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Numbers guys dominate playing field in pro sports

| Saturday, Sept. 24, 2011

No matter how good your seats are at Consol Energy Center, it's impossible for anyone to track the location of every player on the ice for an entire hockey game.

But high-level computer analysis allows Penguins coaches to do that -- and see real-time statistical and performance information about every player in every game across the entire league, said Dan MacKinnon, director of player personnel. With that kind of data, they can scout opposing teams for tendencies and evaluate players for trades and free agency.

"As the game becomes more sophisticated, this is where people are going to turn," MacKinnon said. "There's no doubt the role of analytics in hockey will continue to grow."

The outside consultants doing this data collection and analysis for the Penguins are the same sort of advanced statisticians, economists and mathematicians behind "Moneyball," the book-turned-movie that opened on Friday in theaters. The book and movie tell how Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane (portrayed in the movie by Brad Pitt) used certain statistics to help identify good baseball players who had been overlooked while using traditional tactics.

Increasingly, these analysts are moving into basketball, football, hockey and soccer.

Teams across sports always have tracked opponents to look for some advantage, such as the tendencies of a National Football League offense or of a baseball pitcher to throw a certain pitch in a given situation. Advanced analytics, however, gives teams access to incredible amounts of data that can be crunched only by computers.

With the A's about 20 games out of first place yesterday, plenty of critics point out that the numerical analysis cited in "Moneyball's" narrative does not account for all of Oakland's success in the early 2000s. But it's also clear that teams increasingly are looking at advanced statistics as a tool that can help them win games.

"It's just another thing, a way to look at what we can't see with the human eye," said Toby Moskowitz, a University of Chicago professor who co-authored "Scorecasting," a book that uses numbers to break up some common misconceptions about sports. "There's too much information, and this is just a way of processing that. It's got to be worth something."

In football, statistical analyses have led to some plays that can make fans cringe. When the New Orleans Saints successfully used an on-side kick to open the second half of Super Bowl XLIV, coach Sean Payton had the numerical odds on his side, said Aaron Schatz, creator of, a website that closely tracks football statistics and probabilities.

In the notoriously secretive National Football League, it's hard to say exactly how numbers are changing the game, but statistics could be the reason teams keep the ball on fourth down, rely more heavily on shotgun formations or use running back tandems, Schatz said. The popularity of fantasy football, which awards points based on the scoring and success of individual players, has made fans more aware of numbers in the game.

"It's a thing most fans haven't noticed unless they're paying attention," Schatz said. "It's there for those who want it."

The Pittsburgh Steelers rarely talk about what they do to prepare for opponents: "We don't divulge any of our game-planning strategies because it would put us at a competitive disadvantage," spokesman Burt Lauten said. But team insiders said they use numbers and often are approached by statisticians offering to use scientific algorithms to break down game scenarios.

Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians told the Tribune-Review that numbers guys have a place in the locker room: Before playing an opponent, the team breaks down every single play of the opponents' past four games and its last game against Pittsburgh.

"Statistical analysis has always been a big part of the game, breaking down bit by bit in every area, what do they do versus this formation, what do they do versus that formation, versus this personnel group," Arians said. "That's how you put your game plan together to try to create mismatches."

With that kind of information, players can start to understand the behavior of an opponent to anticipate what they will see in certain game situations.

"We look at a lot of tendencies, what teams have done in the past," Steelers linebacker James Farrior said. "I think it's more getting a feel for a personality of a team."

At the same time, relying too much on analysis can hurt a team, said Steelers receiver Hines Ward. When the Steelers passed on a late third-down play in last season's American Football Conference title game, he said, everyone thought they would run.

"That's a prime example of statistics show, 'Third and short or whatever, there's no way the Steelers are going to throw the ball,'" Ward said. "Well, we did. Sometimes (going off statistics) works. Sometimes you try to counter it. ... It's a feel game."

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