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Does Sports Analytics Help Win Championships?

September 1, 2017

 

Over the past four years, a majority of the championship teams from the four major US sports were big users of analytics. So, to the casual observer, the answer must be yes. Now, we would like to prove the case analytically.

 

In 2015, ESPN ranked all MLB, NFL, NBA, and NHL teams and divided the teams into five categories. The article was named “The Great Analytics Rankings.” The first category was “All In.” These teams used analytics to influence team performance at a high level. The next level was “Believers.” These teams were using analytics but not at a high level. The middle level was “One Foot In.” This level represented teams that were testing the analytics waters. The fourth level was the “Skeptics.” This level contained teams with very little analytical capability. The lowest category was the “Nonbelievers.” These teams did not have or did not use the analytical support the team possessed.

 

There are several issues with using the 2015 ESPN analytical rankings. First, over time teams have changed categories. For example, the Philadelphia 76ers were ranked as the number one overall team. Their ranking would have decreased when analytics driven General Manager Sam Hinkie stepped down in April 2016. Then, the 76ers rebounded in January 2017 by adding no less than five highly qualified analytics professionals to their analytics and strategy department. The second issue with the rankings is that ESPN never followed up with another ranking using the same criteria. This second ranking would have helped see changes in the organizational focus on using analytics.

 

Since this analytics ranking is the only one by a major sports media outlet that ranked teams in the four major US sports at one time, we will use it for our analysis.

 

Analysis Setup

The analysis took the results of the 2014, 2015, and 2016 seasons and all 122 teams in the ESPN rankings. For analytics rating the following scores were assigned to teams:

5 - All In

4 - Believers

3 - One Foot In

2 - Skeptics

1 - Nonbelievers

 

During the seasons in the analysis, the following scores were assigned to teams:

1 - Qualified for playoffs

0 - Did not qualify for playoffs

 

The following scores were assigned to represent how far in the playoffs teams advanced in the NFL, NBA, and NHL:

1 - Lost in first round

2 - Lost in second round

3 - Lost in third round

4 - Lost championship game

5 - Won the championship game

 

MLB has only three rounds of playoffs (we did not consider the wildcard play-in game a round of playoffs), so the scores were adjusted:

1.3 - Lost in first round

2.6 - Lost in second round

4 - Lost championship game

5 - Won the championship game

 

Analysis Results

Here are the 2014-2016 championship teams in each sport and their ESPN analytics score. The average score for all championship teams is four. The only teams below this average were the 2014 San Francisco Giants and the 2015 Denver Broncos.

 

2014

MLB - San Francisco Giants - 3

NFL - New England Patriots - 4

NBA - San Antonio Spurs - 5

NHL - Los Angeles Kings - 4

 

2015

MLB - Kansas City Royals - 4

NFL - Denver Broncos - 2

NBA - Golden State Warriors - 4

NHL - Chicago Blackhawks - 5

 

2016

MLB - Chicago Cubs - 5

NFL - New England Patriots - 4

NBA - Cleveland Cavaliers - 4

NHL - Pittsburgh Penguins - 4

 

The sports mean and standard deviation for team analytics scores breakout is below. The NFL is the only league with the average score below three.

 

 

For the teams with an ESPN analytics score of four or five, only thirteen (11% of the total 122 teams) did not make the playoffs any of the three years. This number of playoff teams compares to twenty-eight (23% of the total 122 teams) of the teams with ESPN analytics scores of three or less. The probability of teams with “All In” and “Believers” was 12% higher to make the playoffs than the “One Foot In,” “Skeptics,” and “Nonbelievers.”

 

To compare teams across sports and years with multiple parameters, we used K-Means NCluster analysis. Parameters considered for 2014, 2015, and 2016 seasons were if the team made the playoffs (0-1), how far the team advanced in the playoffs (1-5), and by the ESPN analytics score (1-5). Cluster 1 (red) represents the teams that make the playoffs, advance farther in the playoffs and have higher analytics (3.5). Teams in Cluster 2 (green) have lower analytics (2.9) and much lower playoff performance. Although the differences in the Playoffs and How Far the teams advanced in the playoffs is large for all years, the difference in the analytic rankings is 0.6.
 

K-Means NCluster Table

K-Means NCluster Ven-diagram (click image for full size)

 

As with any analysis, the answer is not black and white. Are teams that use analytics performing better and winning more championships? Absolutely! However, the analysis does not prove that analytics is why they are winning championships. The historic performance of the LA Dodgers this year (2017) provides additional evidence. The next question is what team will use analytics to dominate next?

*Walt DeGrange is a Principal Operations Research Analyst at CANA Advisors and the INFORMS SpORts Analytics Chairperson currently. To read more on Sports Analytics and article by other members of the CANA Team visit the CANA Blog.

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