Hey all, Ernie here with a fresh piece from Andrew Egan, who last hit us with a thoughtful piece on paramotoring and risk. Today, he has some thoughts on his mind about the record books.
Today in Tedium: I have always liked sports but I have never been a sports guy. You know the type, the guy that counts the jersey of their team’s latest first round draft pick as avant-garde fashion. When it comes to Tedium pieces, however, it seems that I am that guy. We don’t do many sports pieces at Tedium and when we do, there are almost always two guaranteed elements: I wrote it and it’s going to be about statistics. A certain kind of person finds stats inherently interesting and a certain kind of sports fan is willing to listen because, well, numbers help you win. This is an article for everyone. An attempt, albeit a clumsy one, to get non-fans of stats or sports to care about both. And maybe, if I’m very good or very lucky, I can get you to appreciate both. Today’s Tedium is talking about a revolution in sports statistics that will probably affect the future of sports but will definitely help rewrite the past. — Andrew @ Tedium
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The speed, in miles per hour, of the first pitch ever tracked by a radar gun in a Major League Baseball game. The pitch, thrown by Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, was immediately brought into question, along with radar guns in general, as it was the fastest pitch ever recorded at the time. Strangely, this article isn’t really about baseball—but I swear, this is important and will come up later.
How sports and statistics combine for new perspectives on old games
Ever since the creation of video games (and likely before), people have wondered about their lifetime stats, their own personal high scores. Some categories, like number of U.S. states visited, are pretty easy to answer. Others are really only available in average terms. Did you know that the average person at rest takes 23,040 breaths a day? As technology becomes more ubiquitous in our daily lives, new categories are opening up, like daily heart rate and steps per day.
Stats affect athletes in very concrete ways. For the most part, a typical person is tracking passive activity. But stats for an athlete can be the difference between million-dollar signing bonuses and an unrealized dream. Shots are counted. Speed is measured. At bats are ruthlessly tracked. Modern sports statistics are detailed enough to make your head spin. It wasn’t always like this, however.
Some sports are better suited to stats than others. Baseball can followed without actually watching a single game. This was a huge advantage that helped the sport grow into the American past time before the invention of radio and TV.
The other major American sports have been much slower to develop and track advanced stats. Football, for example, didn’t even track sacks (when a quarterback is tackled behind the line of scrimmage by an opposing defender) until the 1970s. The other football, the world’s most popular sport, is probably the one remaining major sport that won’t likely be seduced by statistics, since the final score or most individual actions need to visually evaluated in order to fully appreciate. Even still, leagues around the world have started tracking the velocity of shots on goal, balls bowled, and pretty much everything else possible.
But like nearly everything else nowadays, the information revolution is likely coming to your favorite sport. And a closer look at a relatively new statistical category in American football can help us understand the changes on the rapidly approaching horizon.
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The number of interceptions that were returned for a touchdown over the course of Brett Favre’s career in the National Football league. A Super Bowl winner and member of the Hall of Fame, Brett Favre was known as an amazing quarterback. This play, more commonly known as a “pick six,” is yet another fascinating stat that might just change how teams operate. It’s widely seen as a differentiator during big games. “The pick-six can destroy a team psychologically,” ESPN.com columnist Gregg Easterbrook wrote.
How to update the record books when they players are long gone
For the unaware, ProFootballReference.com is a gem of a website. It’s also a solid argument for brilliant people putting their considerable intellect to use for admittedly frivolous reasons. The site’s founder has a Ph.D. in applied mathematics from the University of Iowa. The full time staff of eleven features graduates of elite schools and more than a few big time tech companies. On the bright side, they also cover baseball and basketball.
Stats in baseball and basketball developed pretty organically as a result of the basic ways those sports operate. One of the more interesting elements to modern sports statistics is how much of it was developed by fans rather than the teams that use them. Bill James is a notorious baseball stat geek and outsider who is widely credited with helping bring about the Moneyball revolution. His statistical models helped redefine the value and effectiveness of a player.
Football is noticeable for how long it took for obvious stats to become officially tracked. The skills positions in the game offer fairly straightforward: passes thrown and completed for quarterbacks, yards per carry for running back, et cetera. Other positions, like the offensive line are more complicated. If a quarterback gets sacked, do you blame the entire line or just the players that allowed it? Do you weigh culpability? How would that even work?
There are a few metrics that give a glimpse of how good, or potentially dominant, an offensive lineman really is. A pancake block is an incredibly difficult feat to achieve in modern football, professional or otherwise. Basically, it is when an offensive linemen blocks so well, that they are able to put opposing defensive linemen on their backs. Since defensive linemen routinely weigh over 250 lbs, it’s easy to see how much strength the feat requires.
For decades, no one really noticed the pancake block as a metric of performance, mainly because no one really accomplished one all that often. That changed with Orlando Pace, a legendary offensive lineman at (lord using an indefinite article has never annoyed me so much) The Ohio State University and later with the St. Louis Rams. In college, Pace so regularly left opponents on their backs that he became known as “The Pancake Man”. Fans would count the number of pancake blocks Pace achieved during games. An unofficial stat was created by fans to account for something that no one had really seen that much from just one player. After college, Pace was selected in the first round of the NFL draft and would become an eventual Super Bowl champion, Pro Bowler, and Hall of Fame inductee. To give you an idea of how limited football stats are compared to other sports, Pace was drafted in 1997 and finished playing career in 2010.
This lack of statistical clarity is a wonderful opportunity for the right kind of sports fan. ProFootballReference.com has those by the bushel so they occasionally introduce new statistical categories and work backwards through game results in order to update that category across the entire history of the sport. With the pick six Initially, they only looked at information back to 1970 before updating this year to include all the way back to 1950. Creating new statistical categories for a sport is a labor of love and basically requires researchers to go over every play in every game in every season until the data becomes irrelevant or unreliable. A cutoff at 1950 makes sense for this stat since the forward pass was not as notable a feature of the game before that point.
Sports fans understand why this information would be useful, even if they’d never dig through the data themselves. However, non-sports fans might be wondering why even bother? The answer is in the power of stats. The more info we collect, the more learn about the topics we’re tracking. With comprehensive pick-six data, we learn a few interesting things.
The biggest is that to crack the top five of all time pick-sixes in the NFL, you have to be a really, really, really good quarterback. The current top five is led by Favre followed by Dan Marino, Joe Namath, Drew Brees, and Peyton Manning. The top three are Hall of Famers while the remaining two are undoubted future Hall of Famers. All but Dan Marino have won a Super Bowl. (Quick note to annoy anyone who hates Tom Brady, he is NOT in the top 20 for this category and he has more Super Bowl victories than all 5 of the quarterbacks listed COMBINED. Seriously, he is a freak.) This makes sense, as a quarterback that throws a pick six has basically committed the worst error possible at their position. If a quarterback is prone to throwing interceptions and then giving teams points, they don’t typically get to play very much.
As the game has become more pass oriented, the pick-six data is especially useful for finding quarterbacks that were probably overrated during their careers. The top 20 is filled with QBs that maintained starter status for years but ultimately failed to bring their teams success. The remaining top 10 only includes one Super Bowl winner and likely future Hall of Famer, Peyton’s baby brother Eli Manning. Carson Palmer, Phillip Rivers, Vinny Testaverde, and Norm Snead were all fine players that commanded big money over the course of their careers. (Snead made less because he played in the 60s and 70s.) These four QBs all made the Pro Bowl but none are likely to make it into the Hall of Fame, though Rivers has a decent chance, as he’s still playing.
So what does any have this to do with Nolan Ryan and baseball?
As technology improves, the list of stats available to football teams is only going to increase at dramatic rates. We previously covered Statcast and the revolution it’s bringing to baseball. The ability to track spin velocity has let pitchers develop pitches that are very hard to hit. Before 2006, it wasn’t even a stat we could track.
Taking even a conservative look into the future, it’s pretty easy to see the possibilities. Statcast and similar technologies require HD video in order to accurately produce stats. Unfortunately, we don’t have historical HD footage, but improvements in AI and neural networks may soon offer a solution by increasing the pixel count in old footage. Concerns about supercharging the surveillance state aside, these technologies are about to provide evidence that might end pointless sports debates. (Though that’s unlikely.)
Revolutionary technology is going to change areas it was unintended to be used. We have the desire to update our own sports history and the ability to do so is increasingly becoming available. Powerful computers used to develop the next generation of cancer treatment will inevitably be used to finally answer just how fast Nolan Ryan was throwing a fastball.