By: Edward Egros

2017

Who Will Win the Byron Nelson?

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Last year, Sergio Garcia became just the fifth golfer ever to win multiple titles at the Byron Nelson. Given this tournament has been around since 1944, it shows just how difficult it is to predict this tournament.

It does help the field is stronger than usual; eight of the top 20 golfers in the world will participate, including Dustin Johnson, Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, and of course Sergio. In fact,
Vegas Insider is giving these highly ranked golfers the best odds to win, most notably Johnson at 5/1. On the surface, this mark makes sense, given he has already won three times this year, more than anyone else on Tour.

But as with most golf predictions I have done, I place an emphasis on
strokes gained statistics. These measurements look at how well a golfer does in each phase of his game, compared with the rest of the field. For instance, strokes gained putting looks at how many putts a golfer needs to complete a hole at a specific distance, so if the average golfer needs 1.5 putts to complete a hole from seven feet, 10 inches, the golfer who sinks the putt gains 0.5 strokes, but a two-putt means they lose 0.5 strokes. These totals are then aggregated for the season.

ShotLink data has this information readily available since the 2004 season. Given the renovations TPC Four Seasons made to the course since that year, this time frame may be enough data for us to have a glimpse into what qualities a golfer needs to have to be successful at this particular tournament. I am using four statistics: Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee, Approach-the-Green, Around-the-Green and Putting.

The statistic with the best ranking for success is Off-the-Tee. In other words, how well a golfer does from the tee box on all par-4's and par-5's is the best predictor for winning the Byron Nelson. Here is how golfers ranked in this statistic just before competing in the Nelson:

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Other than Steven Bowditch in 2015, every golfer ranks in the Top 100, often in the Top 60. As of the end of the PLAYERS Championship, here are the top ten golfers in Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee

1. Sergio Garcia
2. Dustin Johnson
3. Jon Rahm
4. Tony Finau
5. Bubba Watson
6. Kyle Stanley
7. Patrick Cantlay
8. Justin Rose
9. Hideki Matsuyama
10. Hudson Swafford

Of these ten, only Garcia, Johnson, Finau and Swafford are competing. Finau and Swafford have played this event far fewer times and Swafford has never finished in the Top 30. As for the other two players, Johnson has played at the Nelson seven times and has averaged a score of 68.54, including four "Top Ten" finishes. Garcia has played the event 12 times, has averaged a score of 69.07 and has the same number of "Top Ten" finishes. The difference is, Garcia has won the Byron Nelson twice and also has a third-place finish.

The volatility of this tournament might make this exercise seem foolish, but history does show, three of the five multiple winners won in back-to-back years. I am picking Sergio Garcia to become the fourth to win back-to-back Byron Nelson championships.

Will Jordan Spieth Win a Major in 2017?

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Leave it up to the U.S. Open’s official twitter handle to place tongue firmly in cheek when it comes Jordan Spieth’s victory at the Australian Open being a sign of things to come: “We all know what came after @JordanSpieth’s first #AusOpenGolf win...” followed by a photo of him holding the major’s championship trophy. In other words, only in the years he won the Australian Open did he win majors.


At the time of publication, no major tournament participants have withdrawn based upon this logic.

There are sounder ways to predict if Jordan Spieth will earn his 3
rd career major this year like momentum. Perhaps surprisingly, in a few ways, Spieth performed better in 2016 than he did in 2015, despite not winning any majors last year. We can illustrate this idea using “Strokes Gained” statistics:

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For those new to “Strokes Gained”, it simply means how many strokes a player gained or lost, compared with the rest of the field, based upon how they played in the four areas: off the tee, approaching the green, around the green and putting. Spieth was actually a better putter in 2016, it was primarily his iron and hybrid clubs letting him down. Fortunately for Spieth, putting is a better predictor for overall success than other phases of the game, so as long as he can continue improving in close range, he has opportunities.

Next, let’s look at each individual major, beginning with the Masters. When looking at a host of variables, there is no better predictor for future performance than past success. It is why I publicly predicted Spieth to win the green jacket last year, and I would have gotten away with it had it not been for that pesky Amen Corner. Still, nobody has played better at Augusta National the last three years than Spieth, so he is in the best position to win there again.

This year’s U.S. Open will be at Erin Hills. It is listed as 7,823 yards, which would be longer than any PGA Tour event played last season. Though Spieth is not one of the longer drivers on Tour, his U.S. Open win was at Chambers Bay, almost as long as this year’s event. Spieth’s advantage was he knew how to putt on the unique fescue greens better than most everyone else. This setup might pose problems.

Royal Birkdale will host The Open, a shorter links course. Perhaps one of the more underrated qualities of Spieth’s is his ability to play links courses well, compared with other Americans. As long as the momentum is there over the summer, Spieth can also contend there.

Finally, the site of the PGA Championship is Quail Hollow Club. It has hosted the Wells Fargo Championship since 2003. Predictably, familiarity with a course has helped Spieth over the years, but he has only played that tournament once, in 2013 when he finished tied for 32
nd. There may simply be too many other golfers with more knowledge of the course for Spieth to have a realistic chance.

Spieth already has a few Top 10 finishes in 2017, including a victory at Pebble Beach. In the last few months, he helped the Americans claim Ryder Cup win, earned an Australian Open victory and is 2nd on the Tour in greens in regulation percentage (one of the areas that was in need of improvement). His Strokes Gained: Putting has not been as strong this year, ranking 37
th, but a few golfers ahead of him have played more tournaments, so it remains too early in the season to suggest there might be a problem.

Because of the deep fields of majors, the odds are better “not” to predict any one golfer to win one of the big four. But for Jordan Spieth, there are enough reasons to believe he can capture another green jacket, win his first Claret Jug, or both.

Subscribers of the Aussie Open theory would agree.

2017 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

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Another installment of the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference has come and gone. More than 3,500 were estimated attending the proceedings, learning and offering their latest research in the sports analytics world. While football and basketball are often the most popular sports here, there seemed to be a noticeable effort to highlight the quantitative strides made in other sports.

One panel featured golf analytics, led by Golfweek's
David Dusek, who highlighted the success stories of these quantitative tools. Jeff Price, Chief Commercial Officer of the PGA, offered an example of Team USA at the Ryder Cup. At Hazeltine National Golf Club, long par 5's meant emphasizing wedge play. It's this discovery that helped the Stars and Stripes to a decisive 17-11 victory.

On a more personal level, current professional golfer Jason Gore explained how to turn research into actionable results.

"When I talked to a sports psychologist, Fred Astaire would [practice and] put chalk on the floor," said Gore. "But once he grabbed Ginger's hand, he never thought about the chalk on the floor."

There is still room for growth.

"We're in the first inning of the data revolution in golf," said
Arccos Golf CEO Sal Syed.

Dusek pointed out some major tournaments like the Masters and United States Open still do not provide the media with advanced statistics.
15th Club CEO Blake Wooster says the potential is there to analyze how golfers perform under pressure. Lastly, the group seemed to agree lasers should be used to measure distance more accurately. Even Gore believed lasers used by caddies could speed up pace of play.

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The seminal football panel of this year's conference was unabashedly endorsing the concepts of its own sport's analytic revolution. It was even subtitled "Please Stop Punting", a concept where going for it on 4th down
yields more expected points and discounts a more traditional idea valuing field position.

Almost immediately, Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman John Urschel, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in mathematics from MIT, discussed a common situation he says coaches get wrong. When a team trails by 14 late in a game and score a touchdown, he says it is better to go for two than kick the extra point. The reasoning is, two points essentially give you the win with another touchdown, but even if unsuccessful, you can go for two again and achieve a tie, and because most teams convert two-point attempts 50% of the time, you are at least giving yourself a better chance at winning, with a small chance at needing a third score of some kind.

Mike Lombardi, former football executive and current analyst for Fox Sports, says analytics help with time allocation throughout the week, knowing what coaches should communicate with players and which statistics are important in determining the outcome of a game, such as 3rd down red zone defense.

"You don't establish the run, you establish the lead," said Lombardi. "Teams with the lead at halftime frequently go on to win," citing last year's Super Bowl champion Patriots as the top team with wins after leading at halftime, then citing the second-place team, the Super Bowl runner-up Falcons. The players, which included former Patriot Tedy Bruschi, explained how halftime is all about adjustments, but that they should take fewer than five minutes to implement.

From a front office perspective, analytics can help decipher if trading players and draft picks make fiscal and qualitative sense.

"The toughest thing to do in sports is to know what you're trading. It's why the Patriots won't trade [backup quarterback] Jimmy Garoppolo," said Lombardi.

Football discussion was not confined just to that panel. A couple of talks featured fantasy football and if there are things to give analytic players an advantage. Here are some tips from Tauhid Zaman, the KDD Career Development Professor in Communications and Technology at MIT, and Renee Miller, a neuroscientist at the University of Rochester:

- When picking a quarterback, get one or two of his receivers as well.

- Avoid players who cancel each other out, like a defense against one of your offensive players.

- We weigh football players' performances at the start of the year too heavily. Instead, looking at the bigger picture of their performance.

- Be careful of overconfidence: "The more data we have, the more confident we become in our decision making."

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Lastly, in basketball, while guys like Luis Scola seemed to get most of the attention from hoops fans, maybe the most direct knowledge given came from Seth Partnow, Director of Basketball Research for the Milwaukee Bucks. In his talk, "Truths and Myths of the Three Point Revolution in Basketball," Partnow offered the following bulletpoints:

- Defensive three-point shooting percentage is a useless stat because of the noise involved (good defenses prevent the shot).

- Long range shots in the NBA do not lead to fast breaks, it's shots around the rim that cause these.

- Ten of the last 12 NBA champions ranked in the top ten in three-point shooting.

As robust as this research might be, it does not offer a glimpse into the future of basketball analytics. However, one panel discussed solely how the sport will evolve thanks to quantitative tools. There may still be blowback from coaches and those who approach the sport more traditionally.

"When you're working with the [NBA] Draft…you end up trying to convince coaches," said Dean Oliver, a statistician who worked in the front offices of the Sacramento Kings, Seattle SuperSonics and Denver Nuggets. "You don't expect to win 100% of these arguments and that's fine."

Using analytics, a couple of panelists offered simple suggestions for improving the game. Former NBA player and coach Vinny Del Negro wants the league to add a fourth referee because the pace of the game has gone up and it is getting tougher for officials to keep up. WNBA point guard Sue Bird wants to get rid of the shootaround because of the rest players need and the lack of proof shooters develop a rhythm because of this routine. She also wants the analytics to assist in the psychology of a team.

"If I were a general manager, I'd want to know if [players] retain information well and how they handle things under pressure," said Bird.

The flexibility of these tools, spanning different sports and perhaps different fields of expertise, perhaps proves why this conference has lasted as long as it has.

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(All photos courtesy of Sloan Sports Analytics Conference).