By: Edward Egros

Parting PGA Championship Thoughts

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In this era of hackathons and beating conventional wisdom, Brooks Koepka may have figured out this golf thing. The 29-year-old has won four majors in his first eight starts, something only Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Ben Hogan have ever accomplished. He is also the only golfer ever to own two major titles in consecutive years simultaneously (the U.S. Open being the other) and he's jumped into the top spot in the Official World Golf Rankings.

His brute force only begins to describe why he's on such a major tear. Koepka is judicious when it comes to where he plays. Among the Top 20 ranked players in the latest FedExCup Standings, Koepka has only played in 12 events. Only six other golfers have played in fewer, and many of those like Justin Rose and Francesco Molinari also play on the European Tour. Koepka also believes in playing an event the week before the U.S. Open and PGA Championship, including
at last week's Byron Nelson; in fact, he was the only player in the Top 10 in the OWGR to play that tournament. While different golfers prepare differently, Koepka's scheduling decisions are deliberate.

Despite his physique and
well-documented workout regimen, it may come as a surprise Koepka does not rank in the top ten in average driving distance (308.7 yards). He also ranks 17th in Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee among all players on tour. What helps him stand apart is actually his approach game. Per ShotLink, in his dozen events played, he finished first or second in Strokes Gained: Approach-the-Green four times, including a first-place result at Bethpage Black. When he goes for the green, his average distance has come in first or second four times, including a first-place result this weekend. Golf data scientist Mark Broadie has pointed out one of the bigger factors for lowering golf scores is the approach game, and Koepka has found his way to need fewer strokes there.

Lastly, there is the dynamic of majors themselves. Koepka has won more majors than non-majors (4 vs 2). His rationale is
a smaller field of competition:

"There's 156 [players] in the field, so you figure 80 of them I'm just going to beat," said Koepka. "You figure about half of them won't play well from there, so you're down to about maybe 35. And then from 35, some of them just - pressure is going to get to them. It only leaves you with a few more, and you've just got to beat those guys."

There is truth to this logic. Several players at majors qualify as amateurs, club professionals or earned exemptions based upon achievements from decades ago. Many golfers may be playing well that season but are unable to play in a major, such as Scott Piercy and Ryan Palmer, who rank in the Top 21 in the latest FedExCup standings but did not play in the Masters. Non-majors maintain rigorous qualifications, and with so many players at the peak of their games, one is bound to play so well that even the most accomplished will not win.

Brooks Koepka has a simple approach: play the week before majors, concentrate on the approach game from a variety of distances and landing spots and spend more time preparing for majors than other tournaments. Unless someone else can hack the system more efficiently, he will be strong-arming majors for years to come.

Previewing the 2019 Masters

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If you didn't know, Masters merchandise can only be purchased on the grounds of Augusta National. Officially, swag with the flagstick firmly planted on the Southeast corner of the United States can only be picked up by attending golf's first major. Tradition rarely ever changes in Augusta, Georgia.

Over the past few years I have researched which statistics best predict who will win the Masters, and just like Masters merchandise, time has not changed the approach.
As I have mentioned in previous conversations, my approach involves predicting who will earn the biggest share of purse winnings, not a score. This approach gives me a constant dependent variable instead of something discrete like "did they win" or what placement did each golfer finish with. To address that many golfers will not cash by failing to make the cut, I use a Tobit regression that, put simply, accounts for a lot of zeroes. Most of the factors used to diagnose a golfer's game come from Strokes Gained statistics. The last variable I look at is "Money Share" that is a proxy for course history, answering how well golfers have played at Augusta National before.

Of all of these factors, Strokes Gained: Putting proved not to be useful in terms of forecasting a winner. Putting is an uncertain activity where even the slightest break or inconsistency in the green can change a putt's trajectory. There also does not seem to be much of a trend in the ability to putt
from one round to the next.

For some additional trends, since 2010, every Masters champion but one was in the Top 50 in Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green (and often in the Top 10). Also, since 2012, every winner was in the Top 25 in the
Official World Golf Rankings (OWGR) heading into the tournament. Both trends were even more exclusive, until Patrick Reed's win last season lowered the aforementioned thresholds. Still, both trends are significant when determining a winner.

Now, to address the tiger in the room, Tiger Woods certainly falls in line with all of these trends. He ranks 9th in
Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green, sits 12th in the OWGR and, of course, he's won four green jackets, though the last one was worn in 2005. The favorite in Rory McIlroy has finished half of his Masters in the Top 10, is currently leading in Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green and sits 3rd in OWGR.

However, my pick to win is Justin Rose. One of the tricky things about Strokes Gained statistics is they do not account for international tournaments. International players are often miscalculated because how they perform away from American soil may not always come into the equation. On the PGA Tour, he's 26th in Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green, but internationally, he's won the Turkish Airlines Open, finished 8th in the Sky Sports British Masters and earned
a Top 25 at the BNI Indonesian Masters. Lastly, at Augusta National, Rose has finished second in two of the last four years and can boast 11 Top 25 finishes out of 13 starts. He has come close, but I believe Justin Rose will finally capture his first green jacket and spend much more time at the souvenir shops nearby.

For those who play Daily Fantasy Sports, I submit two lineups as often as I can:

Justin Rose
Rickie Fowler
Hideki Matsuyama
Shane Lowry
Justin Harding
Sergio Garcia

Justin Thomas
Bubba Watson
Xander Schauffele
Henrik Stenson
Brandt Snedeker
Webb Simpson

As always, special thanks to
ShotLink for providing the data.

In the Professional Transfer Portal

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Before digging deeper into one of the more poorly kept secrets in DFW media, I would like to excavate something else.

Over the last few years, I have tried—through my television work, my website and various media appearances—to incorporate analytical tools into my reporting. It has been a contained evolution that compelled me to pursue another academic degree and revise my journalism work that had lasted for several years until then. You have been patient and supportive throughout this process, and for that I thank you. Psychology will tell you the brain functions with patterns and routines, where we react to something and use a preconceived paradigm to explain it. That you have been willing to shift and break these patterns has been a special journey I will never take lightly.

An epiphany came some time ago when I knew I could not continue this evolution in my current capacity. I love being a journalist: sharing stories, reporting on live events and crafting a sportscast that hopefully spurs thought and entertainment. In four different places, I have had that privilege. However, I am also a data scientist: finding statistical trends, determining the significance of factors that go into sporting events and quantifying the burning questions that can often leave a sports fan incensed. While learning how to fine-tune my voice as a journalist, I also had to find my rhythm as an analytics enthusiast.

For growth, I need a change and, for that reason, I will be leaving Fox 4 on Sunday, March 31st. I begin one of my new endeavors Monday morning, April 1st— because I believe in having space to breathe in-between gigs. Officially, I will be the CEO of RevMedia, part of the
EPLAY family that uses basketball statistics to tell stories, project future performances and offer global rankings. I will also continue writing for this website, hopefully I will continue teaching at SMU (an unparalleled experience) and there are many other opportunities I cannot wait to share when the time comes.

Until then, too many coaches, players, fans, executives and colleagues have become friends during these last 5.5 years, and if you do not stay in touch, existentially awful things will happen to you, too unspeakable to mention. Besides, empty threats can make friendships fuller and more meaningful, psychology tells you that too.

NCAA Tournament Dos and Don'ts

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With every NCAA Tournament comes firmer beliefs that THIS is the year the secrets will be revealed, the formulas will be solved and the proprietor of how to win your pool will be unmasked like a Scooby-Doo villain.

Alas, not everything can be predicted.

Still, many tactics for winning your pool have stood the test of time. Last year, I went over a few strategies which I will revisit:

Firstly, start with your National Champion. While Duke seems to be a heavy favorite,
Virginia ranks first in KenPom, college sports data scientist Luke Benz has Gonzaga winning most frequently in his simulations and one significant variable is the overall talent at point guard, and the most talented seem to play for Purdue and Michigan State. Certainly the Boilermakers and Spartans are riskier, but any one of these four teams are acceptable alternatives to the heavy favorite.

Next, you do not need as many upsets as you might think. Look at the size of your tournament pool and adjust the number of total upsets based upon how many other brackets you are up against. Per
Andrew Beaton:

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If you are up against something much greater, you can see the growth is asymptotic, so do not go crazy picking dozens of underdogs.

Lastly, look at who everyone else is picking and choose those that are being undervalued.
ESPN's Tournament Challenge shares its popular vote, and if you go by KenPom and Benz's simulations, participants are overvaluing North Carolina, Kentucky and Villanova, and undervaluing Virginia, Gonzaga and Virginia Tech. Regional bias may cause more people to pick a team close to their area, and if it is being overvalued, there may be an opportunity to oust them early and gain points others will not.

Though I cannot independently confirm, there are roughly as many analytical projections of the perfect bracket as there are actual realistic permutations. What research can show is which factors typically matter. For starters,
geography matters. Teams that play significantly closer to a site than their opponents have a tangible advantage. Two of the more notable matchups this year involve Oregon/Wisconsin and UC Irvine/Kansas State, both happening in San Jose, CA. The Ducks are roughly 558 miles away from the arena, while the Badgers are four times that distance. UC Irvine is located approximately 382 miles from the SAP Center, whereas Kansas State must travel more than 1,700 miles to play its first game of the tournament.

Preseason rankings also matter: no matter how the season played out, projections before the first games are played typically perform well (
good news for Kansas, Kentucky and Gonzaga). Offensive and defensive efficiency metrics are also significant (though never foolproof). One factor that does not seem to be important is team experience. While pundits seem to enjoy citing if a team has been through the tournament rigors before or how many seniors/juniors they have, young teams have performed well and senior-laden teams have been upset early. Overall, it should not factor into decisions.

Taking as many of these factors into account, here are two brackets I have submitted to a pool or two. The "Gonzaga" bracket is for smaller pools and the "Michigan State" bracket is for larger pools. I will blend these two into my Final Four picks for television, podcasts and such (subject to change).

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May the odds be ever in your favor.

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.