Friday, June 26, 2015

Keeping Stats

TigerBlog watched the first 30 minutes of last night's NBA draft, which enabled him to see four picks.

That's 30 more minutes and four more picks he's seen of the last, oh, 10 or so NFL drafts combined, partly because the NFL hasn't figure out yet that having its draft in the heart of college lacrosse season is just killing its marketability.

Anyway, TB saw basically everything he needed to in those four picks.

The Sixers had the third pick. The Knicks had the fourth. TB's Office of Athletic Communications colleagues Craig Sachson (Sixers fan) and Ben Badua (Knicks fan) were both less than thrilled by how it played out, as the Sixers ended up with Jahlil Okafor and the Knicks took Kristaps Porzingis.

TB has no idea what will ever come of all these players. Some will pan out. Others won't. Will  Porzingis? No clue.

TigerBlog grew up rooting for the Mets, Knicks, Giants and Islanders. He still roots for the Giants. He doesn't really care about the Mets or Islanders anymore.

The Knicks? They are the hardest team in sports to root for, bar none. The owner (James Dolan) and the star player (Carmelo Anthony) are completely impossible to root for. The team hasn't won a championship since 1973.

For the most part in recent years, the Knicks have fielded teams made up of highly priced jerks. And charged really high prices to watch the jerks play - and usually lose.

So will Porzingis matter? Doesn't matter.

The best part of the 30 minutes that TigerBlog watched was by far the tribute commissioner Adam Silver paid to Harvey Pollack, the long-time statistician for the Sixers, who recently passed away at the age of 93.

Pollack, whom TB never met, is a legend. He invented a bunch of stats and put together expansive compilations of statistical analysis year after year after year.

As Silver said, he was the last remaining original employee of the NBA from its inaugural 1946-47 season.

As he listened to Silver, it dawned on TB that stat keeping is about the only remaining original task from when he started in the OAC all those years ago.

Everything else has changed through the years. Everything.

It makes TigerBlog laugh to think back to the "old" days. He tries to explain to the newer generations, like Badua, about how much different it was back then, before the internet, before the explosion of technology. Tasks that now take a few seconds took hours 20 years ago.

For all that, stat keeping remains essentially the same. Well, sort of.

When TB first started at Princeton, stats were kept by hand and then entered into a computer to get the season cumes and all that.

After a football or basketball game, TB had to use the computer of Marge DeFrank, a secretary in the department then who has long since passed away, since it was the only computer in the building that had the stat program on it. He could only use it when DeFrank wasn't around. TB remembers it being a giant pain in the butt.

Then along came computer stats. At first, they were intimidating. The first time TigerBlog had to enter stats at a basketball game on the computer was about as stressful a task as he's had here.

Actually, the first football game with computer stats featured a play where there was an interception that was run back to near the goal line, where it was fumbled into the end zone and picked up by an offensive lineman, who ran it out to the two. TigerBlog and the stat crew just looked at each other and laughed

These days computer stats are simple. At first, there was someone doing backup stats by hand. Now? Never.

As the mechanism for stat keeping has evolved, the whole concept of the stats themselves has not. A basket is still a basket. A goal is still a goal.

There is still too much discrepancy from place to place on assists in all sports. And there are still too many people - many coaches included - who don't know the rules of keeping stats. Hey, there are a lot of people in athletic communications who don't know the rules too.

TigerBlog, for instance, had no idea that in women's lacrosse, no ground ball is given without a change of possession, except on a missed shot.

TigerBlog has seen countless examples of bad stat keeping in his time. It tortures him. There are NCAA manuals online, and they have official rules in them. TigerBlog himself helped write the rules for men's lacrosse.

In general, though, most people who keep stats in college athletics are well-informed and well-intentioned. And they produce final stats that can be trusted, which is the most important thing.

When the action gets going in a game, it's easy to panic as the official statistician. And to miss things. Over the course of a season, this all evens itself out.

TigerBlog has had players ask him about stats, ask them to be changed. Unless it's a score or penalty that was given to the wrong person, they can't be changed.

Being a statistician is different now than when TB started and certainly when Harvey Pollack started. When he first put pencil to paper, there's no way he imagined computers and live stats and people who followed the stats on their smart phones.

But stats? They're not just numbers. They're a way of comparing eras, of having continuity from generation to generation, of establishing unquestionable greatness for teams and individuals.

It's the responsibility of the stat keeper to make sure those numbers are accurate. It's challenging and rewarding when done right.

And, even after all these years and all of these changes in the business, those little numbers are still one of TigerBlog's very favorite parts of the job.

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