Remember when Jonah Hill got all skinny for a year or so and didn’t look like himself? It was almost like he was anemic or had an eating disorder. Either way, skinny Jonah wasn’t funny, and though I had a tough time sitting through all three hours of The Wolf of Wall Street and Hill played a character the audience was meant to despise, he was back to his old self, a bit pudgy, stocky, and recognizable.
Still, while Hill’s foray into skinniness didn’t do so much for his acting career (he’s at a much healthier weight now than when he started out, however) I always thought it was in response to the way a certain Oakland A’s assistant general manager responded to the casting of Hill. The characters in the film Moneyball are real people and their stories are mostly real, with the exception of Hill’s character Peter Brand. That guy is 100 percent fictional, in name, appearance, and method.
Paul DePodesta is introduced in Michael Lewis’ book as being a Harvard graduate who hadn’t played baseball and who is more interested in finance than chew tobacco, and he’s portrayed by Lewis as somewhat of a foil to Billy Beane’s rough exterior. While Beane is violent, temperamental, and prone to outbursts, DePodesta is the voice of reason, who communicates with baseball through the spreadsheets on his laptop.
In reality, DePodesta was an accomplished athlete and executive before landing a job with the Oakland A’s. He played both baseball and football in college, and got his start as a scout with the Cleveland Indians. He’s more baseball man than Lewis, author of the book Moneyball, would have you believe, and he’s definitely more baseball man than Bennett Miller, director of the film Moneyball, would have you believe.
Has the portrayal of DePodesta on the big screen influenced the way sports people view people with a keen interest in statistics? Hill, unlike DePodesta, doesn’t look like an ex-quarterback or an ex-jock. He looks like a computer geek.
That sort of brings us to the statistical “revolution” that is taking place in hockey. There isn’t really a statistical revolution and there isn’t really a lot of statistics. Basically, a few people on blogs started to notice that possessing the puck was an important skill, and that you could approximate the possession a certain team had by counting the attempted shots for and against. That’s basically it. That idea, spawned many years ago, has slowly gained fruition because it, well, works. Teams that take a lot of shots tend to have success, and teams that are winning despite lousy shot differentials tend to get exposed into the spring.
The ideas are advancing, but fairly slowly. Two years ago, Eric T. wrote his paper that professed the importance of controlled entries into the offensive zone. You’d think such an obvious idea, such as “holding onto the puck is better than not holding onto the puck” wouldn’t take two years to gain mainstream acceptance, but that’s what it’s done.
Of course, the idea isn’t helped by the fact that a lot of current hockey people profess the importance of dump and chase. One of the reasons DePodesta didn’t trust scouts is that scouts are built in with their own inherent biases. In the case of hockey people, the stars who made livings by being great with the puck moved on to comfortable retirement. Others, without a pension or much education, have moved into scouting offices and analyst jobs to remain close to the game.
The market for baseball players, in Paul’s view, was more interesting than anything Wall Street offered. There was, for starters, the tendency of everyone who actually played the game to generalize wildly from his own experience. People always thought their own experience was typical when it wasn’t.
I think over the course of my conversion to the acceptance of data, I was able to critically ask myself what benefit there is for a team to constantly dump the puck in. Really, all you’re doing is giving the puck away to your opponent. If you’re in a situation where you have no teammates with you and you have to deke around three defenders for a clean entry, you can always do so with the knowledge that:
a) if you make it, you’ll have a good chance on net
b) if you miss it, you have four teammates covering for you defensively
As much as fans and analysts hate turnovers, they’re a reality of hockey. During one game I tracked in the 2013 season, there were close to 400 changes of possession in the game, and about 35% of those changes of possession came thanks to a team dumping the puck into the offensive zone or out of the defensive zone. One turnover is a drop in the bucket, but over time, they add up, just like saving up your change can add up to fund a night out with friends.
This has been a point of contention in the Barilkosphere and especially in the comment section of this blog when the discussion turns to Jake Gardiner or Nazem Kadri and their propensity to attempt the more dangerous play. Thing is… with Gardiner or Kadri on the ice, the Leafs are a better team in regards to possession. So how come the turnovers matter?
The biggest revelation, he said, was finding the relative risk of a turnover in the defensive zone by over-handling the puck in their own end was far out-weighed by the benefits of exiting the defensive zone in control of the puck, which in turn allowed the Greyhounds to enter to offensive zone in position to make plays.
Chipping pucks out or rimming them off the glass became taboo. Instead the emphasis was on making as many passes inside their own zone as needed to leave the zone with control.
It’s very interesting that Sheldon Keefe admitted that to Michael Grange. While Keefe’s old boss Kyle Dubas is no longer with the Greyhounds organization and out of the Ontario Hockey League, moving on up, Keefe is still employed by the Soo and gave away a potential competitive advantage, almost explicitly stating that the Soo had success by focusing on carry-ins and carry-outs.
Again, nobody’s Jonah Hill in this scenario. Without Eric T.’s initial idea, and Keefe’s courage to examine his own decisions critically, we still don’t know too much about these entries. But simply by tracking a very simple aspect of the game, Dubas gained notoriety as a stats guru and exploded in popularity when he took the job with the Leafs.
Is he a stats guru? Probably no more so than any of us. He has a very good Twitter feed and keeps up with the latest in baseball and hockey research because they were points of interest. Some of the lessons he was able to apply to his own management style. But Dubas, like DePodesta, is more ex-jock than antisocial number cruncher. I think Dubas has probably surprised a lot of people in his recent media tour with his charm and charisma something foreign to the Hill prototype of an assistant general manager. In the end, you get a lot of mainstreamers attempting to paint Dubas as a hockey man with an appetite for statistics, but the thing is, that’s not quite right either. The reality is that Dubas is a young and talented executive who has a lot of curiosity about his work. That’s a good thing in any field.
One of the reasons I blog less and less is because I’ve slowly become less interested in hockey. I think that there’s enough information out there to conclusively state that puck possession is critical, and yet ideas get roundly attacked by old men who have given up on curiosity. I couldn’t reasonably dedicate my time to something that wasn’t as intellectually stimulating as watching a fish tank, particularly when I’d for the most part given up interest. I’ll be straight honest: the big fight over whether or not the Maple Leafs were a good hockey team last year sapped a lot out of me. I began sleeping through my alarm clock, missing social commitments, and going through just about every Netflix show there was available. I’d like to say I read the New York Times often and finished a book every week, but my mind wasn’t there.
A new start
Tuesday morning I was tossing and turning in bed. My original plan was to wake up at around 6:00 a.m. and drink coffee and read, but I’d hit the snooze button about a dozen times before my phone finally showed me something other than the clock that would jolt me awake: the Score’s app alerted me to the fact that the Leafs had fired two people that I didn’t think were particularly good at their jobs and hired a young kid who was very good at his. It’s less about the Maple Leafs going full Jonah Hill and more about the Maple Leafs drifting further from the Brian Burke regime.
Because… here’s the other thing: possession hockey is just more fun. I love watching Gardiner and Phil Kessel rush the puck. I love it when P.K. Subban takes the puck on his stick and stands three feet in front of Carey Price, almost baiting the opposition when traditionally, defenders hold onto the puck and wait for the breakout formation behind their own net. I love watching Patrick Kane work his magic with Chicago, I love watching Dallas and Tampa Bay, two teams that at one point in their construction just admitted “screw it” in regards to defence. That’s more entertaining hockey. My dispassion probably stemmed from the fact that Toronto could have been so much better as a team as early as last summer, with great skaters like Kessel, Kadri, Gardiner, Morgan Rielly, Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur, and whoever else there was. Even Tyler Bozak has tuned offensive instincts, and he’d probably be twice the player if he just gave up on defence. The thing is, Randy Carlyle took this team of exciting forwards and defencemen and turned it into a boring, crappy team.
Am I wrong for hoping that at least that focus is going to change? I could care less about how the Maple Leafs assemble their roster, whether it be through a spreadsheet or through Steve Kasper’s blind intuition, so long as the management and coaching groups are working their asses off to maximize the talent of the roster they have. You don’t need stats for that. You need a critical eye and an ability to accept that we all have biases and they all temper with our decision-making in some way.
At the very least, the hiring by Brendan Shanahan shows who’s really in charge in Toronto now. Typically, coaches and managers get to hire their own assistants, but Shanahan broke up a longtime, unsuccessful pairing this week. Everybody has reason to look over their shoulder, which is always a good way of forcing an employee out of his or her comfort zone, no matter the industry. The Leafs need to spend more time there if they’re ever going to improve.
We’ll see. Stepping back from hockey and doing things other than blogging has really helped my mental well-being, and if hockey becomes more of an intellectual pursuit because people will recognize Peter Brand is a fictional character, it may become more enjoyable to watch and discuss. This week has me optimistic.