Statistics in sports: What do they mean?

May 13, 2015 by John Bihn, Staff Writer

When Williams and Amherst faced off in the first intercollegiate baseball game on July 1, 1859, the only statistics reported in the box score were runs and outs. Over 150 years later, the Williams Sports Information department covers every at-bat, stolen base, error and strike out accumulated throughout the Ephs’ season, as well as statistics for 31 other varsity sports at Williams.

As a statistics major, I’ve always been drawn towards utilizing numbers to tell a story. This has made it difficult for me to determine how much I should focus on statistics while covering sports for the Record. I feel that statistics can provide context that adds to a story when qualitative descriptions might not succinctly give the whole picture. While covering women’s basketball, I decided that writing “the Ephs experienced their first loss … making only 22.2 percent of their shots” (“Women’s basketball secures tight 74-66 victory over Bowdoin,” Jan. 20) gave more insight into the Ephs’ game than vaguely saying “the Ephs shot poorly in their first loss of the season.”

From talking with friends, I know that there are many people on campus interested in looking at sports in a quantitative manner. This semester, Jean-Luc Etienne ’15 and Adam Datema ’15 formed the Williams Sports Analytics Association (WSAA) to give interested students a forum to explore sports analytics. This group hopes to eventually begin work on long-term projects, perhaps examining successful strategies for filling out a bracket during March Madness or evaluating which player should be named MVP in the NHL or NBA.

One of our future goals is to communicate with the sports teams at Williams to see if the WSAA can provide them with useful information. For example, by finding which lineups on the women’s basketball team have the greatest offensive efficiency, perhaps Head Coach Pat Manning can use this information to help decide which players to put on the court at the same time.

I received a sobering reminder that not everybody is as enthusiastic about statistics as I am earlier this month at the Deford/Pinsky Awards Ceremony. I asked an innocent question to guest speaker Jamie Horowitz, president of Fox Sports National Networks. “How would you say that sports media has been impacted by the increasing role of statistics in sports?” Horowitz’s answer surprised me. He thought that his best attempt to introduce statistics to a wide audience was in the show Numbers Never* Lie, which struggled before being rebranded away from a show that solely revolved around statistics. I was confused; with all the explanatory power that statistics provides, why wouldn’t people watch such a show?

I got my answer last Thursday night, when I walked into ’82 Grill and saw ESPN’s 30 for 30 about the Detroit Pistons playing. Would I have kept watching if they displayed a statistic about Isiah Thomas’ record-breaking third quarter in Game Six of the 1988 NBA Finals? Maybe. But what actually glued me to the TV was Thomas crumpling in pain during the third quarter, the team doctor describing how bad his ankle was, and then seeing Thomas limp across the court to score 25 points in the third quarter. Thomas single-handedly willed his team through Game Six, only to heartbreakingly lose the game (and eventually the series) in the final seconds.

Although it was Thomas’ heart that made the segment inspirational, I still believe that the accompanying statistics cement his legacy. The fact that no other player has scored 25 points in a quarter during the NBA Finals only further demonstrates the dominance of Thomas’ performance. While statistics will never replace the human element of sports, I believe that statistics can and should be used to evaluate the performance of athletes, and that by doing so we can enhance rather than detract from their stories.

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