15 November 2013

Blogging about blogging: the usage & analysis of stats

I would not venture any sort of guess as to when possession statistics and metrics became generally accepted within circles of hockey fans, analysts and personnel. However, #fancystats have so indubitably spread throughout the North American hockey world—at least, online—that one cannot dispute its presence. As a concept that has moved away from being hipster and toward being mainstream, the utilization of various stats in casual fan blogs such as this one has become commonplace, and, on occasion, even necessary to establish or maintain credibility.

It does not follow that a proliferation of a popularized concept should make it widely understood. Statistics tend to be all about context, and hobbyist bloggers like myself may easily misapply or misinterpret stats which, in isolation, represent very different signifiers compared to properly adjusted stats. Oversimplification is a common error. So are overgeneralizations—like the previous sentence. Because I want to improve the way I use and am able to extract information from statistics, I seek to understand my own shortcomings.

The impact of certain metrics may extend far beyond what I or even hardcore statisticians expect; Eric Tulsky stated that he didn’t expect the impact of zone entries to be so important before beginning his research into them. This illustrates that there’s always more to learn, and that being open-minded is the only way to be certain one continues to learn.

The perk—or problem—to stats is that anyone with access to them may interpret and thus form an analysis around them. Ever since databases like Stats.HockeyAnalysis, Behind the Net, and Extra Skater hit the web, every fan who cares to do so is able to check their team’s up-to-date stats. Sometimes, it feels as though sportsblogging is a race to find the most relevant, revelatory or (in some cases) random advanced stat and then add a little bit of commentary substantiated by the numbers. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, of course. But when everything a hockey team does can be judged quantitatively like a math equation, is there value in being the first person the solve the equation?

There must, I believe, always be an optical aspect to judging, analyzing and critiquing your hockey team. Statements like “Overall, this was a sloppy, boring game” need not be backed up by stats. On the flip side of the coin, relationships between different variables and outputs should be further explored as we develop the ability to do so; debunking old-school theories and creating new ones can help keep the hockey world spinning and developing. Plus, one hones one’s mathematical and critical thinking skills besides.

People watch hockey because they love hockey; people use fancy stats because they love their team. One passion feeds the other. Right now, bloggers use stats with abandon; traditional media tiptoe around them, occasionally dropping a reference or two. In the future, it will be interesting to see how statistics and hockey fans continue to jive. If or once it becomes the norm, what happens next?


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