National Press Club

Prof Outlines Sports Stats to Illuminate Players, Teams

October 21, 2009 | By Mark Schoeff Jr. |

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When fans read an account of their favorite football team’s game in stories in the morning paper or on the Web, a three-yard plunge by the star fullback is recorded as three yards, whether the play gains a first down or falls far short of the marker.

But those two results vary in their impact on the game, and that difference should be reflected in the statistics that journalists use to describe the contest, according to an academician who spoke at an Oct. 20 Newsmaker.

Wayne Winston advocates a more rigorous approach to evaluating players and teams in football, basketball and baseball. He has developed a system that assigns a value to each play based on how it would change the score in a very long game between teams of equal strength ( ).

Winston, author of "Mathletics," asserts that his calculations illuminate what happens on the field and court better than traditional sports statistics, enhancing the ability of fans and coaches to analyze why a team is succeeding or failing.

“Every play has an exact benefit and cost to the team,” said Winston, professor of decision sciences at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. “You want to know how plays gain or lose points. The problem is that we focus on yards in the (football) statistics in the newspapers.”

After six weeks of play in the National Football League, one of the most overlooked factors affecting team records is strength of schedule, according to Winston. Although the Miami Dolphins are off to a slow start, they are playing the toughest opponents of any team in the NFL.

Winston projects that the team will finish the season with nine or more wins, putting it in the playoff hunt.

His prognostication for the Washington Redskins is more dire. He estimates that the team will win between three and five games. Although its defense is better than average, the squad’s offense is nearly 15 points worse than the rest of the league.

A former sports editor who participated in the Newsmaker panel said he was intrigued by Winston’s ideas.

“The key to developing these kinds of statistics is they have to be simple and they have to be network ready,” said Timothy Franklin, director of the National Sports Journalism Center at IU.

He emphasized that newspapers and Web sites should focus on the human angle. “People want to read about people,” said Franklin, former editor of the Baltimore Sun and former sports editor of the Chicago Tribune.

As an example, a debate broke out at the Newsmaker about whether the Baltimore Ravens’ defense has declined this year because they lost their coordinator or because they're missing a couple key cornerbacks.

“I don’t try to explain why things happen,” Winston said. “I try to explain objectively what has happened.”

Winston also advocates more analysis for other Washington issues. “We need a metric for health care,” he said, suggesting quality per unit cost.