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Aversion to "Advance Stats"

Not long ago I was your typical Leafs fan. I thought everything I heard through the main stream media was gospel. I would have different opinions time to time, but overall I found what I heard or read through typical channels to be well grounded and well informed.

Roughly 4-5 years ago I was a summering student at a law firm downtown. As a student, I was more or less useless and existed for what is colloquially referred to as "bitch work". This also provided me ample to time to do nothing but search to the ends of Google. I had searched all the internets.

I had grown bored of what I found on The Star and the The Sun, or what I watched on TSN, or what I saw being debated on HFBoards. I needed something else – kind of like how some people develop increasingly complex and odd fetishes once they grow tired of old fashion porn. This is about the time I fell upon blogs such as PPP or MLHS – and it got me off in a way like never before. I was enchanted. The comments sections, especially at PPP, were actually full of insightful and humourous conversations. I use to avoid comments over at TSN, but not anymore. Most importantly though, I garnered a whole new way of looking at hockey.

I was fortunate enough to fall upon these blogs relatively early in the "advance stat" era. I thought it to be interesting, and a great tool in understanding aspects of the game that are glossed over or not well understood by simply watching. I began finding the analysis over at the MSM venues to be lacking, incomplete and lazy. I found posters at HFBoards to be ill informed, even foolish.

I never thought that something as simple as in depth analysis could become so dividing, so polarizing. Some individuals, such as Cam Charron, dislike terms such as "advance stats", because there is nothing really inherently advance about them. The analysis comprises of typical and accessible data, easily found at NHL.com. The principles espoused by "advance stats", such as possession, are ones generally accepted and understood by everyone. Essentially, there is nothing really ground breaking found in the numbers. However, this has not stop the kind of analysis coming from blogs such as PPP to become contentious, and so controversial.

Why is that? I never had an issue coming to grips with something new like "advance stats". It never struck such a negative cord in me. I accepted it, I read up on it, I learned about it. I started hitting up the numerous sites about the topic, starting reading the raw data sets used to make the analysis, and so forth. I watched from the sidelines, never really finding the time to dive into more. But it began to strike me, the more I started following stat guys on Twitter and online, that there was a real emotional and angry response to what was being done in this regard.

I love reading about why certain people react the way they do. Its the political junkie within me. I’m a big fan of books and pieces that explain how people are influenced, why people react the way they do, and how some take advantage of that. This is why I believe people react negatively to "advance stats":

Confirmation Bias

People tend to favour and perfer information that confirms their beliefs and hypotheses.

Hockey fans tend to prefer the kind of players which do not shine too brightly under the microscope of "advance stats" (or, tend to hate players which are in fact great "advance stat" guys (e.g. Grabovski)). Head over to HFBoards, or the comment section of TSN – hell, just listen to PJ Stock and Don Cherry talk – and you’ll find that fans and media types typically love "lunch-pail" players. The blue collar, character, good old Canadian boys. For what ever reason, it is believed that this is the essential ingredient in building a champion. That guys like Bolland and Clarkson are more valuable to a team than players like Grabovski or MacArthur. When information is provided to the contrary, there is naturally a negative reaction. "Do you even watch the games, bro?" becomes the typical response to people using stats to refine the information they gather from simply watching a game.

People have their biases, and most do not know how to account for them. So, when "advance stats" show that what they believe to be true is wrong they lash out against those stats, rather than change their hypotheses or opinion. It’s just easier to do so. It’s a common issue in all areas of life, it’s just compounded when talking about sports because people are so passionate about it. To tell someone that what they have believed to be true all this time is actually false, well that is kind of hard to accept for some.

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Appeal to Authority

The argument from authority works something like this:

Most of what Don Cherry has to say about hockey is correct.

Don Cherry believes Corsi is a stupid stat.

Therfore, Corsi is a stupid stat.

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When individuals in the main stream media, such as Don Cherry, are constantly shooting down things like Corsi, it becomes hard for people to accept the benefits that those ideas provide. If Don Cherry, a world famous coach and TV personality, says on HNIC that Corsi is stupid, then it must be so. "Ha! See, I told you guys advance stats suck!".

This ties to confirmation bias, in that "experts" are not immune from it as well – and what they say is just used by lay persons to maintain their wrong beliefs too. It’s a vicious circle.

The strength of what these supposed experts say is put into question by the fact they likely know next to nothing about "advance stats", and are in no position to provide an opinion on it. There is also an issue of consensus among "experts" about the merits of "advance stats", making it difficult to appeal to authority in such a manner. Maybe most importantly, appeal to authority in deductive reasoning is a logical fallacy. It is an extremely weak argument to make, but it is made often regardless.

The belief is also manifested in statements like "If the coach (e.g. Carlyle) doesn’t care for the findings of "advance stats" then why should we? If these experienced hockey people don’t make decisions based upon "advance stats", then they must be useless." As is often found in places like HFBoards. This is wrong, coaches and management are not infallible and can be caught up in the same biases as everyone else.

The moment these stats find their way increasingly into the mainstream, you will see less of a fight against them. Obvious, of course. The work of people like Mirtle is exceptional, and has done a lot in terms of bringing people into the fold.

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Afraid of Change and Status Quo Bias

People fear what they do not know. They fear change, and find comfort in the status quo. +/- has been good enough for all this time, why change now? "Advance stats" are untested, it’s not accepted by authority figures, it hasn’t been around long enough, and so forth. These are all excuses to reject and fight against the change in thinking that comes with "advance stats". People will find what ever reason they can to shoot down new shifts in thinking. People are lazy, people are not all that bright, people are scared – the status quo provides a nice safe excuse for them.

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To suddenly come upon something new, something better, is a threat to people. Suddenly they are no longer in the loop. They’re no longer relevant. They will do everything possible to stop the oncoming change to ensure that they may sit comfortably in what already exists. There is the real fear of falling behind. “Advance stats” does that. If you do not know what Corsi is, you’re suddenly face to face with something that may make you a dinosaur.

Qualitative vs. Quantitative

Hockey, for some, is a religion. It is something far greater than just a silly game played by millionaires. It means something great to people, something that transcends the simple goal of pushing a rubber disk into a net. The act of quantifying that is sacrilegious. Fans want the magic, the mystery, the narratives and stories that attach themselves to the game. They thirst for the qualitative aspect of the game that is sometimes glossed over by proponents of “advance stat” analysis.

For someone like myself to stand up and say “well, there is no mystery – possession and skill wins games, not heart, not character, not a desire to win, not momentum shifts, not…” is painful to hear. Often that is not what is being said, but it definitely comes across like it to many. That’s not to say there are no intangibles in hockey, or that dedication is not important – it is very important. It just that intangibles are hard to witness, they are impossible to calculate, and in reality who doesn’t have a desire to win in the NHL? Every player worked hard to get there, if there is a difference in intangibles it is negligible at this elite level.

I also suspect that people like to see themselves in their favourite players, who are often those blue collar lunch pail types. In reality, most of us are not skilled enough to be any where near the NHL. Maybe that is why the idea of determination, and heart, and character, and all that intangible stuff is so dear to us. It is the only we can see ourselves as the hero, or to imagine ourselves manifested in an NHL player. It is easier to live vicariously through those character guys, because we like to see ourselves as decent and hard working people. Whereas it is harder to imagine ourselves as Phil Kessel, because we actually relatively suck at hockey. “Advance stats” kind of takes that away from people. It doesn’t hold those qualities as highly as traditional analysis does, and that pushes some people away from it.

Of course, things are more complicated than they seem at eye level, and we should be aware of that. Sometimes we come across as condescending or harsh in the way we deal with those of differing opinions (no matter how wrong they are) and that definitely does not help the cause. That often leads to people entrenching into their wrongful beliefs even when they are confronted by overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Some people will never accept what is being done with “advance stats”, however I believe many people are just subject to the things mentioned above and their time will eventually come. Hopefully sooner rather than later.

PensionPlanPuppets.com is a fan community that allows members to post their own thoughts and opinions on the Toronto Maple Leafs and hockey in general. These views and thoughts may not be shared by the editor of PensionPlanPuppets.com.

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