Before she left for Tennessee, sportswriter Diana Nearhos gave me a book about Joe Torre.
I barely glanced at it. It went on the might-read-later list, which is usually the precursor to becoming a doorstop, or perhaps a handy platform for TV dinners. Sports biographies tend to be dull books that don’t hold my interest.
A few months later I gave it a second look. Turns out it wasn’t a traditional biography. “The Yankee Years,” written by Torre with Tom Verducci, offers a look inside what was happening to baseball during the time Torre managed the New York Yankees.
What caught my attention was the book’s discussion of the new, analytical approach to team-building that started with Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s. Popularized by the Michael Lewis book “Moneyball,” it stressed analysis of numbers and statistics to determine the value of players, as opposed to strictly using the observations of baseball people.
That approach later spread through baseball. Every team, it appears, now uses statistical analysis in some manner.
I was thinking about that a couple of weeks ago while I was standing along the rail at Cool Insuring Arena, camera in hand, trying to get a couple of usable photos for the paper.
It was an Adirondack Thunder game, and like most hockey games, it was one of ebb and flow, a swirl of bodies acting and reacting to the movement of the puck. Small little successes and failures — like the outcome of the battle for a puck along the boards — had a chain-reaction effect on everything and everyone. Bodies moved together in one direction, then suddenly cut back to go the other way.
The thought occurred: Is the sport of hockey immune to Moneyball?
Almost everything in baseball can be broken down into numbers that measure an individual’s worth. Bad fielding can hurt a pitcher and having a good hitter up next might get you more fastballs, but for the most part, it’s one batter vs. one pitcher. You fail or succeed on your own. With a 162-game season, the metrics paint a pretty good picture.
In hockey, almost every statistic involves an interaction among multiple players.
You can’t score goals unless someone gets you the puck. You can’t get assists unless someone finishes off your passes. Plus/minus is entirely dependent on the actions of five other teammates. One goalie’s 25-save game might be tougher than another goalie’s 40-save game if your defense is giving up 2-on-1 breaks as opposed to harassed forwards shooting from a distance.
There are stats for hits, but how do you measure the effectiveness of a hit? How do you measure whether a center got back in time to disrupt a rush, or whether he took the right actions if he did get back in time? The only statistic that seems to have an absolute value is faceoffs, which is a one-on-one battle.
If you browse the Internet you’ll find that there have been some analytical efforts in hockey, and there are some computer programs out there to measure the value of players.
I asked someone I know in the hockey world about this. He said there are metrics in use, but first-hand observation is still the main tool used by most organizations for evaluating hockey players.
The sport runs more like an old Boeing 737 than the fly-by-wire Airbus that baseball has become. I can’t explain why, but I like the idea that the human factor still dominates when it comes to putting together a hockey team.