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Sloan Sports Analytics Conference Day 1: Stephen Curry's shot, Tommy John alternatives

Highlights from the first day of the 2017 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, including information on MLB and Tommy John surgery, Stephen Curry and more.

BOSTON – In contrast to past years, this year’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference didn’t begin with a celebration of the titans of analytics—no Golden State Warriors hype train this year—but rather a comment on the unpredictability of the last sporting year. In her opening remarks, Jessica Gelman, CEO at Kraft Sports Group, pointed to the victories of the Cubs, Cavaliers, Clemson, and Leicester City as evidence of that uncertainty. Of course, the Super Bowl victory of Gelman’s team, the Patriots, may have been a bit more predictable.

Not only does the general attendance at SSAC continue to peak, with more than 3,500 attendees on it’s opening day, but a record number of teams and sports organizations are represented at this year’s meeting. In fact, this diversity is evident in the panel and research papers as well, with more sports getting into the analytics action—Mixed Martial Arts, golf, volleyball, soccer and marathon running, to name a few.

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The allure of analytics, and perhaps one of the reasons SSAC has become so popular, is its availability to anyone with an Internet connection and some knowledge of math and statistics. 

With 39 panel topics and seven forums available for innovators to showcase research and best practices, the conference is very much the Super Bowl of Analytics. Sure it’s mainstream and there are as many jocks as there are geeks, but the talks and papers are full of interesting data. Here are some quick hitting highlights from the first day:

• Shooters are like snowflakes, no two are alike. Especially when they’re named Stephen Curry. Using 3D analysis of SportVu camera data, one research paper endeavored to answer two questions. First, do various types of body movements correlate with a made vs. missed shot? The short answer is yes. No movement prior to receiving a pass, no pump fake, narrow set foot stance, and legs split all result in more made three-point attempts. The second question, and most important, how does Curry’s shot compare to other players? The analysis found that Curry moves more, takes more off-balance shots, and shoots more often off the dribble than other players.

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• Using information from five years of player health data—in both the minor and major league—Major League Baseball hopes to identify the risk factors and solutions to UCL ligament injury. Researchers have identified velocity, higher pitch counts, and type of pitches thrown, among others, as potential risk factors for UCL injury using injury data from across all levels of professional baseball. They are also hopeful that potential alternatives to surgery—repair of the ligament and the use of biologic materials to boost healing—might soon be used as alternatives to Tommy John surgery.

• One of the more interesting research paper presentations focused on home field advantage in Major League Baseball. Home teams win slightly more than half of MLB games, 53.93% to be exact. In those games, the first inning accounts for 21% of that home field advantage. The solution? Use an “opener” to pitch to the first batter. This allows the starter to continue to warm-up in the bullpen and come straight into the game to face a batter, much like the home-field situation when a starter enters the game in the top of the inning. According to the paper’s calculations, the move might add a few wins by saving a handful of runs per season. 

The paper does admit that the manager’s trip to the mound to relieve the “opener” after one batter might be uncomfortable. 

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Best Quotes from SSAC Day 1

“When you’re a football executive, you’re in the veterinary business, the patient doesn’t talk to you.” — Mike Lombardi, former GM of the Cleveland Browns, on how analytics can be used to indicate problems or difficulties

“Yards per game gotta be the most useless stat.”  — Tedy Bruschi on using the yards per game stat to rank the effectiveness of NFL team defenses

Analytics are useless if players can’t execute on the field.”  — Mike Lombardi

“People would ask me, ‘Were you interested in the ministry?’ No, the classes fit my practice schedule.” — Shane Battier on how his schedule as a student-athlete influenced his choice of religion as a major