Stats debate not all it’s cracked up to be

J.P. Ricciardi.

A word to the puck-heads from somebody who has been there: relax. You’ll still be able to debate who gives 110 percent, who is “clutch” and debate who’s good in the dressing room.

Your heart-and-soul guys are still going to be heart-and-soul guys. Kyle Dubas and his fancy stats won’t change that.

It’s been an intriguing couple of days in the Centre of the Hockey Universe™, what with the Toronto Maple Leafs hiring the 28-year-old Dubas to be their assistant general manager. It’s not the first time that NHL teams have hired executives with an analytics bent – Chris Snow went from being the Boston Globe’s baseball reporter to taking an analytics position with Doug Risebrough and the Minnesota Wild in 2006 – but it is the first time the Maple Leafs have brought in somebody, pushed him in front of the media and said: “Hey, look, we have our own geek. We’re renaissance people!”

And you know what that means, right? The Leafs get off to a slow start and you-know-who on Coach’s Corner will be railing about fancy stats and Kyle Smarty-Pants. It’s one thing to be the numbers guru in a one or two newspaper town and quite another to be the guy in a market like Toronto, especially in this environment.

The team that has done nothing to improve the on-ice product but is bringing back a head coach from Stonehenge with new assistants charged with bringing “better communication” to the dressing room. They put a guy who was the personification of a heart-and-soul player (Brendan Shanahan) in charge of the whole thing and then told GM Dave Nonis—who is one of the best friends of the guy (Brian Burke) he replaced—that his two assistants (Dave Poulin and Claude Loiselle) were being turfed and replaced by… Kyle Dubas.

This is progress?

The Leafs have gone from Loiselle and Poulin – two assistant GMs who had their own hockey cards—to someone who looks like he should still get carded.

There is ugliness afoot in the NHL right now. Everybody knows there is a new wave washing up on the bench, one that attempts to quantify conventional wisdom; that asks follow-up questions instead of taking things for granted.

The knives, or at least the tweets, are out. I hate to be that guy, but we’ve seen this in baseball. We too, have had our civil war: old-school seam-heads versus scout-hating, radar-gun loathing numbers wienies.

We lived through ‘Moneyball’ and the misinterpretations made by both sides of the argument. My first taste of it was when then Montreal Expos GM Dan Duquette hired a guy named Mike Gimbel to crunch numbers. Gimbel wanted Felipe Alou to bat Tim Spehr leadoff.

“Tell the man I’m not in,” was how Alou would respond whenever Gimbel called his office at Olympic Stadium (Gimbel later made headlines when several live alligators were confiscated from his Brooklyn apartment). I remember two old-school baseball writers sitting beside me at a World Series game and hearing somebody talking about WAR.
“WAR… what is it good for?” one said to the other with a snicker.

“Absolutely nothing.”

Yes, Edwin Starr had fans in press boxes. And WAR isn’t exactly rocket science, folks. OPS was never an advanced statistic, but you know when I realized the stats-heads were winning the war? When my newspaper editors asked me to stop adding a line explaining OPS to the readers.

The debate split front offices and broadcast booths and press boxes and much of the battle was played out in Toronto, where J.P. Ricciardi was hired as GM to bring the Oakland Athletics Moneyball model to Canada. Ricciardi fired and/or cut back on the Blue Jays scouting staff as a means of cost containment, and that was of course taken as a sign that he was reading from the script – literally, the script – of Billy Beane and Moneyball.

This was despite the fact that Ricciardi was first and foremost a scout; and even as a GM he was capable of walking into a game in Worcester, Mass., seeing a tiny left-handed reliever throwing fastball after fastball and then eventually signing him. Tim Collins.

“(Expletive deleted) Moneyball,” Ricciardi told me one time. “You know what I’d really like to be able to do? I’d like to be able to run a team on ‘Moneyball’ principles with an unlimited payroll.”

In the end it’s all about dealing with inefficiency and finding value and thinking differently, and it’s not always about permutations. The Blue Jays, for example, for five years have placed a premium on measuring the velocity of balls hit off a players bat. It’s a simple number. The good organizations in baseball – like the St. Louis Cardinals – strike a balance or tilt just ever so slightly one way or another.

So here’s some advice. First, to the analytics guys: work on the names of your stats. Seriously. Corsi? You can’t do better than naming it after a journeyman goaltender turned goaltending coach? And for God’s sake: take a break from Twitter. Especially you, Kyle. In fact, I’d disappear from public view for four months and just kind of beaver away in the office because you have a target on your back, my friend.

Don’t react to every nincompoop’s comment with a shrill 140 characters. Humour, especially, the recalcitrant sportswriter or broadcaster.

As for the old school guys?

Like I said at the beginning, relax. The useless, b.s. stats will eventually fall by the wayside or be given a different context. Some will be so complicated that only a small minority will understand them, anyhow, and they will not become part of the everyday discourse.

Some old standbys will disappear, but the Luddites can still have their day, too. One of the secrets in baseball is that for all the newfangled fancy stats the evidence presented in salary arbitration hearings is still the old bread-and-butter. In arbitration cases, where three retired judges decide between a requested salary and a salary offer, 18 wins and a 5.00 earned run average will get you a more favorable ruling than 12 wins and a 3.00 ERA.

So there you go. We in baseball found there really was Life After The Kyles. And now we’re back to debating how to put more offence back in the game and use video replay and keep our pitchers healthy.

Through it all, the old arguments re-surface. It will in hockey, too.