By: Edward Egros

A Review of SXSW

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For one weekend in Austin, while others attended festivals, concerts and technology symposiums, I wanted to explore the sports and media panel discussions at SXSW, a conference billing itself that celebrates the convergence of the interactive, film and music industries. First, to be a panelist at SXSW, you must master the art of the humble brag. For instance, to paraphrase a filmmaker's list of his two main goals for any of his products, he said that he must love his work and his audience must love his work.

Pause to be inspired.

A couple of panel hosts reiterated their resumes aloud without using this background for an educated question.

Pause to emote.

One of the better tidbits of advice I ever received as a writer is to know your audience. While SXSW attracts a diverse group of scholars, professionals and fun-lovers, often times this gallery wants to learn how to become the person they are watching, or at least morph into a unique iteration. If keeping trade secrets serves as the highest priority, at least teach us something that will help an aspiring audience. A disappointing talk featured a panel promoting "
The Weekly", a television endeavor from the New York Times committed to long-form storytelling. Instead of previewing at least one specific story without a fancy montage, the conversation felt more like an academic presentation, philosophizing about why this format "will" work. I did want to learn more about the program, but the panel felt so much like an infomercial, Ron Popeil should have moderated. I wished for something with takeaways for my own work as a journalist, not a payment installment plan.

Often times panels with star power offered fewer lessons about the ways of the world than those who let their experience speak for themselves. One exception was NBA champion Chris Bosh, an advocate of analytics and
an elite karaoke singer. It took losing to the Dallas Mavericks in 2011 and signing Shane Battier to make Bosh a believer in the numbers, so much so that he rightfully credits the adjusted approach with his 2012 NBA Championship. Alongside Spurs general manager R.C. Buford, the panel devoted to the future of basketball discussed the importance of the three-point shot, and how big men are taught to handle the ball like a guard and be unafraid to launch from deep.

Perhaps my favorite panel featured a discussion on how data has changed the NFL. In particular,
Sarah Bailey (analyst with the Los Angeles Rams) and Namita Nandakumar (analyst with the Philadelphia Eagles and noted pugilist) discussed how they make the most of a small analytics staff and why any quantitative strides should be celebrated, not interpreted as a "glass half-empty" endeavor. For instance, while quants wish coaches would go for it on 4th down more often, Nandakumar advises to at least take satisfaction coaches are getting smarter about it. A sobering reality to consider is how few jobs are available to data scientists in pro football, so self-promotion and engaging research projects in other sports are vital in this competitive industry. For nuanced advice for data scientists, Bailey offers this advice: when working with large datasets, take a subset, crunch the numbers in the R programming language, and if you are satisfied with the results, take a larger dataset and use the Python programming language.

The last lecture I attended featured Paul Bracewell, Managing Director of DOT Loves Data, discussing how to use machine learning to rate athletes in a variety of sports, most notably international events like rugby and cricket. Some of the better instruction he offered involved how to discuss analytics with coaches and players: "When predictivity is used as a benchmark, the model needs to generate supporting output to explain any departure from the predicted results". In other words, explain why a model works or doesn't work in a specific situation. Transparency and meaning to build trust are of the utmost concern.

I wrapped up my time recording an episode of "
Outside the Box" with our usual EPlay crew. It featured a spirited conversation as to who is responsible for preventing young players from a catch-and-shoot approach to basketball that some believe analytic enthusiasts have espoused. Trust me, you want to listen to this one. Until then, my biggest takeaway from my first SXSW is the opportunities to learn and share ideas exist, but they often remain hidden. Until I revisit it all, I will take a break and watch a video of me petting a robot puppy at one of the innovation exhibits.

Predicting Putts on the PGA Tour

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If you go to your favorite search engine looking for studies on predicting the likelihood a PGA Tour player sinks a given putt, you will find enough research to suggest there is no other dimension for discovery. Distance and slope largely affect the odds a golf ball finds the bottom of the cup. Golf tournaments have even begun broadcasting both this research and these resulting probabilities as part of its televised coverage.

What you don't see in a lot of research or in broadcasts is how these odds can be adjusted based upon the golfer himself. Suffice to say, some players are better putters than others.
While statistics like Strokes Gained: Putting can be volatile, the results from specific golfers can be used to calculate a more accurate probability that any given putt will be successful.

With the help of students at Southern Methodist University, we put together a model for predicting the probability of a successful putt. Using data from 2014 to the 2018 seasons, we first used the following variables:

  • Distance (in inches)
  • Distance^2 (the squared term for distance)
  • Resulting Score (e.g. birdie, par, bogey, etc.)
  • Hole sequence (i.e. the player's progress throughout his round)
  • Position on the Leaderboard
  • Slope (uphill, downhill or level)
  • Interaction terms between slope and distance, as well as slope and distance^2
  • Par value
  • Specific golfers (Binary variables that equal 1 if the putt will be taken by a specific golfer, otherwise 0)

Pertaining to that last set of variables, for this study we took 20 of the more popular golfers on the PGA Tour with varying putting prowess:

  • Adam Scott
  • Brooks Koepka
  • Bryson DeChambeau
  • Bubba Watson
  • Dustin Johnson
  • Henrik Stenson
  • Jason Day
  • Jon Rahm
  • Jordan Spieth
  • Justin Rose
  • Justin Thomas
  • Patrick Reed
  • Phil Mickelson
  • Rickie Fowler
  • Sergio Garcia
  • Tiger Woods
  • Tony Finau
  • Webb Simpson
  • Xander Schauffele
  • Zach Johnson

Because of the pressure of winning a golf tournament and because the sample after the second-round cut only features players who have played well enough to post low scores, we constructed two model: one to represent the first three rounds of a Tour event and one for the final round. These models are
logistic regressions, with the coefficients for each variable representing an odds ratio. Before analyzing specific golfers, here are the results for the other variables:

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Even though some of these coefficients are close to one and perhaps difficult to analyze, all are statistically significant and logically intuitive. For instance, as distance increases, the putt becomes tougher. A downhill putt is tougher than an uphill putt. Bogey putts tend to be easier to make than pars and birdies (perhaps because they tend to be the second putt in a sequence where a golfer has learned how to read the green better).

As for the golfers themselves:

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These bar charts represent who tends to be better putters, and there are many observations available. In no particular order, Henrik Stenson is one of the more exceptional golfers with the flat stick, though there is a slight drop-off as the tournament concludes. Rickie Fowler performs consistently well, especially when he is in contention. Bryson DeChambeau has putted well in his victories, but it was a skill he had to work on during his professional career. Tiger Woods has a natural uptick when he is competing for a win. Lastly, when Jason Day or Jordan Spieth have momentum heading into the final round, they exhibit solid putting abilities.

There are many things that could improve this study. Our data did not include weather information, which affects greens (dry greens are faster and tougher, wet greens are slower and easier). There also isn't a way to analyze newer golfers who have not played in many PGA Tour events. Perhaps there is a way to convert other data and translate it to PGA Tour levels, but that is not at our disposal right now. Still, the results here are promising and should help refine the probability of putts when dealing with specific golfers.

Special thanks to
ShotLink for providing the data. Also, we put together a GitHub page with academic presentations, R code and other valuable information. For that, click here.

It's a Must Win for Alabama

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Let's suppose Oklahoma wins the Big 12 Championship, Ohio State wins the Big Ten, Clemson takes the ACC and, wait for it, wait for it, Georgia claims the SEC title. In other words, Alabama is the only team in the Top 6 to lose AND, aside from Notre Dame, the only team not to have a conference championship.

Seth Walder of ESPN says
Alabama would still make the College Football Playoff, per their Playoff Predictor. This metric offers a likelihood a team makes the playoff, given its resume, taking into account five variables: Strength of Record, Football Power Index, Number of Losses, Conference Championship and Independent Status. This model says Bama would have a 43% chance to make it, while Ohio State would have just a 37% shot and Oklahoma at 28%.

With all due respect to the model, the 6% difference is not large enough to feel comfortable about the prediction (confidence intervals and comparisons are not readily available). Also, if there are messages or lessons the committee is trying to teach college football fans, in 2015 we learned conference championships are hugely significant, unless that team suffered two losses, like 2016 when the two-loss Big Ten Champion Penn State Nittany Lions missed out to one-loss Ohio State, or 2017 when one-loss Alabama edged the two-loss Big Ten Champion Ohio State Buckeyes.

This year, if Alabama loses in this scenario, they would be compared with a one-loss Big 12 champion and a one-loss Big Ten winner for one available spot. Again, this is unlike last year when the committee compared Bama with a two-loss team. There are three teams instead of two to consider, and each have one loss.

If consistency is something to be strived for, and conference championships deserve added weight, and if
geographic diversity is still a consideration, then Alabama, despite everything accomplished this year, is in a "must win" game Saturday afternoon to make the College Football Playoff.

Is Team USA THAT Dominant to Win the Ryder Cup?

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Putting it as simply as possible, the Ryder Cup strategy seems to be for Team USA to design easier golf courses and for Team Europe to design tougher ones. It's why, in the last five Ryder Cups, the team with the home course advantage has won four of those five tournaments (with the lone outlier being in 2012, arguably the greatest comeback in Ryder Cup history with Team Europe needing eight points to win and Team USA needing just 4.5 points). The logic comes from analytics groups that believe keeping the action shorter (concentrating on wedges and the putter) benefits Team USA.

The host course for 2018, Le Golf National, seems to be gaining respect from golfers as far as
how important it is to stay in the fairway, seemingly benefitting the Europeans. However, if we look at Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee from PGA Tour events, Team Europe's average slightly favors the Americans (.382 versus .348). Note: Sergio Garcia and Thorbjørn Olesen did not quality for this statistic so it was assumed their Strokes Gained to be zero.

Golfers also discussed the importance of iron and hybrid shots, so it may be safe to look at
Strokes Gained: Approach-the-Green for guidance. Here, we see an advantage for the Americans: .475 versus .331. In other words, if Team USA does well with tee shots they may be unstoppable. If they have trouble finding fairways, Team Europe has an opportunity.

The Americans are heavy favorites to capture their first Ryder Cup in Europe since 1993 (
-150 versus +130 for Team Europe). While so many more players at the top of the Official World Golf Rankings belong to Team USA, do not be surprised if the long game becomes enough of an advantage for Team Europe to stay in contention.

Biggest Snubs for the Cowboys' Ring of Honor

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There was a time when virtually the only way a Dallas Cowboy could make the Ring of Honor was to win a Super Bowl. All but two current members had at least one championship (Don Meredith and Don Perkins). However, this week Cowboys owner Jerry Jones affirmed Tony Romo would be inducted into the Ring of Honor. Not only did the former quarterback fail to reach a Super Bowl, he would be the first Cowboy in franchise history to be inducted without even having won a conference title.

Individually, Romo may not have had stellar a career as Ring of Honorees Troy Aikman or Roger Staubach, but he does surpass the efforts of Meredith, and for being a part of the Cowboys for a dozen years, he likely deserve a place in north Texas immortality. By including Romo, the Cowboys introduce the idea that championships should not be weighted as much when determining who belongs, perhaps opening the door for others.

This idea leads to a question: Who is the most deserving Dallas Cowboy for the Ring of Honor who has yet to make it? One way to evaluate individual performances is with
Approximate Value by Pro Football Reference. The top eight players in Cowboys history have already been inducted, from Emmitt Smith (#1) to Staubach (#8).

The highest Approximate Value not to have his name on the ring is Cornell Green, a cornerback who played for 13 seasons, including for the 1971 Super Bowl team. With 34 interceptions, 171 games started and five Pro Bowl invitations, Green has a better case to make it than anyone else not there, per this metric. His 9th best Approximate Value is better than Aikman, Romo, Lee Roy Jordan, Larry Allen, et al.

Two other players who finish in the Top 20 but who are not in the Ring Honor include Ralph Neely, a left tackle as part of the '71 Super Bowl champions and Nate Newton, the left guard who played during the Cowboys dynasty of the 1990's. While this metric may not be the perfect way to compare players, it does highlight some inconsistency for why some players have already been inducted and why others have had to wait.