The 5th MIT Sloan Sports Analytic Conference took place last Friday and Saturday at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. The conference featured panels that included sports executives, researchers and media members discussing the role of anlaytics in sports as well as presentations of new sports analytic research. Below is a discussion of the panels and presententations that were the most pertinent to BSR.

The Ravens were represented at the conference by Matt Weiss, the Head Coach’s Assistant. Out of the 32 NFL teams, only the Ravens, Colts, Cowboys, Eagles and 49ers had anyone from within the organization registered for the conference. The most interesting football research presented at the conference came from Cade Massey, an assistant professor of Organizational Behavior at the Yale School of Management. Massey convincingly showed that success in choosing players in the NFL draft is almost entirely due to random chance (read: being lucky). Each draft pick is a bet that the chosen player will become a star. An early draft pick comes with better odds than a late draft pick but they both are based almost entirely on chance. Because of this NFL front offices are given too much credit for a draft pick that succeeds and too much blame for a draft pick that does not. Given Massey’s model of the NFL draft, the best strategy is to accumulate draft picks (or bets) so you have more chances to get lucky. Under Massey’s model (which I am very inclinded to believe in) a draft pick is extremely valuable not because a front office knows exactly who to target with the pick, but because it gives the team a chance to get lucky and draft a player that will be successful in the NFL. The full abstract of Massey’s talk can be found here.

The Capitals were represented at the conference by Don Fishman, the assistant general manager. Fishman sat on the Hockey Analytics panel along with front office executives from the Pittsburgh Penguins, Los Angeles Kings, and Chicago Blackhawks. Fishman discussed in part the misperception of Alexander Ovechkin’s poor offensive season. When the Capitals are playing 5 on 5, Ovechkin’s current performance is similar to his previous two seasons. However, Ovechkin’s goals are significantly down from where they were in the past two seasons when the Capitals have a man advantage. This leads Fishman to be more concerned with the Capitals power play than any decline in Ovechkin’s offensive abilities.

The most interesting hockey research presentation was by Michael Schuckers, an associate professor of statistics at St. Lawrence University. Schuckers offered an improved evaluation metric for hockey goalies called Defense Independent Goaltender Rating or (DIGR). The current goalie evaluation metric, save percentage, depends upon the defense in front of a goalie and the difficulty of shots each goalie faces – neither of which is a factor the goalie controls. DIGR remedies these issues and offers an evaluation metric that does not depend upon the distribution of shots any individual goalie faced. More technical details regarding DIGR can be found here.

The Orioles were not represented by anyone from within the organization at the conference. The only baseball teams represented were the Red Sox, Padres and Rays and Diamondbacks. In terms of Orioles related research, one paper (by an author whose name you might recognize) offered a new metric to evaluate MLB player performance against a specific pitch defined by type, velocity and location. While this metric has several issues and is still a work in progress it does identify a very disturbing trend in Derrek Lee’s inability to hit “slow” fastballs in the center of the plate in 2010. It appears Lee traded the ability to punish fastballs in 2010 for the ability to become a better than average curveball hitter. Furthermore, the fastballs where Lee’s value fell the most were particularly slow (75-80 mph) and in the center of the plate. This could have very well reflected Lee’s injuries in 2010 but it will be interesting to monitor his performance against fastballs in during the 2011 MLB season. The full details of the metric and the Derrek Lee case study can be found here.

If you have any interest in advanced metrics in football, golf, basketball, hockey, baseball or soccer I cannot encourage you enough to attend this conference in 2012. Its an incredible oppuruntity to see what innovative work is being done and to meet and interact with front office executives from a variety of different sports.