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What We Learned: The Grantland 2013 Roundtable

Our experts weigh in on the continued proliferation of advanced stats, the year's most exciting sports moments, and what to look for in 2014

As we head into the final days of December, Grantland asked four of its writers — Jonah Keri, Sean McIndoe, Bill Barnwell, and Zach Lowe — to participate in a year-end roundtable discussion with Chris Ryan on the year in sports. We covered some advanced stats, the state of team building, moments of the year, and things to keep an eye on in 2014. Enjoy.

Behind the Numbers: Pitch Framing, SportVU, Corsi, and More

The four of you use advanced statistics to analyze your particular sports. What was a metric that you found especially useful this year?

Jonah Keri: The advance in our ability to measure the effects of pitch framing was a big one. The notion that a catcher could net more strikes for his pitcher (or take strikes away) by the way he positioned his glove and body is something we all intuitively believed, but couldn’t properly quantify. Now, we have stat tables that rank catcher runs saved via pitch framing the same way we do for home runs, stolen bases, and strikeouts. We also have writers constructing intelligent essays on the topic to further our understanding of framing and how the best framers are able to hone their abilities.

We still have a long way to go, though. Whenever a new stat floats into our consciousness, we have a tendency to get overexcited about it, because quantifying a skill once thought to be unquantifiable (or at least tough to measure) is pretty cool for those of us who look at baseball (or any sport) in an analytical way. Still, I have a hard time believing that Jose Molina is so good at framing that over a full season he saves about as many runs that way as, say, Todd Helton produced with his bat in his prime. I talked to a bunch of savvy front-office types last week in Orlando, and they felt the same way.

Moreover, framing has become such a dominant part of the conversation in 2013 that we risk overdoing it with that stat and losing sight of other analytical questions that warrant exploration. On catchers alone, I’d love to know how much a great game-caller like Yadier Molina helps his team by doing something as simple as walking out to the mound to calm down Carlos Martinez in a big spot during the playoffs. Are some catchers secretly providing incredible value to their teams because they have great instincts when it comes to pitch sequencing, calling the right pitch at the right time so often that pitchers never shake them off, leading to fewer runs scored by opposing hitters? And while we’re here, when will we perfect the technology to start cloning Molinas?

Hey, anything is possible. What about you, Sean? What stat did you find particularly interesting/useful? Was there anything in hockey that had the same kind of effect that pitch framing had in baseball?

Sean McIndoe: Having to follow the baseball guy in an analytics discussion just serves to highlight how far hockey is lagging behind the other sports, and how much of our “advanced” stats aren’t really all that advanced. We’re probably a good 25 years behind baseball thinking right now, and still having to fight battles with people who think that concepts like “shot attempts” are too complicated.

That’s changing, slowly, but we’ve got a long way to go. There’s some good work out there — I’ve written about the stuff Eric Tulsky and friends are doing on zone entries, and I like the direction that Chris Boyle is taking with his shot quality project — but a lot of the battle right now is still around educating people on some basic concepts.

As for a stat that’s over-relied upon, or at least not always very well understood, I’d point to some of the basic possession metrics that come up most often. Over a large enough sample, something like Fenwick Close tells us more about future performance than just about any other stat, including goals for and against. But people seem to want something that correlates to winning perfectly, and that’s not how stats work. You hear people saying things like, “Well, this team outshot that team tonight and they still lost, so Fenwick or Corsi must be worthless.” That’s dumb for a lot of reasons, but old-school types still think they’re scoring some sort of takedown with it.

You still hear bad arguments like that in baseball circles, too, but it’s rare and usually gets dismissed out of hand as obviously disingenuous. Hockey will get there too someday, but it feels like we’ve still got a long way to go.

Zach, you’ve been reporting from the front lines of a pretty huge development in NBA analytics with the popularization of SportVU cameras and data. How has SportVU changed your understanding of the game?

Zach Lowe: We’re just so early in the SportVU revolution. Most teams are only figuring out how the system works, and what basic data the company behind the cameras (STATS LLC) can provide. But in reporting my feature on the Raptors’ use of the system, it was interesting how emphatically their model of ghost defense suggested that having the right help defenders take an extra step or two toward the basket had a real deterrent effect on scoring — that packing the paint, even in an exaggerated style, is a helpful tactic. “The guy with the ball has to see bodies between himself and the rim,” the thought goes.

It will be interesting to see how universal that truism is, especially as the league orients even more dramatically around 3-point shooting. We’ve also seen some early research arguing that teams should be sending an extra player to the offensive glass instead of worrying so much about transition defense. But that is inconclusive, and the publicly available data so far mostly reinforces what we already know — drives to the basket produce good things, certain players run around more than others, Marc Gasol touches the ball at the elbow, etc. We’ll learn more about the bigger questions once teams devote more resources to the cameras, though teams are so secretive that ferreting out the juicy nuggets will be tough. But there’s lots to learn about both team-level strategies and individual players.

The NBA is fairly receptive to “advanced metrics” now, though it varies a ton by team, and especially by coaching staff. But “analytics” can mean anything, really. I mean, some “advanced stats” aren’t really all that advanced. True shooting percentage includes 3s and free throws. Rebounding rate is a simple percentage. Points per possession is an elementary school–level ratio. Plus/minus is easy, and though the math behind the best adjusted plus/minus settings is very complicated, the general idea is easy to understand. Lineup data is intuitive. Threes are mostly better than long 2s. Duh.

There are still stray scouts, coaches, and team execs who don’t like advanced numbers, but they are mostly living in an outdated world and conjuring geeky straw men who love math but don’t watch games. There are places where there is almost no synergy between the analytics staff and the GM, or between an analytics-oriented front office and the coaching staff actually controlling the on-court product. Even some open-minded coaches enjoy it only when the numbers support what they already believe.

But the anti-math dinosaurs are on their way out, especially with a new wave of GMs in place.

Determining Value and Building a Team

Bill, let’s move on from the advanced stats conversation and talk about team building. I’ve been especially interested in your work on the construction of the Chiefs and Panthers. Those are two special cases, since both clubs were largely built by GMs who are no longer there (in Scott Pioli and Marty Hurney). Do you feel like, both in those cases and in general, we’re a little impatient in our evaluations of NFL front offices?

Bill Barnwell: I think the biggest thing to take away from the sudden turnarounds of the Chiefs and Panthers is just how tiny the NFL season is and how drastically a team’s fortunes can change from year to year because of it. Take a 16-game chunk out of any season from baseball, basketball, and hockey, and you’re bound to get results that vaguely approximate what you know about the teams over the larger sample that each sport eventually provides, but you’ll also end up with the occasional bad team that puts together a hot stretch against an easy schedule, or the great team that struggles mightily because it plays a tough stretch or has some injury issues. That’s three weeks in baseball, but it’s an entire season in football. I think it does teach you that there has to be some level of patience with the people running football teams, because teams are almost always not as good as their highs and not as bad as their lows. I’m pretty confident that, say, Ozzie Newsome is good, but that’s because I’ve seen him work for a decade.

I don’t know that the league’s general managers are a particularly progressive bunch. Some are, of course. Others are just guessing. The vast majority of the GMs in football come through the ranks as scouts before eventually becoming general managers, and there’s just so much more to being a GM than there is to scouting talent. It’s the gap between evaluating players and valuing players. The progressive GMs in the bunch, whether it’s with numbers or an acutely trained mind (or, more accurately, both), traverse that gap comfortably. The ones who aren’t progressive don’t, and even worse, they don’t even appear to think to do so.

The biggest trend in building NFL teams this year is that the middle class of veterans is getting squeezed by the salary cap. (I wrote about this at length.) In the half-decade before this most recent CBA, the salary-cap space available to teams spiked by nearly 50 percent before the league became uncapped altogether in 2010. Teams priced in raises for veterans with that space, and virtually every team in football had enough cap space available to do whatever it wanted most offseasons. That was great for veteran free agents.

Now, though, the cap has stopped rising. Since the new CBA was signed, the cap has barely risen. If the reported estimated cap of $126.3 million is true, the amount of money available to teams will have risen just 4.9 percent in three seasons. We’re now seeing the league adjust to that changing financial landscape. Veterans due hefty base salaries are being released, and when they hit free agency, they’re getting deals that are a fraction of what they were expecting. Teams are simultaneously valuing draft picks more than they ever have, which leads to a rags-and-riches mind-set around the league. That has led to the wild swings from year to year of top-heavy teams like Atlanta, Houston, and even Carolina, who need their stars to be healthy and effective to play great football.

Jonah, I know “value” is something you’ve written about a lot this year. Your two top lessons from this season were basically the same thing: Be careful how you spend your money. You just got back from the winter meetings; did you feel like, given the success of clubs like the Red Sox, Cardinals, and Pirates, there’s a feeling of thriftiness/spending wisely in the air? Are franchises learning these lessons?

Keri: Watching what’s happened this winter, I really haven’t seen much of that at all. If anything, some of the cash influx — from regional TV deals but now also with every team getting an additional $26 million a year with the new national TV deal that kicks in next year — should probably be spent more aggressively. Granted, this year’s free-agent class is a weak one. Still, we’ve gone from 62 percent of MLB revenue going to salaries a decade ago to just 42 percent today. That’s thanks in part to revenue streams simply soaring too fast for salaries to possibly catch up, but also partly due to the whole notion of value/Moneyball/whatever you want to call it.

It’s not exactly a revolutionary strategy, but the teams most willing to open their checkbooks without obsessing too much over value stand to gain an edge over the competition. And we’re not just talking about the Yankees, Dodgers, and Red Sox throwing their weight around. There’s certainly some downside to Robinson Cano’s 10-year, $240 million contract. But the Mariners were absolutely drowning in money, Cano was by far the best available player on the market (and one of the 10 best in the game), Seattle hasn’t seen relevant baseball in years … why the hell not spend some cash?

Extending the idea beyond the occasional Cano-level free agent, the next logical step is for teams to use their stacks of cash to lock up their best young players to long-term deals. Mike Trout and Bryce Harper won’t be easy to sign, given how much they stand to make if they wait. Still, everyone has a price. And whether it’s those two young stars, or even less-experienced players like Jose Fernandez, Gerrit Cole, and Wil Myers, the logical way to balance profits with wins might be to make the kids some offers they can’t refuse.

Sean, the Blackhawks have won two Stanley Cups in four years. They ate the NHL alive last season and are back for seconds this year. You’ve written about the way Chicago has built its team before — basically hanging on to its top-tier talent. Is Chicago the first dynasty of the salary-cap era? Is there a Blackhawks model that other clubs can follow? And do you think it’s sustainable? What would be the other-sport analogy for these guys?

McIndoe: Chicago’s not a dynasty in the traditional sense, but it may be as close as an NHL team can come in the cap era. Teams aren’t supposed to have four-year windows like the Blackhawks have managed, and winning twice in that span is impressive.

As for their model, they started off the traditional way: They stunk. Then they were lucky enough to get two generational stars in the draft to build around. But the tricky part was building up the rest of the core around Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, and that’s the part that other teams will find tough to imitate. Anyone can bottom out and hope to get a stud with a top pick, but you’ll also need to find someone like Duncan Keith in the later rounds or pluck a Patrick Sharp that another team is giving up on too early.

It’s hard to compare the NHL to other sports, but if the Blackhawks remind me of any other team it may be someone like the Patriots. They identify their core stars, lock them up, and then are almost pathologically ruthless at cutting bait on anyone else. Remember, this is a team that walked away from its starting goalie after its first Cup win because it thought an arbitrator gave him too much money. They want to be top-heavy with superstars and then supplement that with depth from within. It has worked so far, although the Blackhawks wavered from it a bit this year when they gave big money to guys like Bryan Bickell and even Corey Crawford. That’s worth watching.

Favorite Moments of 2013

Zach, I’m curious, with a couple of months of distance, whether you’ve thought about/revisited the NBA Finals, either the tape or just spending time remembering it. It really was a symphony of great basketball; are there any moments from the Finals, outside the obvious Shuttlesworth and headband-free heroics, that you’ll treasure?

Lowe: Tony Parker’s crazy game-winning shot in Game 1 stands out beyond the obvious drama of Games 6 and 7, two of the most nail-biting NBA experiences I can recall. Those were two games in which I completely, and accidentally, shed my “coldhearted observer” perspective and just marveled in the experience of those two teams, and all those historically significant players, going so hard for the ultimate prize.

Manu Ginobili’s rise from the semi-dead in Game 5, in San Antonio, was exhilarating. It’s no secret I love the guy’s game, and to watch him struggle for much of that series, including the subsequent two games, was tough. But he responded well to Pop starting him in Game 5, and the crowd just went bananas from the first time he touched the ball. It was the kind of game that made you believe in hokum like “fans lifting players” to a higher level. Maybe it’s not hokum? Dwyane Wade coming alive in Game 4, after a dismal first three games, was just as exciting — only without the home crowd element. A proud, proud dude, delivering the daggers in a must-win.

Kawhi Leonard’s dunk on Mike Miller was monstrous, and Leonard didn’t even flinch in celebration. Stone cold. Tim Duncan’s vintage first half in Game 6, and the utter astonishment he felt at missing that bunny late in Game 7. Danny Green in Game 3, just a wave of demoralizing shots. The only thing that takes the series down a half-peg, in historical terms, was that the middle four games were mostly noncompetitive. But the thing that struck me during those games was that the winning team was playing at such a high level that the games remained entertaining. You appreciated the execution, the perfection.

And LeBron, with the season and the Heat legacy perhaps on the line, just putting his head down and going to the rim over and over. Those are the best moments, and we saw another one in the first Miami-Indy matchup of this season — when LeBron arrives in crunch time, realizes the team’s normal stuff isn’t working, and concludes there is nothing left to do but go full bore at the basket every single time.

Two really wonderful teams that play the right way. Great basketball. I’d take a sequel.

Bill, what was your favorite NFL moment from the past year? The huge momentum swing due to the blackout in the Super Bowl? [Ducks.]

Barnwell: It has to be Chip Kelly’s first possession of the regular season, right?

There were more important series, of course, but in terms of just pure entertainment, watching a befuddled Washington team desperately move around while the Eagles sprinted up the field and laid waste to them was incredible. And then, somehow, it ended with Washington scoring on a fumble return for a touchdown, but that was exciting because that meant Kelly got to come back out for another possession. In one series, they made the most exciting offense in the league last year look and feel boring and stodgy. In terms of being wildly entertained and wanting more, nothing topped that.

Sean? Favorite moment on ice?

McIndoe: This year’s NHL playoffs were fantastic, featuring plenty of great series and some genuinely astonishing comebacks (one of which I remain too traumatized to talk about). But at the risk of being too obvious, the best moment was the very last one: the Blackhawks’ stunning 17-second comeback in Boston to capture the Stanley Cup. It’s the reactions that make it. The crowd instantly goes from doing the “Tuuu-kka” chant to horrified screams on the first goal. And Dave Bolland’s reaction to the game winner is amazing. I love that he throws his gloves off for no reason. Everyone who’s ever played hockey has rehearsed that exact moment in their heads for their entire life, and when it actually arrives for him he genuinely has no idea what to do.

What about on the diamond, Jonah?

Keri: Maybe more than any of the major North American team sports, baseball is very much a regional game. Carlos Beltran building on his reputation as a one-man playoff wrecking crew might’ve been amazing to watch as a Cardinals fan, but plenty of Cubs fans would’ve shrugged off his heroics, or worse. Objectively, David Ortiz going from defiant avatar for an entire city at a time of crisis to October planet eater (again) was a phenomenal story, but there are plenty of people who’ve tired of Boston’s success and who would’ve wished for a different outcome. Still, the Yankees remain the undisputed champs when it comes to vitriol from other fan bases. So when the start of every Yankees series in 2013 turned into a SkyMall presentation for Mariano Rivera, you could forgive some fans for getting a little fed up with the whole spectacle.

But man, if you didn’t get choked up — or at least crack a grin — over everything that happened at Rivera’s final game at Yankee Stadium, I don’t know what to tell you. Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte walking to the mound to go get their dominating and humble teammate of nearly 20 years? Pettitte signaling for the right-hander from the bullpen to replace Rivera? Mo’s smile once he realizes what’s taking place? The thunderous applause from the capacity crowd? Rivera hugging his two teammates on the mound a beat longer than you expected, crying into their shoulders? Players from both teams exiting their dugouts to give him a standing ovation? Chants of MA-RI-A-NO booming through the stadium, echoing through the Bronx? Rivera carving through the Rays lineup, as he’d done so many hitters before? Then, at game’s end, Rivera sitting by himself in the dugout, pondering the final pitch of his Hall of Fame career? And finally, Rivera walking back out to the mound, kneeling, scooping up a handful of dirt, and trudging back to the dugout one last time?

The Future

What are some stories or trends we should be watching out for next year?

Lowe: There’s a lot of potential transition in the league right now — a lot of moving parts. We get to watch LeBron’s quest for a three-peat, and the Heat’s approach to the future, with basically the entire team hitting free agency. We could see a pile of midseason trades as bad teams jockey for draft position. The New York teams are not going to just stand pat and accept being awful, though Brooklyn is showing some signs of finding its footing. The Kevin Love talk will get louder if Minnesota hovers around .500 or worse. Memphis is in a tough spot. New Orleans and Detroit have weirdly unbalanced rosters and big-name players who could move. Boston is set up to deal in any direction. Ditto for the Hawks. Oklahoma City has a move to make at some point. Chicago is so depressing, with some interesting avenues to pursue. Cleveland is loaded with trade assets. Sacramento’s new ownership has already made two in-season deals.

The league is just really interesting right now, from a transactional standpoint. And every deal teaches us something about how smart NBA people are responding to the new CBA, learning to value players and work the cap. That, plus the SportVU revolution, makes for a fascinating year or so.

Keri: I’ll be watching to see how (or if!) teams spend all that new money coming into the sport. With the Yankees apparently hewing to the $189 million luxury tax, the Red Sox exercising prudence, and even the Dodgers making noise about getting younger and more financially flexible, there’s an opportunity here for some small- and medium-revenue teams to take the plunge and go all out to try to win the World Series.

We’ve already talked about the Mariners … what about a team like the Rays? They’ve won 90-plus games four years in a row, making them one of baseball’s three winningest teams over that stretch. But they’ve also made the World Series just once since ’08, and of course never won it all. Even assuming the $100 million contract extension they gave Evan Longoria was an early withdrawal on the sport’s new TV money, what’s stopping the Rays from, say, hanging on to David Price this season if they don’t get a blockbuster offer for him? Or making a splashy acquisition at the trade deadline if they’re contending in July? The Royals, the Pirates … there are multiple other quality teams out there, traditionally considered weak sisters on the revenue and payroll side, that could stretch their budgets and give their fan bases legitimate hope for not only a competitive season, but maybe a pennant and a shot at winning it all.

Barnwell: I’ll be keeping my eye on the NFL’s TV contracts. It seems extremely likely that the NFL will carve out another block of games to sell to networks in its efforts to hit $25 billion in revenue, and I’m intrigued to see where that deal goes. My suspicion is that it could very well be with a nontraditional partner that nobody expects.

McIndoe: If there’s a theme to 2014, I suspect it’s going to be the continuing collision between hockey’s old school and a more modern approach to the game. The schism isn’t new — I remember getting a sense of it as a child — but it really feels like we’re building toward a real shift in how we think about hockey.

Part of that is the whole advanced stats debate that we’ve already touched on, but it goes much deeper. I’ve been following the fighting debate for three decades, and this is the first time I’ve ever felt like we were really on the verge of a significant change. There’s an ongoing debate over what kind of hitting should be allowed, and how safe the game should aspire to be. We spent years arguing about visors and icing and smaller goalie equipment, and this year those changes all finally happened.

Everything that was supposed to be sacred and untouchable is suddenly under fire. This year will even mark the beginning of the end of Hockey Night in Canada, which could also mean that Don Cherry’s four-decade reign over Canadian TVs is coming to a close. Meanwhile, the league will keep chugging toward yet another round of expansion, one that will pit old markets like Quebec City and Toronto against new ones like Seattle or even Las Vegas.

It goes without saying that newer isn’t always better. You might think this is all long overdue or you might think it signals the end of hockey as we know it. But either way, it’s hard to deny that it’s happening. Maybe 2014 is the year that the old school retrenches and makes a stand. I can’t say I like its odds.

Filed Under: Bill Barnwell, Grantland, Jonah Keri, People, Sports, Zach Lowe