Some call it analytics. Some call it statistics. Some call it trivia. Others call it a waste of time. But collating and interpreting the reams of data generated by pro sports teams is now an integral part of sport.
On one hand, analysis of data is how players get paid the vast sums they receive. Terms such as player comparables and salary caps speak to the system of rewards that governs contracts and payrolls in sports. If player X and Y both hit 20 home runs with 100 runs batted in, they should be paid equally. The more productive a player, the better his compensation.
Then there’s the burgeoning field of analytics – the studies of data that govern strategies and determine how teams are built. One need only look at the radical defensive shifts employed in Major League Baseball to see the outgrowth of this statistical analysis of tens of thousands of at-bats in MLB games.
This deep dive into the numbers has grown to the point where teams now study how far players must run to get on and off the field in football before tiring. Or how often a National Basketball Association player goes to his left or right when dribbling the ball.
Then there’s the historical study of data to ascertain what constitutes a player worthy of a hall of fame or contrasting legends from different eras to determine who should be declared the GOAT (greatest of all time). For much of the time, this was the purview of devoted fans. Bill James is the godfather of this field, which was subsequently adopted by all sports for the purposes listed above.
Vital to these applications of statistics is the concept of competition. Players trying their best at all times. Organizations fielding the best players they could. Winning being the one and only goal of a contest. Only the purity of competition assures that the resulting data has relevance and application in the sport.
The thought struck me reading a James essay about the greatest MLB managers of all time. Who belongs in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.? The piece relies heavily on data stretching back to the early 20th century.
What would happen to the data if the teams or players weren’t putting winning ahead of all else when the puck drops or the ball is kicked off?
How would this affect the study of statistics and the analysis of ground balls versus fly balls? What would happen if teams announced they weren’t going to put winning above all else? That they were taking a few years off from putting their best team on the field every day?
We have just such a system in place in pro sports. It has several names that disguise its purpose. Some teams call it rebuilding, some call it salary-cap redistribution. But most fans know it by its more popular – and pejorative – label: tanking.
Losing on purpose to stock up on high draft picks – Powerball wishes for a superstar. Fielding a bargain-basement team to relieve pressure on the bottom line for a few seasons. Tossing in the towel because wining is just such damned hard work.
Fans of the Toronto Blue Jays understand. Rogers, the club’s owner, has decided that the effort to try to win the World Series between 2015 and 2017 was too exhausting and costly. So in 2017 it began dumping its star players and replacing them with … someone else. This spring, it jettisoned a few more names like Kevin Pillar and Russell Martin. You can anticipate a few more like Justin Smoak, Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez to join them in the outbound lane at Pearson Airport.
The team now stinks. The combination of never-weres and green rookies has produced a monumentally inept offence. Its pitching is borderline. The manager is a nice career baseball guy who’d never get near a competitive team.
But just don’t dump on the Jays. In baseball, Detroit, Baltimore, Kansas City, Chicago White Sox and half a dozen more teams are just going through the motions. In front of very sparse crowds. You can see the same charade in the NBA and the National Hockey League.
And that begs the question: What does it mean if a star strikes out 250 batters in a season when many of his victims don’t belong at his level? The same in the NBA. How genuine is the record for three pointers when it’s earned against below-replacement-level teams? Are Alex Ovechkin’s 50 or 60 goals on a par with Wayne Gretzky’s era, when NHL teams never announced they were tanking for the first-round pick?
I’ve warned before about the damage to competition when winning is subordinated to salary cap needs or counting on the draft lottery to deliver a winner. The swaths of empty seats in MLB, NBA and NHL arenas speaks to it.
More than a loss of integrity, however, the tanking trend is also a loss to the romance of a sport. Debates over the greatest of all time in a sport, the best we’ve ever seen, become compromised. And that might be the biggest loss of all.
Troy Media columnist Bruce Dowbiggin career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.