Interesting Sports Statistics Interview

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Scott Rushing
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Interesting Sports Statistics Interview

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BOSTON -- The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference is a gathering of the greatest minds in advanced sports statistics. Athletes, team executives, media and analysts gathered in Boston on Feb. 28-March 1 for this year's conference. Among the attendees were noted author Malcolm Gladwell, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck and Bill James, the father of baseball’s sabermetrics movement. Golf's presence at the conference continues to grow. Famed swing instructor Sean Foley and Columbia University professor Mark Broadie, who invented the strokes gained-putting statistic, lectured on strokes gained and how ShotLink powered by CDW can change golf. Broadie's book on golf statistics, "Every Shot Counts," will be released March 6.

Below is a Q&A with Foley and Broadie from their presentation:

PGATOUR.COM: Mark, you’re best known for your work with strokes gained-putting. Can you explain how it works and how it differs from traditional putting statistics?

MARK BROADIE: Just counting putts isn’t good because a two-putt from 60 feet is a good outcome, and a two-putt from 1 foot is terrible, but they both count as two putts. Counting putts doesn’t take into account where you start. The whole idea behind strokes gained-putting is to take into account the length of the putt, because that is a measure of putt difficulty.

PGA TOUR players average two putts from 33 feet, so a one-putt from 33 feet gains a stroke on the field. The PGA TOUR averages 1.5 putts from 8 feet, so a one-putt from 8 feet gains a half-stroke on the field. That’s all it is. It is subtracting two numbers. It’s not very hard at all.

PGATOUR.COM: You can analyze all aspects of the golf game with your ‘strokes-gained’ method. You have concluded that the long game is more important than the short game. Why is this?

BROADIE: One of the things the ShotLink data and this way of analysis clearly shows, is that the long game is the separator between the best TOUR pros and average TOUR pros. … The long game explains about two-thirds of the scoring differences and the short-game and putting about one-third. This is true for amateurs as well as pros.

Tiger Woods is Tiger Woods because he’s great at everything, but if you had to point to one thing, it’s really his long approach shots that really separates him. It really is the key to Tiger’s success.

Ballstriking separates, in terms of strokes, the better players from the average players more. There’s more of a difference in skill there. I think part of the reason is that if you look at proximity to the hole, and you ask, how much difference does it make to be 27 feet versus 30 feet, it sounds like it makes no difference. You’re probably going to two-putt from 27 feet, you’re going to two-putt from 30 feet, it doesn’t seem that it matters. But it’s not the 27 feet to 30 feet on the green that matters. It’s the shot in the bunker that is in the fringe instead, or the shot that lands on the green instead of the rough, or the 10-footer that becomes a 7-footer, or the 5-footer that becomes a 2-footer. You add up all that and it is a large difference.

SEAN FOLEY: My dad is an 8 handicap. He’s a very good chipper and putter, very good. He can almost, be very close in an up-and-down competition with my players. As soon as they get to 125 yards, he has no chance. At 170 yards, he has less chance. At 250 yards, he doesn’t have a hope. So, when people say to me, ‘What’s the difference between a good college player and a PGA TOUR player?” it’s from about 175 to 320 yards.

PGATOUR.COM: Sean, how did you discover Broadie’s work?

FOLEY: I just saw a stat called strokes gained-putting, and then I looked at that and tried to figure it out, called the PGA TOUR, they told me about Mark, about Lou (Riccio, the ShotLink Intelligence Prize winner). I called Mark one day about two years ago. I mean, I’m trying to make money. I’m going to try to study every single thing possible.

So much of what we believe is handed down through nostalgia and what have you. Using Mark’s work, it gives me a platform to show Justin Rose, who wasn’t happy with his wedge game, that under strokes gained from 100 yards and in, he was No. 1 on the PGA TOUR. What happens to athletes, because they’re always in the thick of it, they start telling themselves stories. This has a very mental aspect to it. (Rose) was so shocked and so surprised to see that he was No. 1.

If you look at probability, players can fall into a slump. When they really start to struggle is when they actually believe they are in a slump. A world-class player can have three poor weeks in a row, but if you just help them realize that this is simple math, that it is probability that they will have a poor stretch, you can help them realize that if they just keep putting one foot in front of another they will come out on the other side.

PGATOUR.COM: Is the biggest benefit to the new statistics that you can better measure different aspects of a player’s game, so you have a better idea of what players’ strengths and weaknesses are?

BROADIE: I think that’s No. 1. If you have a stat that just counts fairways, greens, putts, it just doesn’t tell you much. A 100-yard pop-up in the fairway is still a fairway hit. Hitting it 300 yards down the middle is so much better, but they both count as one fairway hit. It’s much harder when you just look at fairways, greens and putts to figure out where somebody is strong, and where somebody is weak.

Also, it’s hard for a player to compare himself to all the other guys on the TOUR when you don’t see all their other shots. You see some of their shots, but you don’t see them all.

PGATOUR.COM: How much can “strokes gained” statistics impact players’ course management?

BROADIE: Occassionally, I will get requests to analyze a hole, like the 10th at Riviera or another where there is an interesting shot choice to make. Those are fun because a lot of the holes are pretty generic and there’s maybe not such a big question about whether I should drive the green or lay up. That’s harder because there’s a lot more detailed analysis you have to do with pin positions, etc.

FOLEY: I think, if you look at the analytics, I don’t think players’ course management is high enough in risk and reward. At the U.S. Open, I get it. You hit it in that stuff and you can’t advance it. In most weeks, the guy from 150 in the rough has more of an advantage than the player from 205 in the fairway. It’s quite an advantage. But it’s all the faux pas we’ve heard. I don’t think people play poker enough on the golf course.

BROADIE: If you hit it longer, and you don’t hit too many more wild shots, you can gain a lot versus laying back and hitting more fairways, but there are a lot of variables you have to take into account. Hitting it into the water, or out of bounds, if you do that a couple more times in 100 shots than somebody else, that would negate the advantage of the few extra yards of driving distance.

PGATOUR.COM: How has the reception been to some of your counter-intuitive findings?

BROADIE: I am waiting to see if people say, “Oh, that’s obvious,” or “No, that’s wrong.” I know there are a lot of people out there who will not believe the results. It’s hard to convince someone who has spent their life thinking a certain way. I’m waiting to see what the reaction the book gets.

PGATOUR.COM: Did you always have a feeling that ballstriking would be more important or were you surprised when you learned that?

BROADIE: I was surprised. My first question was, what is the difference between an 80 golfer and a 90 golfer? I didn’t have a good idea. Now that I have done the analysis for so long and in so many different ways, now it is very, very intuitive. I can see 20 different reasons why it makes sense. But going into it, I didn’t have any preconceived notions.