Numbers don't lie, teams use advanced analysis
If the Celtics are going to move Rajon Rondo between now and the March 15 NBA trade deadline, odds are that president of basketball operations Danny Ainge is going to consult Michael Zarren.
If you’re a Celtics fans, you probably don’t know Zarren. The team wants it that way. The less that is known about Zarren and his methods the better. Go on the team’s website and there is no biography for him, even though he carries the title of assistant general manager. The Celtics guard his advanced statistical analysis like it’s the security code to owner Wyc Grousbeck’s house.
Ask the Green’s stats guru why the Celtics have been up and down this season and he all but pops a cyanide pill.
Zarren, who joined the team in 2003 as an intern, is Ainge’s database-devising aide de camp, dealing with new-age basketball stats such as Pace factor (average possessions a team uses per 48 minutes) and true shooting percentage (a team’s weighted shooting efficiency adjusted for 3-pointers and free throws). Zarren was also one of the stars of the sixth annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, which invaded the Hynes Convention Center yesterday and runs through today.
“If you’re a Celtics fan, we’re doing everything we can to make the team as good as we can,’’ said Zarren. “If you’re not a Celtics fan, maybe this is an interesting part of other sports that you don’t know about. It’s not stuff that everyone will be interested in, but like every other field that is becoming more scientific, this stuff is not going away.’’
If this conference had a tagline it would be, “And the geeks shall inherit the sports,’’ or “May the VORP [Value over Replacement Player] be with you.’’
Where else could you hear the flow of talent in major league baseball compared to the Black-Scholes model for stock option pricing? Or see grown men not named John Henry behaving like teenage girls trying to get a picture from Red Sox senior baseball operations adviser Bill James, the doyen of the advanced statistical analysis crowd?
Sports management and team building now more than ever is a brain game, and some of the best and the brightest are channeling their mathematical expertise and methodologies into professional sports. The outliers, to borrow a term from this erudite crew, are professional sports teams that don’t employ some form of advanced analysis.
The book and Academy Award-nominated movie “Moneyball’’ have not only turned analytics mainstream, but made a meme of viewing sports through the prism of advanced math.
Twenty-seven NBA teams had a representative at yesterday’s conference. During the baseball panel, Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli, Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, and former Browns coach Eric Mangini were all listening intently. The Celtics, Bruins, Red Sox, and Patriots were all represented.
Like statistical analysis since the days that James was mailing out his unbound baseball manifestos, the conference has grown exponentially. This year more than 2,200 people were estimated to attend; the original convention in 2007 drew 175.
These guys are no longer outside-the-box thinkers. They’re the box.
That doesn’t mean that statistical analysis isn’t still without its skeptics. The hockey symposium here yesterday was rollicking proof of that. Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke relished the role of curmudgeon/contrarian/comedian.
“There has not been a statistical breakthrough in hockey yet,’’ said Burke. “Baseball was made for this . . . In hockey, stats are like a lamp post to a drunk - they’re useful for support, but not for illumination.’’
Chiarelli said he doesn’t have a version of Carmine, the Red Sox’ often-mocked computer program (if they did, I vote for naming it Rosie, after former forward Vladimir Ruzicka) that he consults on personnel moves.
But the Bruins’ GM maintained there is room for “Moneyball’’ in the NHL.
“Burkey, he’s gruff about these things, and he’s old-school,’’ said Chiarelli. “Don’t let him fool you. He looks at this stuff. He knows that it’s more information, and he knows how to separate the wheat from the chaff. We’re all trying to get an edge, and this is another way to get an edge.’’
One reason teams such as the Celtics and people such as Zarren are so furtive about their methods is that with nearly everyone employing statistical analysis it’s harder to gain that edge. So, the advantage comes from evolving the methods, and then not telling anyone.
That’s why a definition of analytics was hard to come by at an analytics conference. Zarren said it’s a catch-all for using modern scientific techniques to look at sports information.
He pointed out major companies such as General Electric have been using advanced analysis for years. It’s just that nobody follows GE production efficiency or product flow like they do the Red Sox’ run production.
“It’s not hocus-pocus,’’ said Zarren. “Some of the things I do, teams have been doing since 1946. It’s not magic. There happens to be scientific techniques that people have developed to look at data sets. We have some data sets, so why not look at them?’’
Hard to envision Red Auerbach parsing data sets. Zarren met Red once. How did he explain to the Patriarch of the Parquet exactly what he does for the Celtics?
“Danny just said, ‘He works for me,’ ’’ Zarren said with a grin.
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and can be read at www.boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.