blank'/> THE PUCK REPORT: Statistical Anomaly - Shane Battier +/-

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Statistical Anomaly - Shane Battier +/-

In the NHL, the only statistic that matters is winning. A GM's job is to piece together 23 players (within the league's salary cap limitations) that collectively will yield the most number of wins. The skill lies in adding the right players. The tricky part is knowing which individual statistics translate into team success.

This past weekend author Michael Lewis (famous in sports circles for reporting on Bill James' Sabermetrics in his 2003 release Moneyball) turned his lens on basketball, specifically the Houston Rockets and their point guard Shane Battier, contributing this piece to the New York Times. Once again, Lewis investigates which empirical gauges are being employed by GMs to value a player's worth.

Of his point guard Shane Battier, Rockets' GM Daryl Morey claims "[he] can't create an offensive situation . . . he can't dribble, he's slow, and hasn't got much body control." Conventional statistics show that he doesn't score many points (6.4/game), snag many rebounds (4.8/game), block many shots (0.8/game), steal many balls (0.7/game), or dish out many assists (2.1/game), either.

Hidden from Morey's comments and Battier's current season statistics are his invisible strengths. Battier excels at playing an unselfish game that improves upon the offensive and defensive efficiencies of his teammates, and corresponding inefficiencies of his opponents. When he's on the court, teammates get better and opponents get worse.

One statistic Morey uses to illustrate Battier's value is plus-minus, which simply measures what happens to the score when any given player is on the court. Morey understands that plus-minus in its crude form is hardly perfect (noting that a player on the same team with the world’s four best players, and who plays only when they do, will have a plus-minus that looks pretty good, even if it says little about his play), though he claims to be able to adjust for these potential distortions.

Morey notes, a good player might be a plus 3. That is, his team averages 3 points more per game than its opponent when he is on the floor. In his best season, the superstar point guard Steve Nash was a plus 14.5. At the time of the Lakers game, Battier was a plus 10, which put him in the company of Dwight Howard and Kevin Garnett, both perennial All-Stars. For his career Battier’s a plus 6. By Morey's standards this is huge, likening it to the difference between 41 wins and 60 wins.

Statistics perceived to contribute to a team's success in the NHL include the number of goals a player scores, the percentage of shots a goalie stops, the number of wins a goalie collects, and the number of goals a team scores. You might think having 2 of the top 3 league scorers, the goalie with the 3rd best save percentage and 4th most wins, or the team with the 3rd most even strength goals would spell success, but ask the Pittsburgh Penguins, Minnesota Wild, or Toronto Maple Leafs, respectively, and they'll tell you these accomplishments may not even produce a playoff spot.

For GMs looking to quantify a player's likelihood of winning, Frankensteining a Morey-esque adjusted plus-minus per game measure might be a smart place to start. After all, it's not only how good a player is but how good he makes those around him that often dictates success.