A Case for Analytics

One of the hottest trends in collegiate softball circles these days is analytics – the use of numbers and data to predict performance. Now a staple at the professional level, analytics were most prominently exposed to the general public in the book Moneyball back in 2003.  The Oakland A’s use of saber-metrics to make personnel decisions initiated a new wave that increasingly relied on numbers and data, as opposed to the old “gut feeling” or “what I think I saw.” Over the past four years, this wave of numbers and data has permeated the softball world, and college coaches are ever increasingly utilizing these analytics in practice planning, game management and recruiting. 

Now many will say that the use of such data is irrelevant and over-rated. But that really is old school thinking. NFL teams are making greater use of these numbers each and every year. Last year, the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective published a very interesting and intriguing article on the value of NFL Combine Data to not only determine the rank a player might assume in the draft, but also determine future success based on a three year analysis. In other words, they looked at each test result for each position and then compared it to how successful that player turned out to be! The results were amazing and proved the value of such analysis. For instance, the 40 yard dash has proven to be one of the most predictive tests given to all positions at the NFL Combine except Centers and Wide Receivers. That makes total sense for Centers, and while it might be surprising at the Wide Receiver position, it also indicates that route-running is a key to the success of any wide receiver. Other tests have a similar impact or not. For instance, the bench press has almost no correlation to future success in the NFL at any position. So the bottom line here is that if an NFL organization is going to pay millions of dollars to a player, they better make sure they have all the predictive data that they can in order to make a wise and informed decision.

This ability to make informed decisions is key to predicting how any player in any sport might perform at a “next” level. Whether that means moving from the college to the pros, or moving from high school to college, the more information the decision-maker has, the better that decision will most likely be. That is just common sense. 

So in softball, it is probably a good idea for a recruiter/coach to know how fast a player really is based on sound, reliable data.  After all, one step can make the difference between victory and defeat. The “one step” at first base for the slapper who is either out or safe can be the difference in the outcome of a game. The “one step” for an infielder either getting to a ball in time, or not getting there can be the difference maker. That “one step” for an outfielder who either makes the catch or just misses, can literally change the outcome of a game. And in a game where the outcome can hinge on a single play that is either made or not made, recruiting the slapper who has the proven physical ability to beat it out by that single step; or recruiting the shortstop who has the physical talent to get to that ball up the middle; or recruiting the outfielder who is legitimately fast enough to make that diving catch in the gap . . . well that seems pretty important since it can change the arc of a team’s season in the blink of an eye.

Does this mean that these statistical measurements are the only thing to use in evaluating players? Of course not. The ultra-quick release for the shortstop can make up for a slightly weaker arm. The ability to read the ball off the bat can bail out the slightly slower outfielder. As always there are exceptions to the rule, and no number can quantify heart, desire, and instinct. However, with so much riding on making quality, informed decisions, every coach/recruiter should choose, if possible, to go with the objective measurement as opposed to the speculative guess when such data is available!

In our next blog we will continue to discuss the world of softball data and analytics, and the role it is taking in helping to shape the future of the game.


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