Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Interesting Links, and Some Thoughts on Sports Journalism

I don't usually post links to other articles, but there are a few that I wanted to highlight as they are definitely worth checking out.

First of all, JLikens at Objective NHL demonstrates that there is one more adjustment I need to make to my save percentage rankings, an adjustment for rink reporting bias. That is certainly a topic that requires future study. I don't think that an observed shot differential makes an open-and-shut case for rink reporting bias, as I think there are some teams that are more likely to allow fewer or more shots at home based on playing style, or possibly other factors like offensive/defensive strategy, commitment to matching lines, frequency of back-to-backs played on the home vs. on the road, etc. However, it is pretty clear that certain rinks do count shots differently, and that would have affected goalie numbers.

Tom Awad at Puck Prospectus did a statistical ranking of the top 10 goalies since 1944. His numbers look pretty reasonable, although I think his value over replacement metric maybe gives too much of a bonus for longevity (Tony Esposito seems a bit out of place at #4). Martin Brodeur is ranked in a tie for 5th. Interestingly enough, given the recent discussion in this space, one of the goalies tied with Brodeur is Ed Belfour.

There was an interesting quote from John Davidson that I ran across in an article by Eric Duhatschek (hat tip: Cycle Like the Sedins):

“If you take [Brodeur's] whole career playing in New Jersey and document odd-man rushes against for that whole period, he'd have the fewest odd-man rushes against, I would think – and the fewest penalties, because they're so disciplined. Style of play, him handling the puck, which means fewer injuries to defencemen, which means they're healthy to play the full season. There's a big domino effect there.”

I don't disagree with the first part, and the second part is something that would be interesting to look into.

Any of you who hate the goalie wins stat as much as I do will probably be amused by this post at Copper 'n Blue (specifically the part about Miikka Kiprusoff). The first comment is a classic, as well.

And finally, I just had to throw in a link to this article by Damien Cox entitled "Will People Really Debate Whether Martin Brodeur is the Best Ever?". Forget Awad's numbers, or mine, or anyone else's, here comes the mainstream journalist saying that in 5 years it will be completely laughable to pick anyone other than Brodeur as the best ever.

I'll never be able to match up to the excellence of Coxbloc in skewering the ramblings of the co-writer of Brodeur's autobiography, but I'd like to address this article briefly, as there has been some discussion in the comments here lately about how someone like me can reconcile the fact that I disagree with a lot of people who spend their time around the pros and are paid to cover the sport of hockey.

I don't think journalists are stupid. I have no doubt that Cox would easily be able to understand everything I have written on this blog. I don't think he lacks basic math skills, and I don't think he even distrusts statistics. I think he just forms viewpoints without defining and testing his criteria, and he is uninterested in testing those opinions by using alternate methods.

The way I see it, the best bloggers and independent hockey analysts possess two main things that are very much lacking in the majority of mainstream sports journalism:

1. Logical reasoning skills
2. Intellectual curiosity

Let's take an example from Cox's article here. He brings up talks about New Jersey's general lack of success prior to 1993-94, and then their success afterwards. Here is his argument, split into its components:

Premise 1: Lemaire became coach in 1993-94
Premise 2: Brodeur became starting goalie in 1993-94
Conclusion: "It was equal parts of Lemaire and Brodeur, then, that made the Devils develop into the type of team they became."

They both showed up at the same time, therefore they are equally responsible? That quite clearly does not follow, and no attempt was made to quantify or even reasonably subjectively evaluate the relative contributions of each, much less the other 19 skaters on the roster. Something happened, and somebody was there while it happened - well, he must have contributed to it. Martin Brodeur's team won the Stanley Cup in 2003 while Roberto Luongo's team missed the playoffs. I guess that means Brodeur must have been the better goalie. Grant Fuhr has won a lot of championships, he must have been clutch, and so on.

Cox's whole article is a great example of a lack of clear logical argument. It is, however, a typical journalist's greatest ever article, a hodge-podge of observations, anecdotes and opinions that are somehow supposed to coalesce into a coherent demonstration of greatness. It is distinguished by its lack of an attempt to compare the subject to others, even peers who played at the exact same time Brodeur did, and its lack of defining the relevant criteria of greatness. Does Cox consider puckhandling skill to be more or less important than playoff success? How about "defining the personality of a franchise", is that more or less important than Vezina Trophies? Who knows?

Not surprisingly whenever a journalist sits down and types a bunch of unrelated items into his computer and calls it a proof, the article tends to fall a bit flat. Even more so when, as in this instance, the opinion espoused happens to be wrong in the first place.

Point 2, lack of intellectual curiosity, tends to come up when people bring numbers to the table. Fire Joe Morgan was classic at exposing mainstream journalists who would ridicule advanced statistical metrics because they disagreed with them, without even understanding what they meant.

That kind of anti-numbers bias comes up in hockey as well, but there is more to it than that. To me, journalists seem to be satisfied with simple explanations, and seem to have little interest to investigate further to see whether something is true. I have read the attempts of a number of different journalists to account for the effect of New Jersey's excellent defensive play on Brodeur's success, and I've never seen any of them talk about shot quality. They'll usually pull up some carefully selected irrelevant metric to show that it doesn't matter (e.g. "Brodeur ranked in the top 10 in shots against seven times in the last 10 seasons"), or they'll gloss it over by talking about at best tangentially related things like New Jersey's offensive performance or the number of Devils coaching changes, or they'll demonstrate that New Jersey did not have excellent defensive personnel or excellent shot prevention in 2007-08 and skillfully extrapolate those results backward over the prior 14 years of Brodeur's career.

The reason I focus on Brodeur so borderline obsessively is that I find his career to be very interesting. He has had spent almost his entire career within an extreme team context, and he has a large gap between the subjective evaluation of hockey observers and the objective evaluation of the statistical record. He played behind a great defence - how much does that help a goalie? He played a lot of games - how hard is that to do, and how valuable is it to a team? He is great at all the goalie non-save skills - how big of an impact does that have on the rest of his team? His team won a lot of games and Cups - was that because of great/clutch goaltending, or because of superior team play?

Answer all of those questions for Brodeur and you can pretty much do it for anyone, and therein lies the challenge. But getting a complete answer to any individual one of them is not easy, much less properly evaluating the whole, and that is why you can forgive me if I don't have a ton of respect for journalists who haven't even attempted any of that legwork trying to tell me the case is already closed.

8 comments:

Statman said...

Bang on. Sports journalists are the weakest of any type of journalists. Can you imagine a business journalist being so shallow & disinterested in really understanding how the field (hockey) works, including investigating all the numbers?

seventieslord said...

I wanna be a sports journalist. Easiest job in the world! Case in point.

Down Goes Brown said...

As a Leaf fans who has probably read most of what Cox has written over the course of his career at the Star, I think you're giving him too much credit.

The question of whether he could understand the analysis you do on this site is irrelevant. He wouldn't have any interest in doing so.

Cox is very much an old school media guy. He's paid his dues, he's worked hard, he's made it to the top of the ladder, and he'll be damned if he's going to have much interest in what some fan or blogger thinks.

He's been grudgingly dragged into the interactive world recently with his semi-blog and weekly mailbag. But in general, there are only two types of fans he's interested in engaging with: those that agree with him, and those that disagree in such an over-the-top cartoonish way that they're trivially easy to defeat. Somebody like you, who puts this much thought into their arguments, wouldn't fit into either category and so you don't exist.

Despite his years of service, I've never found Cox to be a guy who offers any particular insight into the sport. I don't doubt for a second that you know more about this topic than he does. Or, at the very least, that you've spent more time thinking about it, as opposed to just pontificating for whatever audience might be nearby.

catz27 said...

I agree with your comments on the national hockey media. Being from Pittsburgh and a Pens fan, I used to participate in the online Q&A of the Pens' beat writers. Even though Pgh is an established hockey market, I just don't get the feeling that a) the beat writers really understand hockey or b) have the curiosity to learn.

First, I think it's hard to provide a good view of what's happening and why if you've never played the sport at any level. I'm sure the next generation of writers will have some experience with the sport.

Second, there is this old school journalism in sports that is focused purely on 'what' happened rather than 'why'. I suppose that makes sense in the days before the NHL network and constant online and TV highlights. It's no wonder that papers are losing their readership. There simply is no 'value add' in the writing. I know what happened...I watched the game. Tell me something I might not know or have noticed.

I'm not sure any of this is laziness. I think it is just a lack of vision and intellectual curiosity.

One final point. I was writing about my dismay at MA Fleury's inability to handle the puck and the impact on shots given up and hits taken by the defensemen. Just mentioning this was like suggesting the Earth was not the center of the universe. This is even more surprising as the Pens had Barrasso who had to be one of the better puck handling goalies and generated a huge number of assists passing quickly to Lemieux, et al.

Great article!

jamestobrien said...

To me, journalists seem to be satisfied with simple explanations, and seem to have little interest to investigate further to see whether something is true.

Well, said tCG. As a (former?) journalism student, I've had my fair share of "rush my microwaved thoughts into print" moments that I'm not quite proud of. The hockey blogosphere surely has educated me on how antiquated some stats can be.

Kent W. said...

Second, there is this old school journalism in sports that is focused purely on 'what' happened rather than 'why'.

This says it all, I think. And, in part, it's because most fans are more concerned with narratives and mythology than actual fact or insight. Saying "the team didn't want it enough" or "they really lacked leadership" seems to be more meaningful for a large segment of the hockey (sport?) watching fraternity. even though those are basically Barnum statements. "Analysis", for many, boils down to applying the "right" shop-worn bromide to describe results.

quoipourquoi said...

Don't forget Scott Burnside when you're ragging on journalists. This is a guy who on November 22, 2004 said "Patrick Roy is, and always will be, the greatest goaltender of all-time," and that in regard to his regular season records, "those are window dressing to the real heart of the matter -- Roy was the best money goaltender of all time."

Now, here we have Martin Brodeur, 11-14 in the playoffs since the article, and Burnside says after win #552: "I don't think there's any doubt... this establishes him as the finest goalie of all-time."

Ugh... some consistency please.

Jamie said...

Recently discovered your blog and have been slowly working through it. This post is, simply put, great. I completely share your view of mainstream journalists - so much of the supposed insight they provide is just hackneyed cliches that completely defy logic. I look forward to being a regular reader.