preseason declaration that he doesn't believe an offense heavy on 3-point attempts wins championships runs counter to statistical analysis and recent history. Following through on Scott's directives, the Lakers are taking the NBA's third-highest percentage of their shots from the midrange, the least efficient area of the court.
No on-court metrics supported signing Kobe Bryant to a two-year, $48.5 million extension coming off Achilles surgery. Bryant provided just 0.1 win shares during the first season of that deal before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery, a major reason the Lakers are on pace to set a team record for fewest wins since moving to Los Angeles in 1960 for the second straight season.
As the analytics movement picks up steam, Knicks president Phil Jackson remains a conscientious objector. In a recent interview in the New York Times, he questioned the staying power of statistics-based offensive trends emphasizing spacing and 3-point shooting. "I think it's still debatable about how basketball is going to be played, what's going to win out," the Zen Master said in defense of the triangle offense, which encourages the more traditional type of play Jackson admires.
With their lavish budget, the Knicks have proved willing to spend over the years, including nominal investments in analytics. The Knicks subscribed to SportVU before it went league-wide, have utilized Catapult technology and employ a director of analytics, Mike Smith, with an assistant. Smith's background is in video rather than statistical analysis, however, and our sources cast doubt on how interested the team's decision-makers really are. Director of player personnel Mark Warkentien, who hired analytics pioneer Dean Oliver when he was with the Denver Nuggets, is a believer, but Jackson calls the shots and coach Derek Fisher is running Jackson's offense.
In Jackson's first season in charge, New York has been an embarrassing flop, in part because the Knicks have completely reversed their style of play from two seasons ago. The 2012-13 Knicks won 54 games and set an NBA record for 3-point attempts and makes. This season's Knicks lead the NBA with the highest percentage of shots from midrange, giving New York the league's least efficient shot distribution.
After hockey's 'Summer of Analytics,' there are more believers than ever
By Craig Custance, ESPN Insider | February 23, 2015
In 2009, shortly after Stan Bowman was promoted to general manager of the Blackhawks, he was approached by an analytics company that presented a compelling case as to why he should place value in what they were saying. He bought in.
"We've sort of enhanced it and honed it," Bowman said. "We're much better at coming up with conclusions."
One of those conclusions has made the Blackhawks a leading puck-possession team. While Joel Quenneville is an old-school coach, the Blackhawks use analytics to find players who might be undervalued elsewhere but fit exactly what Quenneville and the Blackhawks try to do on the ice systematically. It's been a great combination, with Bowman and Quenneville teaming up to win two Stanley Cups.
"I don't claim to have the answers -- we have a formula that works for us," Bowman said. "We're always trying to expand and add a new component each year that we do a little more with."
In 2014, the Bruins promoted long-time front office staffer Ryan Nadeau into the role of director of hockey operations/analytics, and general manager Peter Chiarelli has long been a hockey analytics advocate.
The Bruins and Minnesota Wild were the first two organizations to start using Sydex Sports' PUCKS analysis software, signing on with the company in 2007. That number has now grown to 18 teams. The primary focus of the PUCKS software is charting scoring chances and their respective categories -- who created the chance, who the opposition was, where on the ice it took place and the quality of the chance. The overarching term Sydex uses is shot value.
Since the start of that 2007 season, the Bruins have had a Corsi for percentage of 52.3 percent, the highest among Eastern Conference teams.
General manager Tim Murray is known for his scouting background and ability to find young talent, but he's also completely on board with the analytics movement.
Murray has been given the green light to spend big on analytics by ownership, and the Sabres are early adopters (along with the Philadelphia Flyers) in using Catapult technology that gathers biomechanical data during practice to monitor intensity, heart rate and fatigue, along with other movements.
The Corsi rating is named for -- but not invented by -- former Sabres goalie coach Jim Corsi, who was with the team for 13 years until joining the St. Louis Blues in 2014. Corsi, a former NHL goalie, believed goalies exerted themselves more than "shots on goal" revealed and began recording any action that required a goalie to react. But it was bloggers Tim Barnes and Gabriel Desjardins who took Corsi's ideas and turned them into a statistical instrument charting each player's contributions on the ice, regardless of role.
The Sabres' 37.2 Corsi for percentage through 52 games this season was the lowest of any team since 2007 -- and it really isn't close (next-lowest were the 2013-14 Maple Leafs at 42.8 and 2007-08 Thrashers at 42.9).
Like the Philadelphia 76ers, the Sabres have been widely accused of tanking, and a cynic might suggest that it takes a team that really understands analytics to be this bad at just the right time, with Connor McDavid waiting for the team that gets this year's No. 1 pick.
Former Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson introduced analytics into the organization, and the influence continues to grow under current GM Jarmo Kekalainen.
Director of hockey administration Josh Flynn takes the lead on all things analytics, from developing a matrix measuring the exact value of every pick in the draft to hiring out independent analytics studies. One of those, a study on the quality of competition, researched by Eric Tulsky, is now employed by the Carolina Hurricanes.
The Blue Jackets are refining a system that uses subjective ratings to then quantify quality of competition.
"It's been enlightening for a few players," Flynn said.
Former coach Dallas Eakins might have been the Oilers' most aggressive analytics proponent, bringing in analyst Tyler Dellow and giving him a prominent voice at the coach's table, but Eakins wasn't the team's lone enthusiast.
Assistant GM Scott Howson is a believer, and the organization also works with Darkhorse Analytics, an Alberta firm. Dellow remains on staff, and he has his supporters in the organization following Eakins' firing, although his future beyond this season remains unclear.
General manager Craig MacTavish might lean old-school in his sensibilities, but he has shown an open mind during his tenure as the Oilers' general manager.
"I've never been afraid of information," MacTavish said. "You can't be."
General manager Dean Lombardi isn't afraid to utilize data to get an edge. That his Kings have been the NHL's puck-possession powerhouse -- the team has led the league during the past four seasons in Corsi for percentage at 55.7 percent -- suggests as much.
"I'm all for it," he said, with one caveat. "I've never made a decision on that alone."
Lombardi is a mix of old school and new, but he's exhaustive in his research to find ways to improve the team.
In addition to other pursuits, the Kings also have dabbled in injury analytics to figure out the mathematical likelihood of re-injury before investing in players long-term.
All in all, the defending Stanley Cup champions are right near the very top of the NHL in utilizing analytics.
In 2011, the Wild hired coach Mike Yeo and were coming off a season in which they were No. 29 in the NHL in Corsi for percentage, at 45.2 percent.
General manager Chuck Fletcher is an analytics believer, and the two have helped the Wild evolve into a much better puck-possession team, both through roster management and systematic on-ice changes. Through 51 games this season, the Wild had improved that number to 52.5 percent, seventh in the NHL.
The Islanders are secretive about their use of analytics but have had an analytics staffer on payroll for years. Furthermore, their roster moves under GM Garth Snow reek of someone listening to what the data suggests.
Snow brought in a goalie, Jaroslav Halak, who was better-liked by analytics adherents than by old-school hockey insiders who questioned his durability and work ethic. Halak, while not among the league leaders in save percentage or goals-against average this season, is tied for second in the stat that counts most -- 32 wins as of Feb. 19.
More significant, this season, Snow signed Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin and traded for Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk, all of whom stood to improve the team's puck possession. Leddy (56.9 Corsi for percentage in 2013-14) and Boychuk (55.2) easily outpaced the Isles' best d-men in Corsi for percentage in 2013-14.
Players such as Kyle Okposo and John Tavares both work with skills coach Darryl Belfry, whose practical analytics approach identifies areas on the ice in which individual players can improve. This blend of data along with on-ice modifications has helped put the Isles among the East's top contenders this season.
General manager Jim Rutherford said analytics were used heavily in the analysis of the Patric Hornqvist trade at the 2014 draft and will be a part of every move the organization makes moving forward.
"Prior to me getting here, they were using analytics, but everybody didn't buy in," Rutherford told ESPN.com. "I brought Jason Karmanos with me, and used the same analytics company that we used for a long time [in Carolina]. I also suggested that everybody needs to buy into it, and they have. We're believers in it."
In some organizations, there's an imbalance between the coach and the general manager regarding the use of analytics. However, in St. Louis, both GM Doug Armstrong and coach Ken Hitchcock are on board, making the Blues a leader in integrating analytics.
Armstrong was an early analytics adopter, using an outside firm to analyze data for about eight years.
Hitchcock gets instant matchup data during games and analyzes it during intermissions -- especially in regard to which matchups are working and which are not. He's also a believer in using analytics to assess which players are most effective when playing together.
The Lightning are an analytics franchise -- and not just on the ice.
Last February, the team announced a partnership with TIBCO Software to use its Spotfire platform to analyze and project everything from ticketing to beverage sales. That's important for Lightning fans because the healthier this franchise is as a business model, the better it is for its on-ice budget.
The Lightning also have employed Michael Peterson, who has computer science and mathematics degrees, to provide analytics for hockey decisions since 2009. Peterson previously consulted for the Cleveland Indians and Tampa Bay Rays.
Assistant GM Julien BriseBois is progressive in his use of analytics, and the Lightning's offseason moves reflected as much. That includes the signing of defenseman Anton Stralman -- who led New York Rangers regulars with a 56.4 Corsi for percentage in 2013-14.
There hasn't been a more dramatic analytics turnaround than in Toronto, as the Maple Leafs became a team that went from mocking analytics to making a push for the "all-in" category.
It's been just over a year since GM Dave Nonis revealed that the team's six-figure analytics budget went unspent year after year. Since Brendan Shanahan grabbed the reins as team president, the spending began.
The big hire was assistant GM Kyle Dubas -- based on his successful use of analytics to build the Canadian junior hockey Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. Dubas has since built an analytics team that clearly has influence, evidenced by the Leafs' late-summer free-agent additions and the midseason coaching change.
"As long as you have that interest and curiosity from the organization, and you can present it in a way that it's easily comprehended, it starts to have an impact," Dubas said earlier this season.
Another high-profile hire was Darryl Metcalf, who founded ExtraSkater.com, a site that provided in-depth player and game stats.
The on-ice results aren't there yet, but this is a team in need of a long-term build, not just a few tweaks.
In October, the Capitals announced the hiring of hockey analytics pioneer Tim Barnes, who is better known by his blog pseudonym Vic Ferrari in analytics circles, and regarded by some as the creator of Corsi and other possession-based statistics in use today. Assistant GM Don Fishman, who was on the hockey panel at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference last year, has long been an analytics advocate.
First-year GM Brian MacLellan appears to favor an evolution toward using as much data as possible in his decision-making, although the Brooks Orpik signing is one the analytics community universally panned. (Coach Barry Trotz reportedly admitted that Orpik's on-ice contribution was not the deciding factor in that hire. "The effect is not going to be in goals and assists," Trotz was quoted as saying in Puck Daddy. "It's going to be in culture and winning and attitude, and that's what Brooks Orpik does.")
Caps owner Ted Leonsis has seen the explosion of analytics use in the NBA as owner of the Washington Wizards, and he's on the advisory board for the Journal of Sports Analytics.
The Jets fall somewhere between believers and those with one foot in when it comes to analytics usage, but one source said the Blackhawks' analytics influence is felt in Winnipeg, largely due to GM Kevin Cheveldayoff.
"That's where Chevy came from," he said. "[They] do a fair bit of the same things Chicago does."
The result is showing on the ice. The hire of coach Paul Maurice has helped transform the Jets into a strong puck-possession team -- their 52.8 even-strength Corsi for percentage (as of Feb. 17) is sixth in the league.
One factor that gives us pause is the continued employment of Ondrej Pavelec, whose NHL sample size is large enough to suggest he's not a starting goalie for a playoff team. The good news on that front is that rookie Michael Hutchinson (with a .933 even-strength save percentage) has been leaned on for a sizable portion of the starts this season.
ONE FOOT IN
The Coyotes might look different had the sale to Chicago businessman Matt Hulsizer been completed in 2011, as he had planned to go heavily into analytics. Still, Arizona continues to grow its analytics department under GM Don Maloney.
Assistant GM Darcy Regier is an analytics proponent, and Bob Teofilo heads the Coyotes' analytics department, which recently hired Brian Rolston, formerly a player -- a non-traditional route for an analytics hire.
Because of Flames president Brian Burke's very public, if slightly misunderstood, anti-analytics stance, there's a temptation to assume the worst about the Flames' use of analytics.
But the Flames are quietly doing more than people realize. Under the leadership of Chris Snow, director of video and statistical analysis, the Flames employ a group of people to gather data every game, according to one source. General manager Brad Treliving is a mix of old-school scout and someone who is willing to examine analytics to move his team forward. That position sometimes puts him smack in the middle of the analytics debate.
"You're either on one side -- 'This is the only way to do it' -- or the other side -- 'This is the only way to do it,'" Treliving said after being a panelist in a November PrimeTime Sports analytics session. "People have to say, 'There's different ways to do it,' understanding and respecting both opinions."
The news that the Hurricanes are the mystery team hiring analytics guru Eric Tulsky came too late to move them up a category, although his presence alone suggests the Hurricanes are in deeper than they publicly admit. As the mystery surrounding Tulsky's hiring suggests, this is another secretive franchise.
New coach Bill Peters comes from the Mike Babcock coaching tree, and Babcock is a big believer in learning and using something new every day. As much as the Hurricanes have struggled at times this season, they've been a solid possession team all season long, with a 51.2 Corsi for percentage (as of Feb. 19) putting them 15th in the NHL.
GM Jim Nill comes from a Red Wings organization that has relied more on scouting and experience than analytics.
However, in coach Lindy Ruff, he has a man who is very familiar with analytics from his time in Buffalo, where he employed Jim Corsi as goalie coach.
Nill is an information consumer, always looking for an edge, and he has an open mind about analytics. But, his scouting roots are how he's had success, and that remains the main lens through which he evaluates players.
The Red Wings are an interesting contrast between coach Mike Babcock, who would hire a team of monkeys to run numbers if he thought it might give him a morsel of new information to analyze, and GM Ken Holland, who is a bit more old-school in his approach.
The Red Wings were looking to make an analytics hire in the front office over the summer, but still hadn't done it as of Feb. 20. As one source said, they're a bit "analyticsed-out" for the time being in the Red Wings front office.
But Babcock's hiring of assistant coach Jim Hiller, who developed his own analytics program, shows his progressive stance on the issue.
The Panthers were wise to pick Brian Macdonald as the team's director of analytics last summer, although they still have a skeleton crew compared to some other teams around the league.
Integrating him into the team's decision-making has been a season-long process because of when he was hired, and his impact may not be felt until next season.
"Anywhere there is data in this organization, I've tried to get my hands in it a little bit," Macdonald said. "That includes the business side of things now, also. The past couple months, I've been doing more business than hockey."
The Canadiens are a tight-lipped organization when it comes to just about everything, but it's important to consider that general manager Marc Bergevin comes from the analytics-friendly Chicago Blackhawks organization.
"He was exposed to it, and understood it," one NHL source said.
During the offseason, the Canadiens signed Tom Gilbert, a player popular in the advanced stats community because of his strong possession numbers in Florida.
However, the style of play in Montreal isn't conducive to puck possession, and coach Michel Therrien's team has consistently been in the bottom third in Corsi for percentage (as of Feb. 19, the Canadiens are No. 21 at 49.3 percent).
The Predators would argue that they deserve to be up a tier, and they would argue this to be true even if you don't know the inner workings of their front office.
Do they have an analytics guy full time? "Do I have to tell you all this stuff?" GM David Poile shot back with a small smile.
"We have people working on it, yeah. It's very interesting. To me, it's a lot like throwing spaghetti up on the wall. We're trying to learn a lot of new things."
Before he was hired by the Hurricanes, the Predators used analytics guru Eric Tulsky for analysis, so Poile isn't just spinning yarns there.
The Devils were aggressive this summer in hiring Sunny Mehta to run their analytics department, a hire that came on the recommendation of Devils owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer (who also own the Sixers).
New Jersey also hired the talented Sai Okabayashi, who created and ran the popular website shiftchart.com.
There's debate as to how much influence the analytics department has with the Devils, although it wasn't assembled until after some suspect free-agent signings the past couple of summers.
During an October conversation with ESPN The Magazine, then-coach Pete DeBoer said the interaction between the coaching staff and analytics department was minimal.
"I don't interact at all with the analytics department," DeBoer said. "We've always done analytics here on the coaching level, but as far as the new department and us as a staff, there's no overlap."
GM Ron Hextall has been open about his embrace of analytics in the past (during a previous stint with the Kings' organization), but declined to expand on the Flyers' use of analytics for this story. They have a manager of hockey analytics on staff in the form of Ian Anderson, who was hired in July 2014.
The Flyers appear to be a team in transition on this front, and the contract extension for Andrew MacDonald was much maligned in the analytics community. MacDonald got six years at $5 million per season, despite a Corsi for percentage of 44.5 percent.
On the positive side, they have changed practice routines based on data gathered by the Catapult tracking technology that is worn during practice.
The Sharks' majority owner is Hasso Plattner, who also happens to be the founder of SAP, a German software company that is now a partner with the NHL in delivering advanced statistics on the league's website.
It's not surprising given their home in Northern California that technology has long been a big part of what the Sharks do, for instance in their use of specifically tailored RinkNet scouting software.
However, coach Todd McLellan underscores the point that the numbers are only a part of what the team does when making decisions on the ice or in the front office.
"We're very much active in that world," McLellan said. "We believe in it from the top down. We think it's a supporting tool. It isn't the be-all, end-all. I'm of the opinion that the best analytics are still eyeballs."
Under former GM Mike Gillis, the Canucks went deep into the analysis of fatigue data and how that impacted performance. Gillis' focus was often on how to best enhance player performance through technology, rather than on traditional analytics.
New GM Jim Benning comes from a Bruins organization that is well-versed in analytics, but his background is primarily on the scouting side. Meanwhile, assistant GM Laurence Gilman is a regular at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference and is fluent in hockey analytics.
One Canucks source politely declined inquiries into their analytics use, so it's possible Vancouver is doing more than the organization is publicly letting on.
The Ducks neither have a full-time analytics person on staff nor are they employing an outside firm. They haven't hired anyone as freelance or on a part-time basis.
GM Bob Murray is certainly from the old school and is into proving that there's more than one way to win hockey games. However, the advanced stats suggest the Ducks' regular-season success might be fleeting come playoff time, particularly in one-goal games.
Coach Bruce Boudreau is a little more stat-friendly than Murray, but analytics aren't a big part of the Ducks' fiber as an organization.
The Rangers are very much aware of the analytics available and are keeping up with trends, but there's a healthy skepticism internally as to whether there's a real correlation between current analytics and winning hockey games.
That approach is reflected in their personnel choices. This past offseason, they let analytics darling Benoit Pouliot walk in free agency, while they elected to extend the contract of defenseman Dan Girardi rather than possession-producer Anton Stralman.
During his final season in New York, Stralman had a Corsi for percentage of 56.4 percent compared to Girardi's 50.1 percent that same season.
The Senators lost an analytics proponent when Tim Murray was lured away to run the Sabres. As with many things for the Senators, Ottawa's lack of investment in analytics may stem from a tight budget.
However, there's an argument to be made that a tight budget is even more of a reason to invest in analytics to find an edge, as we've seen in other sports such as MLB where the Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland A's use progressive strategies to beat teams with substantially larger payrolls.
Flames GM Brad Treliving, formerly the Coyotes assistant GM, said that this line of thinking was the case when he was in Arizona, and it was owned by the league. "We had to find percentage increases, and we had to do little things better," he said. "We couldn't afford big mistakes."
Analytics help prevent exactly that, a tactic the Sens could employ as they build a team up around some interesting young players.
The Avalanche haven't tried to hide their decision to essentially ignore analytics -- even when their decision-making is in line with advanced stats.
When coach Patrick Roy started pulling his goalie early, at a rate that suggested he was following analytics that promoted that kind of aggressive strategy, he quickly shot it down. "I never look at statistics," he said. "Just go with the feelings."
Despite their talented forwards, the Avalanche aren't a good possession team (their 44.2 Corsi for percentage is better than only the lowly Sabres' rate this season), and have made no moves to address it. If anything, their transactions have made it worse.
"They could be being coy," said a Western Conference executive about Colorado's anti-analytics stance. "But it doesn't seem like they're being coy."
Across sports, NFL teams are most reluctant to take advantage of analytics
By Kevin Seifert, ESPN.com | February 23, 2015
Don't mistake the Falcons' game-management problems in recent years for a disdain of analytics. General manager Thomas Dimitroff is a strong proponent of analytics in every form, saying, "We use analytics to eliminate as much guesswork as we possibly can."
Dimitroff employs analytics for draft evaluation, trade and talent assessments (including the controversial deal that brought them Julio Jones), game strategy and more. The Falcons have been implementing new technologies to monitor and improve player health for years, including measurements of exertion in practice and development of a sleep management program.
Former coach Mike Smith's well-documented strategic mistakes cost the Falcons a playoff spot and Smith his job. The Falcons had worked hard to move Smith into a more analytical way of thinking, but he did not make the transition successfully.
With Dimitroff's status in Atlanta considered somewhat shaky as well, the future of the Falcons' analytics program is in doubt. But for now, they are one of the more engaged teams in the NFL, and new coach Dan Quinn is expected to participate in the Falcons' innovative approach.
The Ravens are among the NFL's leaders in analytics, employing two analysts with topflight credentials and training in the business world, academia and applied statistics. What's more, the analytics staff gets significant support and buy-in from the front office and coaching staff.
Sandy Weil, a Yale and Carnegie Mellon graduate with Wall Street experience, has been the team's director of analytics since 2012. Eugene Shen, a Harvard and MIT grad with years of experience in applying advanced metrics to the financial markets, works directly with the coaching staff.
On the personnel side, their research produces unconventional wisdom, a strong suit of the Ravens' front office in general. That has included the aggressive acquisition of compensatory picks -- a category in which Baltimore has led the NFL over a number of years.
Their work is even more visible via coach John Harbaugh's game-management decisions. When Harbaugh went for it on fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line last season, his explanation was music to an analytics booster's ears.
"Part of that strategy," Harbaugh said, "is you have them backed up, so worst-case scenario if you have some confidence in your defense, you're going to get the ball back with a real good chance to recoup that field goal, and that's what we did. So it doesn't matter if you kick it from the 9-yard line or the 39-yard line -- it's still three points. We didn't come out of that any worse for the wear. We didn't lose any points on that. We would've rather had the four points for the touchdown, absolutely. That's why I went for it."
Team president Alec Scheiner arrived in 2012 from Dallas, where as senior vice president/general counsel he had helped conceive and implement the Cowboys' analytics system. Scheiner brought analytics chief Ken Kovash with him to Cleveland, and Kovash provides assistance to both the personnel side and the coaching staff.
Former Browns CEO Joe Banner was also a strong proponent of analytics. ESPN reported that under his leadership the team spent $100,000 on an independent study of the 2014 quarterback class based on advanced stats. The study revealed that Teddy Bridgewater was the top prospect for the year. But Banner's ouster in early 2014 changed the team's front-office dynamic, and as is well known, the Browns drafted Johnny Manziel.
New general manager Ray Farmer, while not a true believer in analytics, refers to himself as "a nerd by trait" and a "stats guy." Likewise, coach Mike Pettine is said to be open to alternative ideas. It remains to be seen exactly how much Farmer's leadership resembles Banner's in terms of analytics usage, but overall the Browns are one of the NFL's more committed teams.
The Cowboys have a long and storied history with analytics. Dallas legends Tex Schramm, Gil Brandt and Tom Landry were among the most systematic thinkers of their era. And in the early 1960s, as a recent FiveThirtyEight film portrayed, Indian immigrant A. Salam Qureishi began integrating numbers and data into the Cowboys' draft process.
The Cowboys' latest incarnation of analytics started with former team executive Alec Scheiner, now the Cleveland Browns' president. Since Scheiner's departure in 2012, the Cowboys have transitioned director of football research Thomas Robinson into the role vacated by Ken Kovash, who joined Scheiner in Cleveland.
While some question how committed owner/GM Jerry Jones is to the use of analytics, the Cowboys otherwise have a good reputation for being willing to spend and innovate. They develop their own advanced stats and are avid consumers of data produced by technology and independent analysts.
Dallas set an organizational goal to improve coach Jason Garrett's game-management decisions with the help of analytics and saw some results during its 2014 NFC East title season.
The Jaguars have a powerful analytics advocate who isn't going anywhere: the son of owner Shahid Khan.
Tony Khan is the team's senior vice president of football technology and analytics. The younger Khan manages a staff with three data analysts and has developed a good reputation for his serious approach to mastering analytics. As demonstrated in a 2013 ESPN The Magazine feature, he and the Jaguars aren't bashful about their innovative approach.
In some cases, the details they've released have raised doubt about the depth of the work. In 2013, for example, Khan revealed the data used to convince coach Gus Bradley to give quarterback Blaine Gabbert another year, including Gabbert's NFL-high completion percentage when facing six or more pass rushers. But the relevance of that statistic was minimal, given the fact that six-man rushes occurred on only 8 percent of the NFL's dropbacks over that time period.
The Jaguars have traditional football people in key decision-making roles, including GM David Caldwell. But while the Jaguars are still making the transformation from old-school to all-in on analytics, the franchise's progress, structure and commitment mark Jacksonville as one of the true "Believers" in the NFL.
Chiefs coach Andy Reid bought into analytics during his tenure with the Eagles, and in 2013 he brought Mike Frazier, his long-time statistical analysis coordinator, with him from Philadelphia. Frazier has the coach's trust, which is often the missing element for NFL teams with analytics staffers, in advocating detailed information that includes win probability scenarios.
Reid's proclivity for throwing the ball during his time in Philadelphia was at times ridiculed in the media, but in hindsight it had solid grounding in data that demonstrated the running game had been overvalued according to the evolving NFL passing rules. Reid was a leader at the time using screen plays as substitutes for run calls.
On the personnel side, the Chiefs are likewise engaged. GM John Dorsey, while acknowledging that "I'm an old-school guy," works with director of player personnel Chris Ballard to blend technology and data into their decisions on the draft and acquisitions, with additional input from salary cap analyst Brandt Tilis and a variety of third-party providers.
One NFL analytics professional called the Patriots a "big black hole" when it comes to revealing any secrets, which of course applies to most everything they do under coach Bill Belichick. But some evidence of the implementation of analytics has escaped the Patriots' gravitational field, and it suggests that the Patriots are one of the most innovative teams in the NFL.
Owner Robert Kraft worked with a former colleague in the 1990s to create statistical models for player valuation. And for the past 15 years, Belichick has relied heavily on his football research director, Ernie Adams, a former Wall Street trader who collaborates with the coach to develop a variety of cutting-edge approaches to team building and game play.
Belichick recently told The Boston Globe: "Ernie's really a great sounding board for me personally and other members of our staff. Particularly coaching staff. Strategy, rules, decisions. Ernie's very, very smart.''
One major strategy employed by the Patriots has been an arbitrage system in personnel, whether multiplying draft picks via draft day trades or moving their veteran players (such as defensive tackle Richard Seymour in 2009, receiver Randy Moss in 2010 and offensive lineman Logan Mankins in 2014) before they lose value. Based in part on such moves, the Patriots have had unmatched success in the Belichick era, with four Super Bowl rings and counting.
On the field, Belichick's approach appears less consistent. His failed fourth-down gambit against the Colts in 2009 was decried by fans but cheered by analysts who recommend that teams play more aggressively. But in other cases, he has coached rather conservatively, defying his reputation.
Regardless, there is little doubt that the Patriots invest time and energy looking for every edge, and their commitment to ruthlessly outsmarting the competition is a Belichick trademark.
Led by coach Chip Kelly and "sports science coordinator" Shaun Huls, who earned his stripes training Navy SEALs, the Eagles have developed a health regimen that incorporates hydration tracking, individualized smoothies, sleep monitors, daily massage therapy and Catapult's player-output technology. Under Kelly, who consolidated control of the football side of the organization in January, the Eagles will consider any technology, data or strategy on the market.
The Eagles have used analytics over the years as much as any other NFL team, dating back to Dick Vermeil and more recently Andy Reid (now in Kansas City), Joe Banner (now in Atlanta) and recently-deposed GM Howie Roseman, whose influence is now limited to contracts and salary cap management. The Eagles employ a small team of analysts and consultants, even after the departure of Mike Frazier, who joined Reid with the Chiefs.
While Kelly was expected to innovate on and off the field in Philly, he hasn't asked the Eagles to convert fourth downs as frequently as he did at Oregon. Then again, the Ducks' potent offense was facing college defenses.
As one informed member of the NFL analytics community put it, "You can arrive at the same answer through math or through experience. I think he arrived at those answers at Oregon through experience. He has an open mind, but he lets the situation dictate what he does."
Paraag Marathe got his break with the 49ers in 2001 when coach Bill Walsh and exec Terry Donahue hired him based on his work as part of a consulting team providing a data-oriented approach to the draft. In the years since, Marathe has risen to team president, along the way building a robust database and an analytics department with "four or five folks," he told FiveThirtyEight, working on "helping scouts better evaluate players, helping coaches, as well as the salary cap."
Marathe couldn't have a stronger advocate than CEO Jed York, and said he'd "like to think" the whole organization has bought in to analytics. Colin Kaepernick's 2014 team-friendly contract was crafted according to analytical research, with a refundable, "pay as you go" structure, setting an NFL precedent for QB contracts.
On the other hand, the 2011 signing of 28-year-old running back Frank Gore to a three-year contract extension worth $21 million raised doubts. It paid off -- Gore has run for at least 1,100 yards in the past four seasons -- but the contract ran counter to the new analytics wisdom against committing premium cash and salary cap space to the running back position.
On the coaching side, former coach Jim Harbaugh wanted little to do with analytics. But new coach Jim Tomsula, while he has similarly old-school roots, is, according to sources, more amenable to input from the analytics staff.
ONE FOOT IN
Bills CEO Russ Brandon declared his intent to build a "robust" analytics department in January 2013. He hired Mike Lyons, an MIT engineering graduate, as director of analytics in October that year and heralded then-coach Doug Marrone's commitment to data via Catapult Sports' technology for monitoring exertion in practice and player health.
Buffalo's follow-through has been halting. Lyons' work didn't register with Marrone, and the coach routinely punted or kicked field goals on makeable fourth downs when a commitment to analytics would have led to a less rigid approach.
"I think you have to consider the environment in which those analytics are done," Marrone said in 2014. "Because, if it was proven that way and it was definitely a fact, I think that you would see all of us do it. None of us are going to put our teams in jeopardy to do that. . . . A lot of times, when people on the outside are looking in, I don't know if they truly understand what the data is and where it's coming from."
It remains to be seen whether the Bills can impose a more effective influence on Ryan, who employed traditional game management during his tenure with the Jets.
The Bears are a team in transition, and the depth of their future commitment to analytics remains to be seen. Chicago was clearly committed under former GM Phil Emery, who hired STATS LLC manager Mitch Tanney as director of analytics in 2013 and integrated Tanney's work into the Bears' processes. Former coach Marc Trestman, also an Emery hire, approached game management with unconventional thinking as well.
But Emery and Trestman were ousted after the 2014 season, and the Bears are expected to pull back from the front edge of NFL analytics. While Tanney remains to provide input for new GM Ryan Pace, the Bears will almost certainly take a more traditional approach under Pace and his first major hire, coach John Fox, a highly respected but conventional coach.
Pace told reporters in January: "I look at analytics as a tool in our toolbox to better evaluate players. I don't want you guys thinking that I'm some 'Moneyball' GM, that's not me. But analytics is important."
The Packers employ one of the NFL's most experienced analysts, Mike Eayrs, who has spent 14 years as Green Bay's director of research and development after 16 years in a similar role with the Minnesota Vikings. Eayrs maintains Green Bay's databases, meets weekly during the season with coach Mike McCarthy to pass along reports, trends and advice for the upcoming game and speaks to the team every Thursday during the season about officiating tendencies.
That doesn't put Green Bay at the forefront of the NFL's analytics movement. McCarthy, like many other NFL coaches, buys in only minimally to the latest generation of analytics and prefers Eayrs' more standard approach to stats. Furthermore, as the NFC Championship Game made clear, McCarthy does not sufficiently incorporate analytics into his game management. He twice chose short field goals and later triggered his four-minute offense too soon, each time defying the widely-available data on win probability.
On the other hand, McCarthy has proved himself to be relatively progressive with his management of practice and player health, responding to data to flip his traditional Friday and Saturday practice routines.
The Packers rarely use analytics on the personnel side, as general manager Ted Thompson admitted in a recent interview with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Thompson, an old-school GM, said, "I'm not saying I believe in [analytics], but I'm not going to shut my ears to it. ... We are beginning the process of dabbling in analytics."
Owner Steve Ross and general manager Dennis Hickey have become proponents of analytics, and new VP of football operations Mike Tannenbaum, formerly with the Jets, is a recent convert. Ross is a heavy user of analytics in his real estate business and has been frustrated by its relative infancy in the NFL.
In the summer of 2014, the team hired Dennis Lock, who holds a graduate degree in statistics, as head analyst (now director of analytics) to "head a football analytics group." At the same time, the Dolphins announced the hiring of sports science analyst Dave Regan, and in September, Tom Pasquali, with a graduate degree in applied statistics and experience in the Yankees' front office, joined Lock's staff.
Tannenbaum said in January he was planning to hire a "sports performance director" and acknowledged, "We have a long way to go, but we started something in terms of trying to give ourselves a competitive advantage."
Miami has monitored player health for several years, and coach Joe Philbin has altered his practice schedule to improve sleep habits by becoming the only coach to give players Thursday off. But Philbin focuses on game film far more than stats, and it remains to be seen how well he'll use Miami's burgeoning analytics department.
General manager Reggie McKenzie faced a massive modernization project when he was hired in 2012 in the wake of the death of the Raiders' legendary longtime owner Al Davis. McKenzie's efforts have included the infusion of technology and data into the football operation.
George Li, a former stats researcher with ESPN and the NFL Network, became a defensive assistant for Oakland in 2011 and then the Raiders' statistical analyst in 2012. Li manages databases and statistics provided by Pro Football Focus and STATS Inc., among other sources, serving both the personnel and coaching sides for Oakland.
The coaching staff has been receptive to analytics, and new head coach Jack Del Rio, a former player with a reputation as an old-school traditionalist, has shown some interest in data and analytics, as well.
At the 2013 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Del Rio participated in a panel on alternative ways to manage game situations. He spoke of the "courage" required to split with the conventional "book" when the data suggests it.
The Seahawks are heavily invested in sports science and aggressively pursue whatever techniques can help their players maintain conditioning. Their football support staff includes a director of player health and performance (Sam Ramsden), a sports scientist (Patrick Ward), an applied sports scientist (Dean Riddle) and a sports scientist specialist (Thomas Garcia) in addition to a full complement of athletic trainers. The Seahawks have also worked with GPSSports to track their players with GPS chips during practice.
How committed the Seahawks are to data analysis in their decision-making is less clear. After letting go of Todd Nielson, who filed reports for coach Pete Carroll, in 2013 Seattle hired Brian Eayrs as director of research and development. Eayrs is a former college quarterback and assistant coach who has worked at STATS LLC and the son of longtime NFL data analyst Mike Eayrs, who has worked for the Green Bay Packers for 14 years.
While Carroll and the Seahawks received plenty of flak for their decision to pass from the one-yard line on the 2015 Super Bowl's decisive play, Benjamin Morris at FiveThirtyEight made the mathematical case that the play call was more sensible than it first seemed.
The Buccaneers have moved quickly in the past year to begin incorporating advanced stats. In March 2014, Tampa Bay hired a full-time manager of analytics, Tyler Oberly, who provides data to both management and the coaching staff. A former analytics consultant in several other industries, Oberly created the Elitics Model for evaluating player value, putting all NFL players on a single scale with a "Player Efficiency Rating" similar to John Hollinger's PER for basketball.
GM Jason Licht, who arrived in January 2014, comes from a scouting background but has developed a newfound appreciation for data, saying last year that being able to incorporate analytics was "an important part of my demands" upon taking the Tampa Bay job: "Early on in my career, I was from the old school where it was, you just watch the tape. [Now I] feel that analytics help us, guide us and raise some questions that help us evaluate the player a little bit better."
Coach Lovie Smith is known as a highly conservative and traditional game manager, but he has been open to some sports science techniques to help players recover more quickly.
The Cardinals were in the analytics dark ages prior to Steve Keim's ascension to general manager in 2013. On several occasions, Keim has said he wants to include not only scouting but also analytics, and he hired Mike Disner, who was with the NFL Management Council for four years, as director of football administration to further the transition.
Disner's primary goal is to work on the Cardinals' salary cap, but he was also involved in transitioning the team's 2013 approach to free agency to incorporate statistical data and projections. Much of his work mirrors what most NFL teams have been doing already, but the Cardinals were essentially starting from scratch in this area when Keim was elevated.
The Panthers got the attention of the data community when coach Ron Rivera began aggressively approaching fourth-down conversions during the 2013 season. Rivera became known as "Riverboat Ron" for his willingness to gamble, but he backed down from the strategy in 2014 when his offense grew was less reliable.
Rivera says he makes decisions more by feel than data. "I still believe figures lie and liars figure," he said. "You can look for a stat to support whatever you want. . . . At the end of the day, there is a feel, there is a rhythm to the game and you have to find a way to match the rhythm of your opponent."
Director of team administration Rob Rogers and the Panthers have taken steps to modernize their approach to technology and analytics, including building their own digital editing system. In 2014, Carolina started working with with Statsports, which provides health-tracking data.
Cincinnati is notoriously one of the NFL's thriftiest teams. According to one source familiar with their operation, the Bengals are more likely to seek pro bono assistance from the University of Cincinnati's analytics program than spend real money on developing their own advanced stats.
The Bengals did contract with Catapult for the 2014 season to track player exertion during practice. During training camp in 2014, coach Marvin Lewis said, "It's been very helpful to me. I like the information I'm gaining from it."
Informed sources say Lewis is "willing to listen" but is almost always skeptical of analytics to be used in other areas. The Bengals don't have a traditional general manager, meaning Lewis largely has the finally say on such matters. As a result, the Bengals haven't embraced analytics nearly as much as some other franchises.
The team's use of analytics remains in infancy, but executive vice president and general manager John Elway is committed to future development.
"I'm a numbers guy," Elway told ESPN.com's Jeff Legwold last month. "I know the power they have, but we're still trying to develop a role for it. I have a lot of résumés from people who want to help us put that together, but I would say we understand it can be a tool and we're trying to develop what it will be and what it will do for us."
As it stood when the offseason began, the Broncos tracked situational tendencies thanks to the work of Tony Lazarro, director of football information systems. But Elway acknowledged "we want to get our arms around" analytics and that "we haven't used as much of it to this point."
Elway said he plans to send a contingent to the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference after scheduling related to the Super Bowl prevented attendance in 2014.
The Lions hired Brian Xanders in 2013 as their senior personnel executive and charged him with overhauling their scouting database as it relates to the draft and advance scouting. Xanders retains significant authority in the personnel department as general manager Martin Mayhew has worked to modernize the team's draft process.
Mayhew said the Lions use "some" analytics and qualified his interest this way: "To me, it's like when you talk about the combine and how high a guy can jump, how fast can he run. It's just a piece of the puzzle. You don't draft a guy because he had the fastest time or can jump the highest."
In 2014, the Lions became the only known NFL team to contract with Zebra Inc., which uses RFID technology rather than GPS, for health data.
Staff counsel Jon Dykema has dabbled in analytics but has multiple other responsibilities. Coach Jim Caldwell displays no evidence that he uses analytics, or that data is available to him, in making game-management decisions.
The Texans have taken steps toward analytic fluency and have indicated interest in stats, but their commitment is minimal.
General manager Rick Smith is known to have investigated companies that offer GPS health tracking, and he has said the Texans use advanced stats in the draft process. Personnel executive Brian Gaine arrived in 2014 from a Miami Dolphins franchise that is relatively advanced by comparison. But the Texans don't use an outside company to compile any data, and their internal structure is underdeveloped.
Coach Bill O'Brien, a Brown graduate, has made clear that numbers and data play only a small role at best in his decision-making. "[Y]ou've got to be careful there, but we definitely in all three phases use, I guess the word would be 'analytics,' to figure out what the tendencies are, what our calls may be in those situations. But at the end of the day, it's football and you just have to put your player in the best position to go make plays."
The Colts are among the NFL teams that use Catapult's GPS technology during practice, allowing them to monitor exertion and conditioning. Coach Chuck Pagano said, "We understand there are going to be injuries; they're part of the game. But by using these techniques, we can eliminate some of the soft-tissue stuff, the groins, the quads, the hamstrings."
Otherwise, under general manager Ryan Grigson and Pagano, the Colts operate as traditionally as any team in the league.
Grigson is a former NFL player who fully trusts conventional methods of player evaluation: tape and instincts. Pagano, meanwhile, routinely has been criticized for punting in fourth-and-short situations, passing up the opportunity to further employ the versatility of quarterback Andrew Luck in an attempt to maintain a field-position advantage. The Colts, in short, do not buy in.
General manager Rick Spielman is an obsessive accumulator of information, whether it is on potential draft picks, during a coaching search or in preparation for free agency. Before hiring coach Mike Zimmer, Spielman developed 13 separate profiles of NFL coaches, based on history, to help guide his search.
This approach informs his methods with analytics as well. In 2014, the Vikings used an intern-level employee in the personnel department to accumulate data. It's unclear how much it was used by decision-makers; the intern was eventually assigned to do advance work for special-teams coordinator Mike Priefer.
Zimmer takes a decidedly conventional approach to game management, and in a 2014 interview on the topic, Spielman said: "We have all those charts and looked at them. But when the game is going, you still have to go with what your gut instinct is."
The Saints might be in the "Skeptics" camp overall, but they don't show the hostility to analytics principles that some NFL teams do.
Coach Sean Payton is relatively aggressive on fourth down -- although no one stat is the whole story, the Saints have more fourth-down offensive snaps (34) than any other team with a winning record over the past two seasons. Also, Payton's onside kick call in Super Bowl XLIV will go down in NFL history. But the evidence suggests Payton's decisions were inspired less by data than by his instincts and confidence in New Orleans' high-powered offense.
The Saints have become quite interested in technology and recently served as a beta test for Zebra's Beyond Gameday statistics that track exertion and movement via RFID technology during games. Payton has also spoken publicly on a number of occasions about the increased efficiency of digital film.
"Our ability to access certain cut-ups, statistical data has changed, and we have more of it and more readily available," Payton said. "And now it's a matter of looking and trying to put values on what we think is most important and making sure we're not running down a road with something that's not."
Don't be misled by the age of the Giants' coach (Tom Coughlin is 68) or the franchise's general disposition toward tradition. A fair amount of activity is going on behind the scenes.
The Giants' hiring of performance manager Joe Danos underscores their commitment to tracking player health, from GPS technology through Catapult to consultations from sleep experts. They were also the first NFL team known to consult opponent analysis via Pro Football Focus to assist the work of director of football information Jon Berger.
Giants general manager Jerry Reese has downplayed the use of data in drafting and other football operations, telling the team's website in 2013: "We try to put the numbers in and see what the numbers say, but we put our eyes on players and see what our eyes say."
Still, the Giants waded into the advanced analytics field in the summer of 2014, hiring Connor Lewis to develop football analytics. Lewis' background was in ticket sales with the Tennessee Titans, and he is applying techniques used in business data tracking to the Giants' football side.
The Steelers are among the NFL teams that use Catapult to track their players' exertion and conditioning during practice. This in itself represents a major step for an organization steeped in tradition. The Steelers have been one of the NFL's most successful franchises for several generations and believe it stems from a steady hand rather than quick steps to embrace a fad or the newest trend.
On a quiet and experimental level, the Steelers have also begun to develop statistical information that could be useful for player acquisition and game management. But it is not believed that the team's football leaders, general manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin, have embraced the concept.
In 2014, Steelers team president Art Rooney II told ESPN 970: "I think the computer research and all the information that can get stored, there is an ability now to call up more information, more quickly, which I think that every team going to want to take advantage of, and I think we're no exception."
Rams executive vice president/chief operating officer Kevin Demoff is an advocate of statistical analysis and has participated in the annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.
He has cited the 2012 trade that brought the Rams a bounty of draft picks from the Washington Redskins in exchange for the No. 2 overall pick as an exemplary case. The deal meant the Rams would have 12 first- or second-round picks on their roster under the favorable rookie scale. "Twelve of our best players will make less than $25 million combined in 2014," Demoff said.
Coach Jeff Fisher, while generally a traditionalist, is open-minded and is known to take a nontraditional approach to game management -- especially with fake punts deep in his own territory.
But general manager Les Snead, whose roots are in scouting, is more hostile to analytics. He has endorsed the anti-"Moneyball" book called "Scout's Honor" and has emphasized that teams must "feel" a player's talents more than measure them: "It's like if someone asks you to pick someone as a graduation speaker. Do you just go on his nice résumé or how well he can write and put words together on a sheet of paper? Well, those may be the metrics of the situation. But for me, before you pick that speaker, I want actually go hear him and feel him speak. You want to go to that room and get the feeling of how that room reacts when he talks. Does he move the crowd? If you're in the room, you can feel it, and then you can say, 'Yeah, now he's that guy!'"
For the past six seasons, the Jets were built around the old-school sensibilities of Rex Ryan, with line coach Dave DeGuglielmo summing up the traditional mindset with a 2012 rant against analytics: "All of a sudden we're 'Moneyballing' offensive lineman," he said. "[The] world I live in isn't a fantasy world."
Ryan's departure does not herald a new approach to analytics. Team owner Woody Johnson has given no indication analytics will be incorporated into the Jets' football operations.
New GM Mike Maccagnan, whose background is as a scout and scouting director, has spent most of his NFL career with the Houston Texans, one of the least analytics-friendly organizations in the NFL. New coach Todd Bowles comes from the Arizona Cardinals, another organization that has done little with analytics. It's safe to say that bringing analytics to the Jets was not a priority in either hire.
Mike McCoy is one of the most traditional coaches in the NFL and appears to have no interest in using data, whether to assist with player health and safety or to manage game situations.
"I'm going to go with my gut decision on those things," McCoy said during the 2014 season. "No one on a piece of paper can tell me this is the right thing or the wrong thing to do. ... It's all about what you think is best, and what you think is best for your team at that time."
GM Tom Telesco emphasizes the importance of "good football decisions," based on instincts and "hard old-school scouting." Upon joining the Chargers in 2013, he indicated an openness to bringing stats to his evaluations. But his background is in scouting, and he cut his teeth in an Indianapolis Colts front office led by Bill Polian, who vocally opposes the use of analytics in football, especially in regard to personnel decisions.
The Titans are not into analytics. They have no chief data analyst and, more important, no advocate or endorsement for analytics from their football leaders.
When he was hired in 2014, coach Ken Whisenhunt gave an interview that resonated throughout the analytics community. Asked by a Nashville radio station whether he pays attention to analytics, he said "Not really," then added:
"[I]f you get so wrapped up in analytics, sometimes you lose a feel for the game. And to me, there is an emotional side of the game and there is also a feel for the game. When you see a guy like [Frank] Wycheck make a one-handed catch in the back of the end zone with the guy draped all over him, how do you put an analytic on that? I mean, I respect it, I respect the fact that you can do studies and that you can put time in about it. But to me ... there is a lot of feel and emotion involved."
The Redskins were named by source after source as the NFL team with the least interest in using analytics in football operations. Despite Washington's massive operation on the business side, there is no analytics chief on the football side.
That wasn't true for seven weeks in 2006, when the Redskins hired Jeff Dominitz to produce statistical analysis. But then-coach Joe Gibbs indicated his disdain for analytics, saying, "We're still about people here." Soon Dominitz was gone.
The recent five-year GM tenure of Bruce Allen was likewise not an era of analytics for Washington, and there are no signs that will change anytime soon with Allen as team president. New GM Scot McCloughan comes from San Francisco, a team close to the front edge of analytics usage in the NFL, but he has a scouting background and has given no indications of an analytics-friendly approach.
With Daniel Snyder as owner since 1999, Washington has become known for inefficient spending, consistently handing out some of the worst contracts in the NFL. The Skins are so disengaged from the advanced stats movement that even local legend Tony Kornheiser, no stathead himself, recently pleaded with them to try analytics to turn around a franchise that's gone 7-25 the past two seasons.