Sports Stats in 2019 | Stats + Stories Episode 104 / by Stats Stories

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Dr. Scott Evans is a tenured Professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics and the Director of the George Washington Biostatistics Center. He is the author of more than 100 peer-reviewed publications and three textbooks on clinical trials including Fundamentals for New Clinical Trialists. His other positions include the Director of the Statistical and Data Management Center (SDMC) for the Antibacterial Resistance Leadership Group (ARLG), a collaborative clinical research network that prioritizes, designs, and executes clinical research to reduce the public health threat of antibacterial resistance as well as the Editor-in-Chief of CHANCE and Statistical Communications in Infectious Diseases (SCID) magazines.

+ Full Transcript

John Bailer: Baseball season is in play. The Women’s World Cup occurred in the summer of 2019. Sports and statistics are now going together like peanut butter and jelly. Why is this? Why do we see that statistics being embraced by many sports organizations? That will be the focus of today’s Stats & Short Stories episode. I’m John Bailer. I am Chair of the Department of Statistics at Miami University. Stats & Short stories is a production of Miami University’s Departments of Statistics and Media, Journalism and Film, as well as the American Statistical Association. Joining me in the studio are regular panelists Rosemary Pennington and Richard Campbell of the department Media, Journalism and Film. Our guest today is Scott Evans, Professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics and the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University. He is also active as part of an Editor at Chance Magazine, and has been a leader in a sports statistics symposium that occurs every year in the Northeast in the U.S.. His research in statistics and sports are part of the reason that we wanted to talk with him today. Scott, thanks so much for being here!

Scott Evans: Thank you John, my pleasure.

Bailer: So, why are sports organizations getting more interested in statistical methods?

Evans: Well, I think they’re realizing that statistical methodologies can help them with game strategies and player evaluation and sort of improve their product. Beyond that it’s just a lot of fun, so … I think interest in statistics for many statisticians may have started in sports.

Bailer: How much push back is there from sports organizations? This often reminds me of the tension between an advertising agency, between the creatives and the market researchers. So, is it more accepted today is there a lot of resistance to this?

Evans: Well I think there’s certainly been some resistance over the years, you know maybe you have coaches and payers who say, you know, whether some analytical person can’t tell me how to better coach my team or how I can be a better player however, there has been, certainly, quite a large movement in recent years of an appreciation and acknowledgement that statistical analyses can help us how to figure out how to improve our game, and make us a better team or make a player more effective.

Rosemary Pennington: What are some of the most interesting ways you’re seeing organizations use statistics?

Evans: Well, there’s some very interesting- um, first of all the availability of data has really evolved over time, and now there’s lots and lots of data that is now available to us for evaluation. So, for example in basketball, or equivocally in hockey or even in soccer you can imagine that the field is a two-dimensional space, and so in basketball imagine the court is a two-dimensional space, and as a function of time at any point in time during the game you know the two-dimensional location of every player on the court. And you also know the location of the ball. Today’s NBA is the strategies rely a lot on player’s spacing and angles of players and so forth and so you have a very complex data set of these payer locations where you can calculate angles and spacing between players as a function of time. and that gets into potentially very complex statistical ideas.

Richard Campbell: So, I want you to explain to me, use statistics, so we’re in Ohio, I’m a long time Cincinnati Reds fan. The Reds had the worst pitching staff by statistics in baseball last year and they were in last pace. This year they have the best pitching in the National League in baseball and they’re still in last place!

Pennington: This isn’t a question of statistics I think Richard.

Campbell: I want somebody to explain to me what’s going on, and I know their hitting is atrocious, I do know that. Can you help me?

Evans: Well, it sounds like you need more hitting.

Bailer: So, what team has the largest presence in terms of sports analytics staff? And has this translated into success?

Evans: I don’t know which team has the most. There are certainly some sort of historical teams you may have been familiar with the book and the movie Moneyball, where the Oakland A’s used a lot of analytical methodologies for both game strategies and the evaluation of players and that really spread in baseball. Certainly, the Boston Red Sox used a lot of it. I’ve been familiar with some of their work. What would be interesting to watch develop over time is that you know, we work at Universities, for example, that now have Departments of Statistics, and Biostatistics and so forth, big pharmaceutical have lots of statisticians that help them design and analyze studies to evaluate their treatments for various diseases. What would be interesting over time is to se if professional sports organizations develop, I would say most of the organizations, basketball, baseball, football and hockey, ow have some analytical presence, but whether they develop a real department of doctoral level, highly trained, statistical, analytical people, to evaluate game strategies and which players fit with other players, and those types of things. Whether they will really develop departments, if you will, that will help them from an analytical sense, and how valuable that department is relative to some of the players and coaches that are hired as part of that organization, will be interesting to see.

Bailer: Indeed, well that’s all the time we have for this episode of stats and short stories. Scott, thanks so much for being here.

Evans: Thank you for having me, it was a lot of fun.

Bailer: It was indeed. Stats and Stories is a partnership between Miami University’s Departments of Statistics, and Media, Journalism and Film, and the American Statistical Association. You can follow us on twitter or apple podcast, or other places where you can find podcasts. If you’d like to share our thoughts on our program send your emails to or check us out at Be sure to listen for future editions and episodes of stats and stories, where we discuss the statistics behind the stories and the stories behind the statistics.