In 1987, a pair of young Cleveland Indians — along with the team’s mascot, Chief Wahoo — graced the cover of an April edition of Sports Illustrated with a bold proclamation.
“Believe it!” read a tease to the left of grinning right fielder Cory Snyder and utilityman Joe Carter. “Cleveland is the best team in the American League.”
Inside the magazine, a 2,500-word feature presented the Indians as a pennant contender, as a team capable of “restoring the history” of an organization that won World Series titles in 1920 and 1948. “There’s a feeling that this is the year,” wrote the story’s author, Ron Fimrite. “People, baseball people, are starting to talk.”
But what really happened was quite the opposite of SI’s prediction. The Indians completely flopped, assembling an MLB-worst 61-101 record that season.
So, what went wrong?
Among the people to notice the dissonance between the initial projection and the actual results was none other than future Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. Having developed a love for numbers as early as first grade — one that would later evolve into a career — Morey wondered whether there was a more accurate method to evaluate and forecast on-field performance.
“I was like, ‘Maybe people don’t know what they’re talking about. Maybe there’s a better way to do this,’ ” said Morey, who was 14 at the time the story was published. “I remember that being a big moment.”
While Morey’s interest in analytics started with baseball — he calls sabermetric pioneer and former Red Sox advisor Bill James his “hero” — he would go on to lead the charge in revolutionizing the game of basketball. Since the 46-year-old became general manager of the Rockets in 2007, the NBA has seen more 3-pointers, higher scores, and increased tempo.
“It’s sort of a titanic shift,” Morey said. “Really, the sports that have applied analytics are all kind of unrecognizable to what they were before that.”
Houston, naturally, leads the league in 3-pointers made (932) this season, and the team’s superstar, James Harden, also leads the league in average points per game (36.3). Morey’s analysis, of course, goes beyond the box score, but the key to sifting through different figures and calculations is quite simple: “Look for ones that drive winning.”
“Anything that creates winning is going to be what people do,” Morey said. “If you’re the general store in town and then the efficient chain comes in, you got to adapt, or you’re not going to be able to compete.”
While there always seems to be a debate regarding the entertainment value of Harden and the Rockets’ style of play — how many step-back threes is too many? — Morey argues the changes as a result of statistical analytics are effective and “generally fan-friendly.”
And he’s not alone. More and more individuals across several leagues have begun to embrace, or, at the very least, show interest in, statistics — a phenomenon evident by the increasing attendance numbers at the annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.
Founded by Morey and Jessica Gelman, former Harvard basketball player and CEO of Kraft Analytics Group, SSAC brings together industry professionals, team executives, students, and others to discuss the increasing role of analytics in sports. A modest crowd of about 100 participated in the inaugural conference over a decade ago, while over 3,500 attendees (from 44 states and 33 countries) are expected to turn out Friday and Saturday at Hynes Convention Center for the 13th iteration.
This year’s gathering will feature speakers such as NBA commissioner Adam Silver, writer Malcolm Gladwell, Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck, Patriots club president Jonathan Kraft, former Celtic Paul Pierce, ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro, Ringer founder Bill Simmons, WNBA star Sue Bird, and Celtics assistant general manager Mike Zarren.
The speakers will each take part in at least one of 33 panels, ranging from “Basketball Analytics: Hunting For Unicorns” to “Do Athletes Need the Media?” to “Competing With the Couch: Improving the Venue Experience.” Attendees can also engage in workshops and other activities.
“The big fun is the really, really detailed geeky stuff,” Morey said. “This year, we’ve got the leaders in [artificial intelligence] for chess, and we’ve got the gold-medal curler [Tyler George] who’s going to play people from the conference. There’s also the serendipity of who you meet in the hallways and the networking that goes on. For me, those are the really fun moments.”
So, what’s the panel Morey is most looking forward to?
The answer is “An American Analyst in London,” which features English writer Roger Bennett of the popular soccer podcast and TV show, “Men in Blazers.”
“I’m going to go on there and bring my ugly American perspective to soccer,” Morey joked.
Here are some of the other events on the agenda:
Friday: “Helping Dream Chasers: Social Justice with Meek Mill and Michael Rubin,” 11 a.m.-12 p.m.; “Who Says No? A 1-on-1 with Adam Silver and Bill Simmons,” 2:45-3:45 p.m.; ESPN’s “The Jump” live show, 3-4:30 p.m.
Saturday: “Rebooting the Celtics-Lakers Rivalry” with Wyc Grousbeck and Jeanie Buss, 9-10 a.m.; “Making the Modern Athlete: A Conversation with David Epstein and Malcolm Gladwell,” 2-3 p.m.