Sunday, January 27, 2013

MLB Hall of Fame Voting

Here's a link to a really cool interactive graphic of MLB hall of fame voting.  As with most datasets, there are many different variables that are useful to display visually.  Including interactive graphics is a nice way to show multiple variables (or to select only a subset of variables) without making a million different 2-d plots.  Below the graphics, the authors describe all of the features of this plot - I suggest that you read through it and try some of these things out.

The New York Times has begun to show similar visualizations for economic and political issues.  As we move away from print articles and towards online reading, I think we will see a rise in popularity of these types of interactive graphics.  

I'd love to learn how to make these type of graphics, but most of the heavy-lifting is done in Java (which I have no experience with), and I don't have enough free time :(

Monday, January 21, 2013

College Football 2012 Wrap-up

This BCS bowl season, two teams, Wisconsin and Northern Illinois, were coached by interim coaches in their BCS bowl game after their head coach left the team to accept a new position.  There seems to be an increasing trend of coaches leaving their teams before a bowl game to accept a new coaching position.  I began wondering whether schools that are searching for a new head coach should try to scoop other coaches before the bowl games are completed, or if they should factor in the bowl game performance (maybe make the candidates feel some extra pressure to win)?  Schools tend to want to fill their coaching vacancies ASAP because this provides the new coach an extra month to put together his coaching staff and recruit.  But does this process of hiring coaches before the bowl game actually lead to better football success?

I chose to look at head coaches who lead their team to one of the BCS bowl games, then accepted a new college coaching position the following year.  While this leaves a small sample size (n=9), it is easier to evaluate the performance of these coaches because it is assumed that the new school is expecting the new coach to lead his new team to BCS bowls.  Here is a summary of the 9 coaches:

CoachPrevious TeamOld BCS Record*YearLast BowlNew TeamRecordNew BSC Record
Steve Spurrier
South Carolina
Urban Meyer
Walt Harris
Rich Rodriguez
West Virginia
June Jones
Brian Kelly
Notre Dame
Randy Edsall
Bret Bielema
Dave Doeren
Northern Ill.
NC State

* = Coach left team before BCS bowl game, so it was coached by interim coach. If the head coach left the school before the BCS bowl game, it is not reflected in his BCS record.
** = No longer with this team. Meyer retired and Harris and Rodriquez were fired. 

A few interesting gems from looking at this table:
  • Only 3 of these 9 coaches won a BCS bowl game with their previous team (Spurrier, Meyer, Rodriguez).  
  • Only 2 have taken their new teams to a BCS bowl game (Meyer, Kelly), with Meyer being the only coach to win a game (actually 3, including 2 national championships).
  • The only coach to win a BCS bowl game with their new team (Meyer) had won a BCS bowl game with his previous team.
  • 3 of the 4 teams coached by intermin coaches lost their bowl game, with West Virginia being the only exception.
Yes, programs that are hiring coaches have probably suffered some losing seasons and need time to rebuild, so these results could change in another year or 2.  Plus, this is a small sample size, so we would probably be better off by including all coaches who leave their teams, not just ones leaving after reaching a BCS bowl game.  In my opinion, schools that are hiring college football coaches are placing too much emphasis on reaching BCS bowl games and not enough on winning these games. Even if it is all about the money of BCS bowl games and not actually about winning, most of these big-name hires are struggling to take their new teams to a BCS bowl game.

If I were in charge of hiring a new football coach to turn around a struggling program and win national championships, here would be my one major piece of advice:
If you are serious about winning national championships, hire a coach that has actually won a BCS bowl game. If none of these coaches are available/interested, then don't settle for a coach who has taken his team to a BCS bowl game but lost - what makes you think he can do better next time (ahem, Brian Kelly)?  Save your money and take a chance by hiring a coach who hasn't been to a BCS bowl (but has preferably won other bowl games). You might just hire the next Les Miles (2-1 in BCS bowl games since 2005, including a national title).

Thursday, January 3, 2013


By now, everyone is aware of the impact of Moneyball (statistics!) on the MLB.  Due to the media firestorm surrounding Moneyball (aided by the catchy name), the perception seems to be that baseball GMs are the brainiest employees in professional sports.  Occasionally, I'll hear a story about an NFL or NBA GM who breaks the mold by applying analytics to improve their team's performance, but this isn't very common (although I imagine all pro teams are now employing at least a few data analysts).  

But I've NEVER heard a story about a college athletic director credited for improving/influencing his school's performance beyond the hiring of a high-profile coach ... until I read the above story.  I imagine that the main reason for this is because it is extremely rare.  You only hear about from the AD when its time to hire/fire a coach, respond to NCAA investigations, or build a new state-of-the-art athletic facility. This really doesn't make much sense, especially considering that all of the top universities have many great PhD-level statisticians on their payrolls.  While not all statisticians do sports-related research, all a university needs to do is simply buy out one of a professor's courses to get his/her expertise on how to apply a Moneyball-style approach to give their athletic teams as many advantages as possible ("buying out a course" = allow a professor to dedicate the time he/she would normally spend teaching a course to do some other research activity).  

I realize that this may ruffle some feathers, as many head coaches don't want to take advice from some academic wizard.  One option is to hire an AD who can do these sorts of analyses himself, and only try to change "off the field" decisions, such as scheduling, which is what the linked story above explains.  And as probably all coaches have bonuses built into their contracts for post-season appearances, what coach wouldn't want to do all he can to increase his likelihood that his team makes it into the playoffs (or bowl game)?  

If any university wants to take a chance and hire a statistician as their next AD to get an advantage over their competition, I'll be more than happy to interview :)

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

NFL Pop Quiz

As a new resident of St. Louis, I've enjoyed having a local NFL team to cheer for (although maybe not for much longer if they move to LA).  Rookie punter Greg Zuerlein had some incredible special plays this year and completed 3 of 3 pass attempts for 42 yards and 1 touchdown.  Can you guess which high-profile (and highly paid) quarterback threw for fewer yards?  Find out here.