Doin’ stats for the C’s

A New York Times piece by the Freakonomics guys about Mike Zarren, the 32-year-old numbers guy for the Boston Celtics. While statistics has become more-or-less mainstream for baseball, the same isn’t quite true for basketball or football (though that’s changing too). They have better words for it than me:

This probably makes good sense for a sport like baseball, which is full of discrete events that are easily measured… Basketball, meanwhile, might seem too hectic and woolly for such rigorous dissection. It is far more collaborative than baseball and happens much faster, with players shifting from offense one moment to defense the next. (Hockey and football present their own challenges.)

But that’s not to say that something can be gained by looking at the numbers:

What’s the most efficient shot to take besides a layup? Easy, says Zarren: a three-pointer from the corner. What’s one of the most misused, misinterpreted statistics? “Turnovers are way more expensive than people think,” Zarren says. That’s because most teams focus on the points a defense scores from the turnover but don’t correctly value the offense’s opportunity cost — that is, the points it might have scored had the turnover not occurred.

Of course, the interesting thing about sports is that at their most basic, they cannot be defined by statistics or numbers. Take the Celtics, who just won the first round of the playoffs. Given their ability, the Celtics should have dispensed with the Hawks more quickly, rather than needing all seven games of the series to win the necessary four. The coach in the locker room of any Hoosiers ripoff will tell you it doesn’t matter what’s on the stat sheets, it matters who shows up that day. It’s the same reason that owners cannot buy a trophy even in a sport that has no salary cap. Or, if you’re like some of my in-laws-to-be (all Massachusetts natives), you might suspect that the fix is in (“How much money do those guys make per game?”) Regardless, it’s the human side of the sport, not the numbers, that make it worth watching. (And I don’t mean the soft-focus ESPN “Outside the Lines” version of the “human” side of the sport. Yech.)

In the meantime, maybe the Patriots or the Sox are hiring…

(Passed along by Andy Oram, my editor for vida)

Monday, May 5, 2008 | sports  

Visualizing Data Book CoverVisualizing Data is my 2007 book about computational information design. It covers the path from raw data to how we understand it, detailing how to begin with a set of numbers and produce images or software that lets you view and interact with information. When first published, it was the only book(s) for people who wanted to learn how to actually build a data visualization in code.

The text was published by O’Reilly in December 2007 and can be found at Amazon and elsewhere. Amazon also has an edition for the Kindle, for people who aren’t into the dead tree thing. (Proceeds from Amazon links found on this page are used to pay my web hosting bill.)

Examples for the book can be found here.

The book covers ideas found in my Ph.D. dissertation, which is the basis for Chapter 1. The next chapter is an extremely brief introduction to Processing, which is used for the examples. Next is (chapter 3) is a simple mapping project to place data points on a map of the United States. Of course, the idea is not that lots of people want to visualize data for each of 50 states. Instead, it’s a jumping off point for learning how to lay out data spatially.

The chapters that follow cover six more projects, such as salary vs. performance (Chapter 5), zipdecode (Chapter 6), followed by more advanced topics dealing with trees, treemaps, hierarchies, and recursion (Chapter 7), plus graphs and networks (Chapter 8).

This site is used for follow-up code and writing about related topics.