THE BLOG
12/28/2015 01:52 pm ET Updated Dec 28, 2016

Analytics for the Win?

As the days of 2015 dwindle down to a countable few, it's natural to look back at the decisions and choices we've made. What decisions will we make in the hopes of improving life? In sports, a better professional life of a team means winning more. There are many important choices that impact how happy a team will be in 2016. One big choice in today's world for professional sports teams is whether to be analytical or not be analytical with the wealth of data available today.

Few questions have only two answers. The same is true regarding whether to be analytical with the use of sports data. Teams have chosen various levels of buy-in to analytics. In the spring of 2015, ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com published The Great Analytics Rankings, offering rankings for MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL in terms of teams' buy-in on the use of sports analytics. Why use it? To win and win more!

Why use data-driven decision-making in professional sports? To win and win more! Seriously though, if we pour over the numbers, click our data heels and just believe, can our team really win more? Will the use of data lead to a "Moneyball" effect? Does it pay to believe in analytics? Does a team win more? Does it matter if you're playing on grass, ice or hardwood? Ironically, the numbers give insight on their use.

Below we graph all four major professional sports and see the impact of analytics on winning over the 2012, 2013 and 2014 seasons. The graph groups the teams into the ESPN categories of All-In, Believers, One Foot In, Skeptics, and Non-Believers. We then show a box and whisker plot on their winning percentage for each group. Using this interactive Tableau graph, you can answer our questions and your own.

What do we find? Notice that Nonbelievers perform distinctively worse across the sports. Still, outliers exist showing that analytics alone will not win games for every team. We also see that being All-in, alone, won't lead to the best team. Can the correlation imply causation? This is always hard to unravel. Explore and see what you think.

Keep in mind that you can isolate sports and choose the years to analyze. For instance, here we've constrained our analysis to the NBA for the 2014 season. Note the high level of performance for those who are Believers and All-In.

In many cases, being All-In doesn't lead more wins than Believers. Is this a prescription for good health for a professional team in 2015? Or, could these graphs look different a year from now as we conclude 2016? Could professional sports organizations be learning how to be All-In with analytics? Or, could simply being a Believer be a better stance? Could teams with One Foot In learn more strategic places to stand? Are any of the trends predictive for the coming year or decade? We don't know, which is part of the reason for the stratification of buy-in. As 2016 unfolds we will know more. So, as we move into 2016, teams will make or have made their decisions about how to use analytics. For some it will be a very happy new year and for others, the hopes of 2017 may be upon them in due time.

Note, this article extended analysis presented in the article "ESPN: Pirates one of nine "all-in" analytical teams" on a Pittsburgh Pirates blog. In this article, the impact of analytics on wins for MLB teams was analyzed for the 2013 and 2014 seasons.