March 02, 2017

Data fanatics

Enterprising student-analysts are impacting Andover athletics
by Phillips Academy

Rolando Rabines ’19 opens his laptop and pulls up the shot chart and film from a January Big Blue basketball win over Worcester Academy. “We were big underdogs in this game,” he says. “You can clearly see here why we won: made three-pointers, high percentage attempts in the paint, and no bad twos.” He then points to Worcester’s breakdown, illustrating the opposite—more missed mid-range attempts (“bad twos”) and failed attempts from beyond the arch. Rabines continues, “This data is invaluable and provides a blueprint for how to win.”

Rabines, a varsity soccer player from Topsfield, Mass., is the founder and head of Andover’s Sports Analytics Club. The group, which has 15–20 members, meets biweekly to break down game footage from Krossover (a popular scouting software), plan how to apply their findings with coaches, and debate current sports headlines, like the puzzling trade of Sacramento Kings big man DeMarcus Cousins, which sparked conversation about his usage percentage and whether his rebounding numbers will suffer now that he’s paired with fellow superstar Anthony Davis in New Orleans. The club is working directly with boys’ basketball, boys’ soccer, boys’ lacrosse, and boys’ and girls’ volleyball, with more teams hopefully on the horizon.

Sarah Carmichael, an upper softball player from Andover, Mass., says the club has opened up a whole new side of sports for her. “Engaging in club meetings has allowed me to learn things that I never would have [experienced] in the traditional Andover education,” she says. “I hope to do an independent project based on the data generated from Andover sports teams.”

Club members analyze game footage and statistics to produce team reports that include player trends and recommendations, such as the best plays to run and match-up strategy based on mathematical computations, algorithms, and probability.

Coming out of the Worcester win, boys' basketball coach Terrell Ivory ’00 received a report with in-depth analysis and raw data. “If you want to compete in our league, you need as much information as possible,” says Ivory. “When I’m coaching, I feel like I’m teaching—just in a different classroom. Having this data from games puts me in a position to look at my players objectively, then work to make specific improvements.”

Club advisor and sports information director David Fricke sees the club expanding exponentially as it attracts more students interested in both mathematics and athletics, and he also expects more coaches to get on board. “Andover has really engaged student-athletes as well as faculty members who also coach,” says Fricke. “The lessons our players are learning in math classes can have a practical application for them in competition.”

While the club may be breaking ground at the high-school level, sports analytics has been around for decades. Pioneered by baseball writer Bill James in the 1980s and made famous by Michael Lewis’s 2003 book Moneyball, sports analytics has become big business for professional sports and has ushered in a new way of managing organizations. It is not uncommon for professional teams to have entire departments dedicated to analyzing statistics and optimizing strategies for competitive advantages. For Rabines and other students just being introduced to the field, the potential for a career in the analytical side of sports is an exciting prospect.

The trend of valuing data above all else is not without its detractors. Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green and Red Sox Cy Young Award–winning pitcher David Price have been vocal critics. This fall, at a special event sponsored by Andover's Sports Analytics Club, New York Yankees scout Matt Hyde ’92 spoke with Andover athletes about the tension in the sports industry related to analytics: Do numbers lie? What’s the value of a scout’s eye and professional experience? How do you measure an athlete’s intensity or passion for the game?

Rabines experienced this dilemma firsthand when trying to relay his findings to an Andover player this winter. The data was received more like a critique than constructive coaching, but once he explained how the calculations could be used to the player’s advantage—driving more to the basket to draw fouls and ultimately landing on the free-throw line—the value became clear.

Data—and all the possibilities that come along with it—says Ivory, should be used in tandem with great coaching and player development. “When you tell players to ‘work harder,’ how do you quantify that?” asks Ivory. “If our rebounding differential improves, that’s a tangible outcome and an indicator of effort.”

“This club is providing a college-level experience,” says Fricke. “It’s just amazing that it’s happening in high school, led by our own students.”

“Our goal is to have sports analytics managers on every team,” says Rabines, who, along with Fricke, Ivory, and other club members, attended the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston this spring thanks to an Abbot Academy Association grant. How they intend to implement what they learned at Sloan remains to be seen, but one thing is obvious: algorithms and equations are no longer just for math homework.

“I’m fascinated by this world,” Rabines says. “I love it that in my off-season, [analytics] can be my sport.

Categories: Academics, Athletics

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