Take Me Out To The Stats Game!

Recently, I was hanging out watching the Pirates crumble under the pressure of a wild card game and someone asked me a really good question. Supposing you were busy taking selfies and missed a few plays, but you noticed that batter Andrew Mccutchen just went up to bat, struck out, and his batting average for the post season went from .500 to .333 (in between selfies you find time to check out your favorite sports stats blogs). Is it possible to deduce from just that small amount of information, how many at bats Cutch had so far in the game?

Mccutchen hard at work generating data sets.  Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Mccutchen hard at work generating data sets. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Last week The New York Times ran an article by Tim Chartier of Davidson College — and math miming fame — and Sharon Jones of Central Piedmont Community College, all about using sports analytics in the classroom. For those interested in bringing sports or data analytics into the classroom, this article is a fantastic primer. It explains how to gather large data sets and then visualize, analyze, and interpret them.

This is of course a valuable skill in general for anybody looking to pursue a career in data science or data journalism. However, I would argue that sports analytics as a particular teaching tool for this skill can be a bit fraught. In my personal experience, the deeply gendered aspects of professional sport (the players, the spectators, the money handlers) can make it difficult for female students to, quite frankly, care at all. And I’m not suggesting that women don’t like (or play) sports, but one doesn’t need to look too far to find data sets that aren’t as blatantly gendered as NFL, MLB, and NBA sports stats.

But as an immediate counterpoint to what I just said, the ever-awesome Laura McLay of the blog Punk Rock Operations Research just posted about using game theoretic strategies or linear programming to decide if a football team should pass a ball.

So, I guess I should conclude by saying that nothing drives home a mathematical concept like an applied approach, but let’s just remember that WHIP, WAR, and VORP aren’t necessarily meaningful to everyone. Also, if you know the answer to my batting average questions, tweet it at me @extremefriday.

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