Monday, December 12, 2011

Vexing Wild Driving Eggheads Crazy

by NiNY

A look through the various pre-season prognostications before this NHL season would have told you the Minnesota Wild was not going to be a very good team. New coach, young defense, upgraded offense, but still a bottom-heavy forward corps.

Sure. Made sense to me. A 3-3-3 start only served to reinforce this analysis - as well it should have. But 17-4 since then has presented the cognoscenti with a bit of a dilemma: what the hell do we do with the Wild?

Certainly the Wild's play the last twenty games is not sustainable for 50 more games this season. Same with Boston's play since the beginning of November. Or Vancouver's play over the last 10+ games. Parity in the NHL is such that the majority of the teams are competitive with each other on a given night. The Wild is just not a 117 point team.

And the desire to tear them down by some of those same people who had them pegged as a bottom-third team coming into the season must be great. Certainly, it's been the mind frame of the sports analyst since humans first started practicing organized sports. The famous Greek journalist Archidonis, great, great, great, great, great, great-grandfather to George Plimpton, noted this about the first Olympiad "By Hector I tell you, he had no right to win that marathon."*

Anyone who repeats the vulgar "Those who can't, teach" line around me stands to get an earful (my wife is a teacher - no way most people who utter that phrase could do what she and her colleagues do). But, too often in the sports reporting world, it could be said that, "Those who can't, write." I'm not talking about the retired-jock color analysts. I'm talking about the ink-stained wretches whose skill with the pen far outweighs their skill with the ball, as it were.

Look, I'm far more like the latter than the former. I can't throw a 100 MPH heater, dunk a basketball or run a sub-4:00 mile, and my slapper, well let's just say it leaves a lot to be desired. And I note the irony (duplicity?) of me complaining about those who write - on my blog.

But, you see, I'm not even really complaining about them. As a human who is not possessed of the physical attributes necessary to compete on the field, all those poor scribes have is their ability to prognosticate, villify or beatify with their words. Take that away, well you've got a moist, warm petri dish of insecurity, don't you? So I get the sportswriter's angst when a team produces results that so greatly diverge from their academic analysis. That's the danger in being overly slaved to academics in general, I believe. Sometimes the visceral trumps the academic.

A sportswriter can't fall back on his or her athletic prowess when their analysis proves faulty. Their perceived reputation is all they have. So, when they're wrong, they almost HAVE to find some way to wiggle off that hook. And the statistical argument method of hook-disentanglement is as convenient and efficient as any in that instance.

I think, though, that you run the risk of losing touch with what sports really is, at its essence, when you go down that road.

Sports is the moment when you put aside the playbook, and the chalk talk and the video screening and have at it. Hockey, specifically, is a constantly-evolving kaleidoscope of activity and action, relying so little on set plays as it does.

Statistics are inherently backward-looking metrics. And applying them into a future-looking analysis is fraught with peril since there are so many variables than can and will come into play between prediction and outcome that it is very hard to say "the reason the outcome was what it is can been seen in the statistical-based predictions I made before!"

Statistics don't allow for injuries, or trades, for example. You can't straight line something that is so inherently organic as a sports team's season. Statistics are black and white. But sports are played in technicolor.

Of course, the savvy sports writer tries to tear down an anomaly like the Wild not for the instant gratification but to set him or herself up to be able to say "I told you so" when the mean reversion occurs.

But, here's the thing about all this: it doesn't matter. You can run a counter to every statistical analysis that purports to convince you that the Wild shouldn't have won all these games.

For example, the Wild gets outshot with regularity. Well, despite getting outshot they're winning all these games. What if they started shooting more? Would they win by more goals than they're winning by now?

The Wild's also been pretty beaten up so far this season. Nine callups already, etc. So they're eking out these wins despite the poor metrics and the injuries. So, maybe, when they get healthy, they continue to win and the metrics improve, right? Can you say for sure that WON'T happen? Of course you can't.

Pointing out that the Wild is winning despite taking so few shots, or whatever, simply doesn't tell you what's going to happen in future Wild games. They've won 20 games this season-to-date, with crappy statistics. How have those statistics helped you predict Wild performance so far?

To the people who are professing their staunch distrust of the Wild's ability to sustain their current pace because the numbers simply say they won't be able to: fine. I agree with you. I don't hold your ill-fated predictions against you. You're not a bad person because you thought (as I did) that the Wild would struggle to stay in the playoff hunt this season. It's all good, man.

Can we just watch the games, now?

*Okay, so obviously that was a bit of fiction there.

No comments: