The Sloan Sports Analytics Conference – Day 2

Day two at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference had a better start than day 1, mainly due to the happy influence of seven and a half hours of unbroken sleep. This was in some stark contrast to the previous night of sleepless, jet-lagged staring at the inside of my eyelids. The presence of a talk on sleep research in the Day 2 schedule was therefore most appropriate.

Baseball is the grand old forum for analytics, the use of data in sports and the conflict between those who would trust numbers-based evidence over such long held beliefs in gut, clutch hitting and “the good face”. The Baseball Analytics panel had a decent lineup, moderated by MLB Network host Brian Kenny. Nate Silver was again employed as resident uber-nerd, along with Bill Squadron (Bloomberg Sports), Rob Neyer (, Vince Gennaro (Society for American Baseball Research) and Jeff Luhnow, general manager of MLB’s Houston Astros, a team noted for their recent and complete devotion to all things analytical.

Player health was mentioned more than once – keeping players on the field performing to their maximum capacity. Not just with regard to injuries, but everything from nutrition to sleep.

Gennaro said that when Moneyball was written they had about 2% of the data they have today, that there are 720,000 pitches thrown per year with about 15-20 measures on each pitch. This measure would seem puny when MLB Advanced Media later announced that their new data collection technology would be collecting data at the rate of 20,000 captures per second.

Team chemistry was also mentioned as an area that is obviously important but so very hard to measure, let alone engineer. ‘You talk to smart people in baseball who tell you it’s very important but…trying to pick “this guy or that guy” – is it [worth] one win a year, or is it 8? It’s probably closer to 1 than 8 but who knows’, said Neyer.

The Golf Analytics talk was superb, with Mark Broadie and Sean Foley talking about Broadie’s new approach to how performance in golf is measured. Simply put, the reliance on traditional counting measures like fairways, greens and putts is both outdated and misleading. Data is now available to provide much more accurate ways of telling golfers, coaches and the public which parts of the game actually matter. This data wasn’t available not so long ago, but now that it is the potential for its use is enormous.

Charles Czeisler‘s talk with Kevin Arnovitz on the impact of sleep (or lack of) in the NBA was a big attraction. Czeisler talked about the first time he was invited in by Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers to talk to his players for ten minutes. That ten minutes turned into a two hour Q&A session with the Celtics players asking question after question. Why? They were interested because they lived this, especially on road trips.

With the NBA being a sport highly dependent on reaction time, Czeisler said that players going without sleep for extended periods of time can have a direct impact on their on-court performance. Coaches too can be affected by sleep deprivation, leaving them less able to cope with upset and therefore more prone to on-court tantrums.

Building up a sleep deficit over time can have surprising side effects. The “Sleep Doctor” had the attention of the entire room, a mostly male audience, when he said that if a 25 year old male went with just four hours sleep per night for a week would have his testosterone level drop by the equivalent of 11 years of age, i.e. the 25 year old would have the testosterone level of a 36 year old.  The good news? This is recoverable, at least in the short term. The long term? Perhaps not so much.

Malcolm Gladwell‘s chat with NBA commissioner Adam Silver promised much, and the main auditorium was packed. After a false start when Gladwell’s mic had to be replaced, the best-selling author talked to Silver about topics such as the NBA draft (“the paradox of a group of billionaire republicans who get together and behave like Marxists is overwhelming”), incentives in basketball (i.e. tanking), the question around paying players in college basketball and the sleep research by Charles Czeisler. The two big swings taken by Gladwell were in the areas of what he referred to as corporate welfare (his starting example: why do the billionaire owners of the New York Knicks get an annual $17m per year tax break on Madison Square Garden?) and performance enhancing drugs in sport. Silver took predictably defensive lines on both, with his response to the drugs question echoing what has been heard in other sports throughout the years: “it’s not part of the culture in the NBA”. Silver also said that if there was drug use in the NBA it was by a minority, so logically the majority of other players would have an interest in preserving a fair playing field [by informing on their colleagues’ drug use].

From there it was on to a wonderful talk by Edward Tufte, noted data scientist, on data visualisation. Using examples from cartography, both hand drawn and digital, along with simple visual techniques to help analysts sort out randomness from significant findings he was both informative and entertaining, Attendees were given a high quality A3 handout of the visuals had used, a nice touch from the Yale man with a hall of willing and eager students.

Another person’s account of a day at the Sloan conference will be completely different than this. Panels take place simultaneously so one cannot possibly attend them all and, while they are entertaining, the real value is in grabbing those brief chats with people whose work you’ve read or perhaps had just heard about for the first time.

One big difference from last year could be found instantly in the attendee list, with zero premier league soccer clubs represented.

There was a rugby man, Andy Shelton of the Leicester Tigers. I didn’t ask him if Leicester’s volatile coach Richard Cockerill was in the habit of getting his eight hours of sleep.

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