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Do Analytics Take the Fun Out of Sports?

Apparently that was the topic of one of the presentations at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston last week. The presenter, Yale's Edward Tufte, opined:

Don't let people tell you analytics are reductionist and take the joy out of sports. They mostly just take the stupidity out of sports.

Is he right? It depends whose joy you're talking about.

For example, it's far from clear understanding sabermetrics helps players. Brian Bannister and Brandon McCarthy have been average-at-best pitchers that understand concepts like xFIP, while inner circle Hall-of-Famer Joe Morgan (who as a player did nearly everything well) has long been one of their more resistant mainstream commentators. Knowledge of how to measure one's performance isn't the same thing as having the skills to perform.

Is a fan more like a player or a professional analyst?

To the extent being a fan entails being absorbed in the moment, he is more like the player. Knowledge of Carlos Beltran's OPS against lefties as he faces David Price isn't the point when you're rooting for the Yankees to beat the Rays in the eighth inning of a close game with men on base. You want Beltran to make contact and hoping it drops in for a hit. If your knowledge of the players' advanced-stats splits relegates the unfolding human drama to a calibrated game of chance, it diminishes enjoyment. If a player's 50-HR season is just a 35-HR baseline with positive variance rather than a heroic effort, it has to temper some of one's enthusiasm for rare feats.

To the extent being a fan is about understanding what happened and predicting (rather than hoping for) future outcomes, he is more like the analyst. In which case, the sabermetrics hone one's predictive ability, provide valuable context and allow one to enjoy subtle aspects of the game one might otherwise have missed. While certain analysts might prefer to retain more of the naive joy one has before understanding more about the game, they're committing professional malpractice if they give in to that preference.

The question is a little like whether Christmas is less enjoyable once you discover Santa Claus isn't real. (Actually, when you discover what Santa Claus really is about, you might appreciate it even more). There's a certain joy in imagining a fat, old guy with a beard sliding down the chimney to get you all the toys you wanted, and that really does go away when it's replaced by the more banal reality of your parents driving to the store to buy you something. But as you get older, you might appreciate your parents dealing with this just to get you some random thing you once thought you wanted.

I don't mean to minimize the joy of being a naive fan. I think most of us still try to maintain that when we root for our local teams, something that's increasingly hard to do when we really consider the tax-payer subsidized stadiums, ever-higher ticket prices and frequent unwillingness to commit money to needed free agents. But I try to ignore those things when my team takes the field, and similarly it probably makes sense to shut off the analytic side of our brains for a bit to get the maximum enjoyment of being a fan. To the extent you're unable to do that, you're like the kid who caught his dad drinking the milk and cookies and putting the presents under the tree.

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Do Analytics Take the Fun Out of Sports?
Apparently that was the topic of one of the presentations at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston last week. The presenter, Yale's Edward Tufte, opined:

Don't let people tell you analytics are reductionist and take the joy out of sports. They mostly just take the stupidity out of sports.

Is he right?

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