Statisticians give athletes a competitive edge

Much like in the popular film, Moneyball, statistics can make the difference in the clubhouse and on the field.

Does the home team advantage exist? Can one estimate the performance trajectory of soccer players? When is the right time to pull a goalie in a hockey game? Tim Swartz, an SFU professor of statistics and actuarial sciences, gave a recent lecture on his research discussing sports analytics.

The lecture, hosted by the Faculty of Science, is a part of SFU’s Café Scientifique.

Swartz shared his recent studies on the home team advantage, assessing value of the draft positions in Major League Soccer’s SuperDraft, handicapping for the Royal Canadian Golf Association, and determining when to pull a goalie in hockey.

One of his studies focuses on the home team advantage in the NBA and NHL, and found that there has been a general decrease in the home team advantage over time.

Swartz’s research will not only assist avid sports fans with their fantasy drafts, but may also help general managers in decisions about team rosters and contracts.

“A lot of professional sports teams are jumping on board and now have an analytics team working for them,” said Swartz. “Professional sports teams are always looking for ways of doing things differently in order to gain a competitive edge.”

As the world of sports has begun to track various statistics more closely, Swartz notes the importance of being able to properly analyze the mountains of data.

“We are now in the era of ‘big data,’ which means that sports teams have a lot of data that they may not know what to do with, so there is a real need for statisticians,” he explained. “For example, in the NBA, they have cameras that measure the location of the ball and the players 25 times per second.”

“We’ll never be able to eliminate the chance element in sports.”

Tim Swartz, SFU professor of statistics and actuarial sciences

He continued, “There is a massive amount of data to analyze. More data than could fit on your laptop.”

Swartz believes that sports analytics have the potential to greatly affect sports. He explained, “Previously the focus was more on individual players and their improvement, but now there is a broader focus on the behavior of teams and their complex interactions.”

Although analytics can help sports teams gain a competitive advantage, Swartz admitted that they will never be able to completely predict what will occur on game day.

“We’ll never be able to eliminate the chance element in sports,” he stated. “Most of the work is striving to simply do things a little bit better, to gain a competitive edge.”

As an active soccer player and sports enthusiast, Swartz plans on continuing research in sports analytics, and now plans to investigate the role of fielding in cricket.