What’s it like to work in sports analytics?


Note: This piece was written with Noah Davis, and stemmed from a survey we put together roughly a year ago. 

In the past decade, sports analytics moved from the fringes of popular consciousness to the mainstream. The typical media narrative tells us that data ischangingthegame. To some extent, that’s true. The majority of professional teams in the five major sports leagues have at least one person on staff or on retainer tasked with delving into details and applying numbers to performance, and nearly all NBA, NHL and MLB franchises have sent at least one representative to the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.

Noah and I wanted to find out more details about the job, the lifestyle and how analytics are being used, so we developed an informal survey and asked people who work or had worked on the sports analytics staffs of professional teams to participate. 

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Where are all the close NFL Playoff games?

As I finished watching the Patriots beat the Texans last night and go to their sixth (!!!) straight AFC conference championship game, I thought to myself “All these games have been terrible so far!”  Through 6 NFL playoff games we’ve had margins of victory of 13, 16, 18, 18, 20, and 25 for a median margin of victory of 18.  So I got to wondering if that was different than usual and I went back and looked at the playoff games in each year going back to 2000.

2000-01 actually had a median margin of victory of 18 points after all 11 games were played (remember when the Giants beat the Vikings 41-0?).    The year with the next highest median margin of victory was 2002-03 with a median of 17 points (remember when the Jets beat the Colts 41-0?).  Three other years featured median margins of victory of 14: 2004-05, 2005-06, and 2009-10.  The lowest median margin of victory occurred in 2006-07 with a median of 4.  In fact, of the 11 playoff games played that season, 7 of them were decided by single digits and a fill 5 of them were decided by a field goal or less.  This season, we still have yet to see a game decided by less than one score.

Below you will find boxplots for the distribution of margins of victory for the years 2000-2016 with a blue to red scale corresponding to low to high median margins of victory.  For the last 6 years, we’ve had reasonably low median margins of victory, but this year has been nothing but blowouts.


Here’s hoping for some close games today.

Update: 1/16/2017 10:36 am central time

Immediately after writing this past yesterday, we promptly had two very close playoff games with the Packers beating the Cowboys by a field goal and the Steelers beating the Chiefs by two without scoring a touchdown on the strength of SIX field goals.



NFL Picks – Divisional Round

Seattle at Atlanta

Prediction: Falcons 25-24 (53.0%)

Pick: Seahawks +5

Total: Under 51.5

Houston at New England

Prediction: Patriots 23-16 (69.0%)

Pick:Texans +16

Total: Under 45

Green Bay at Dallas

Prediction: Cowboys 26-24 (53.5%)

Pick: Packers +4.5

Total: Under 53

Pittsburgh at Kansas City

Prediction: Chiefs 23-22 (52.5%)

Pick: Chiefs -1

Total: Over 44.5

On the ideas that people refuse to test


In the middle of Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller’s book “The only rule is it has to work,” which highlights the analytically-minded pair’s foray into baseball management with the independent-league Sonoma Stompers, there’s a four-paged glossy insert with pictures from the Stompers’ 2015 season.

The photos begin after page 177. While perfect for putting names to faces, the insert’s location also means that if you read too fast, you’ve missed my favorite part of the book.

In the pages before and after the pictures, Lindbergh and Miller link their situation in running the Stompers’ season to quotes made by Huston Street, the Angels closer who was asked about pitching in non-save situations.

“I’ll retire if [pitching in non-save situations] ever happens,” Street is quoted as saying. “It’s a ridiculous idea, it really is.”

The quote hits home for Lindbergh and Miller, who, until that point in the season, had been similarly using their closer Sean Conroy…

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NFL Picks – Wildcard Weekend

Total (Playoffs) –SU: 4-0 ATS: 1-3 O/U: 3-1
Wildcards – SU: 4-0 ATS: 1-3 O/U: 3-1


Detroit at Seattle

Prediction: Seahawks 24-18 (68.2%)

Pick: Lions +8

Total: Under 44

Oakland at Houston

Prediction: Texans 20-19 (53.0%)

Pick: Raiders +3.5

Total: Over 36.5

NY Giants at Green Bay

Prediction: Packers 25-19 (65.0%)

Pick: Packers -4.5

Total: Under 44.5

Miami at Pittsburgh

Prediction: Steelers 26-20 (66.8%)

Pick: Dolphins +10

Total: Under 46


One graph, two Americas: Liberals hate babies; Conservatives love murder. #sarcasm

Two America’s in one graph (Source).  Clearly what this graph is showing is that liberals love abortion and conservatives love killing people #sarcasm.  On a serious note, it’s really disheartening how far apart these two sides are.  It’s as if there isn’t any common ground anymore.

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The 2016 Dallas Cowboys are the 2015 Carolina Panthers

I was looking at some Dallas Cowboys (13-3) stats the other day, and I thought to myself that I had seen this before.  By “this” I mean a team with a really good record, but you just aren’t convinced by the team somehow.  Where have I seen it before?  2015 Carolina Panthers.  The Panthers were really good last year, but you just never got the feeling they were a great team.  They finished the season 15-1, then squeaked past Seattle in the Divisional Round as Russell Wilson had arguably the worst game of his career and still almost won.  They then crushed the Cardinals on there way to the Super Bowl where they got man handled by the Denver Broncos.

So let’s take a look at how similar these teams are.  First, I think it’s interesting to look at strength of schedule.  According to TeamRankings.com, the 2015 Carolina Panthers had the 29th most difficult schedule and the 2016 Dallas Cowboys schedule is ranked 30th in terms of difficulty.  So while both of their records were very good, there schedules weren’t exactly the most difficult.





Dallas is 13-3 overall, but only 3-2 against teams that made the playoffs this year. (Fun Note: Atlanta is 2-2 against playoff teams and the Patriots are 4-1.) The Panthers were 4-0 against playoff teams in 2015.  Compare this to Denver who played 7 games against playoff teams last year and went 5-2.

Next I looked at “Luck” as defined by TeamRankings.com.  In 2015, Carolina was ranked number 1 luckiest team and Dallas in 2016 is ranked number 2.

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And just look at these team stat lines next to each other.  The 2015 Carolina Panthers scored 500 points and allowed 308.  The 2016 Cowboys scored 421 and allowed 306.  And look at the average points per drive.  The Cowboys this year scored 2.45 pts/drive and last year the Panthers put up 2.4 pts/drive.

Cowboys 2016:


Panthers 2015: screen-shot-2017-01-05-at-7-01-41-pm

So, no doubt the 2016 Dallas Cowboys are pretty good.  I just don’t think they are great.  I think they have a decent chance to make the Super Bowl, but I have a hard time seeing them winning it.  I don’t think they can beat any of the teams that have a chance to come out of the AFC (realistically, New England, Kansas City, or Pittsburgh).  And I’m not sure they can beat the Packers who are playing great right now.  So this is where I might say something like: “If the Cowboys win the Super Bowl, I’ll get the Cowboys logo tattooed on my forehead”.  But that wouldn’t be a smart thing to do because, if there is one thing that I learned from 2016, it’s that even events that have a 0% chance of happening (You know what I’m talking about) can actually happen.  And the Cowboys have a much better than 0% chance to win the Super Bowl.  But I’d bet a tattoo on my forehead that they won’t win the Super Bowl this year……….



The Santa Claus of NFL Wildcard berths is the AFC South (it used to be the NFC North)

With the NFL playoffs coming up this weekend, I got to thinking about the NFL schedule and how that could help or hurt a team trying to make the playoffs.  A full half of an NFL team’s schedule is essentially random based on a rotating formula.  So, I wanted to look to see if there were any patterns in how these random scheduling assignments affected numbers of wins and a team’s chances of making the playoffs.  First an explanation of the NFL schedule.

The NFL schedule is completely determined by a formula.  Each team plays:

  • 6 games against the teams in their division.
  • 4 games against a different division in their conference.
  • 4 games against a division in the other conference.
  • 2 games against teams in their conference, not in division they are assigned that finished with the same rank in their division.

As an example, the 2016 New England Patriots played the the teams in their division (Bills, Dolphins, Jets) two times each for a total of 6 games.  They were assigned the AFC North (Browns, Bengals, Ravens, Steelers) and the NFC West (49ers, Seahawks, Rams, Cardinals).  Their two remaining games were against the team that won the AFC South in 2015 (Houston) and the team that won the AFC West in 2015 (Broncos).  (The assignment of the divisions within a conference and between conferences are on a 3 and 4 year rotation, respectively, and repeats fully every twelve years.)

I collected data going back to 2002 (when realignment occurred) on all four aspects that make up a team’s schedule: The division they play in, the random division in their conference, the random division in the other conference, and their rank in their division from the previous season.

Some (maybe) interesting things I found:

  • Of the 180 teams that made the playoffs in the last 15 years, 51 of the them played the AFC South.  This is the most of any division.
  • Of the 180 teams that made the playoffs in the last 15 years, 41 of the them played the NFC East and another 41 played the AFC West.  This was the least of any division.
  • If we look only at wildcard teams in the past 15 years, 21 of the 60 played the AFC South and only 11 were assigned to play the AFC West.
  • 20 of the 60 wildcard teams played the NFC North and only 11 of those 60 played the NFC East.
  • If we look only at AFC Wildcard teams, 13 of the 30 in the past 15 years played the AFC South, 9 played the AFC North, 5 played the AFC West, and only 3 (!) played the AFC East.screen-shot-2017-01-05-at-1-19-02-pm
  • If we look at AFC Wildcard teams since 2011, 7 out of 12 played the AFC South.  Screen Shot 2017-01-05 at 1.20.58 PM.png
  • Of the 30 NFC wildcards teams in the last 15 years, 6 each played the NFC East, South, and West, respectively.  However, 12 wildcard teams played the NFC North.  screen-shot-2017-01-05-at-1-19-10-pm
  • If we look at NFC Wildcard teams from 2003-2009, 8 out of 14 played the NFC North.  screen-shot-2017-01-05-at-1-23-57-pm

So it looks like the teams that have drawn the NFC North and the AFC South are the divisions that historically have produced the most wildcard teams.  In fact in the last six seasons (2011-2016), almost HALF (11/24) of the NFL’s total wildcard teams had the AFC South on their schedule.  Not so much recently, but in the late 2000s, the best division to draw was the NFC North.  From 2003-2009, 13/28 wildcard teams played the NFC North.  In contrast, over that same period, only THREE wildcard teams played the NFC East.

So who played the AFC South this year?  The NFC North and the AFC West.  Interestingly, both divisions produced a wild card this year (Detroit Lions and Oakland Raiders).  And the NFC North?  Who played them this year?  The AFC South and the NFC East, the latter of which produced a wild card team (New York Giants).

What about AFC and NFC combinations?  Below are two tables showing how often each schedule combination has produced a wildcard team. You can see that the combination of AFC and NFC South has produced the highest percentage of playoff teams with 21.9% (7/32) followed by the combination of AFC North and NFC West with 21.4% (6/28).  This level of granularity is a little bit interesting, but we are cutting the data up so much I’m not sure there is anything actually significant in the formal sense to be found here.  But I still think it’s interesting.





NFL Playoff teams: 2002-2016

Inspired by this, I thought I would do my own take on this idea.  The plot below shows each of the 8 NFL divisions with the AFC on the left and the NFC on the right.  The height of the bar in each square is the number of wins for that team in that season. If the team made the playoffs, the color is saturated; if the team missed the playoffs, the colors in the square are faded.



My favorite Twitter exchange ever.

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