Friday, September 23, 2011

Yeah...sez you! No...sez YOU!!

Yesterday, there was a brief online argument on the divide between those who “see” the game and those who “measure” the game.  As often happens in internet arguments, the fact that the argument was brief did not detract from its intensity.  The genesis of the argument was an article by Fox Sports columnist Jason Whitlock.

The opening in that column isn’t subtle: “I won’t be going to see 'Moneyball.' The movie celebrates the plague ruining sports: sabermetrics.'”  “Ruining” the game?  If Whitlock intended to provoke, mission accomplished.  But actually, this is just the latest installment of the “stats are for losers” versus “your eyes are lying to you” argument that you are likely to find on any message board, online forum, or sport talk call-in show concerning any sport you care to name. 

But the problems with the “stats versus eyes” argument crsytalized in my mind listening to this on…

It wasn't the predictable opinion that the Pittsburgh Penguins would be the Eastern Conference representative in the Stanley Cup finals that grabbed my attention (and yes, being a Caps fan I just rolled my eyes), it was these comments from Dan Rosen and E.J. Hradek concerning Evgeni Malkin, who is returning from a knee injury that ended his 2010-2011 season after 43 games…

Rosen: “Malkin is back – healthier, stronger, hungrier – he could be in line to have a huge year for [the Penguins].”

Hradek: “Malkin, I think, is ready to have a big year…”

A huge year?  A big year?  And on what information would one naturally reach this conclusion?  Let’s start drilling…

Malkin had a “big” year, a “huge” year in 2008-2009 when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup.  He played in all 82 regular season games in which he was 35-78-113, leading the league in scoring and finishing second in the Hart Trophy voting as league’s most valuable player (some other Russian won it).  He went on to dominate in the post-season, leading all players in scoring (14-22-36 in 24 games) and skating off with the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the post season.

But since then?  In 110 regular season games Malkin was 43-71-114, minus-10.  That is a 32-53-85, minus-7 pace per 82 games.  And that is after having missed 15 games in 2009-2010 to injury and 39 games to injury last season.

At this point we’re thinking what Rosen and Hradek “see” is the 2008-2009 Malkin – who at age 22 put up what is to date his career year – not the Malkin of the past two seasons who was not that player.

Drill a little further into the numbers…

Since that whopper of a 2008-2009 regular season, Malkin’s numbers have deteriorated.  Not to the point where he might be considered “just another player,” but certainly enough to be noticeable.  For instance (numbers from…

The first thing to notice is the games – from 82 to 67 to 43.  Even with the games, there is the declining ice time per 60 minutes at 5-on-5.  His goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 do not show a clear pattern, but those assists – primarily primary assists, the bread and butter for a center – drop significantly, which in turn is reflected in his points per 60 minutes dropping substantially.  He might be coming back, as Rosen put it, “healthier, stronger, hungrier,” and that might be relative to the 2010-2011 season or even the 2009-2010 season, but to the 2008-2009 level of health, strength, and hunger? 

Drill further…

The Corsi numbers tell an odd story, and perhaps a concern to a Pens fan.  Corsi is, to simplify things, a function of shots directed toward the net, for and against.  Sort of a plus-minus on steroids that attempts to account for the effect of teammates on production.  Higher Corsi values suggest being a part of more adept puck possession and of an ability to exert more pressure on opponents than they are able to exert on your team. 

Back to Malkin.  In 2008-2009 his “relative” Corsi value – that which accounts for his Corsi value when on the ice versus that when off the ice – was relatively poor.  Puck possession appeared to be better when he was not on the ice.  At 5-on-5 he was 11th among Penguin forwards playing in at least 40 games.  That measure improved in each of the next two seasons to where he led the team in relative Corsi at 5-on-5 in the 2010-2011 season.  But despite being a part of this shot domination, and by extension puck possession, Malkin was an inefficient scorer – 2.17 points per 60 minutes at 5-on-5.  That works out to 22 even strength points for his 43 games played…before his knee injury that ended his season (although to be fair, he did sit out ten games over two separate stretches before his season ender with other knee injuries). 

We are not seeing how, based on Malkin’s revealed performance over the two seasons following his career year, one could conclude that it is even probable that he finishes the 2011-2012 season with a “huge” year.  If I’m a betting person, I’d be thinking he will end up at being about a point-a-game player over 70-75 games.  Better, certainly, than the 2009-2010 or 2010-2011 seasons (because he might be healthier or stronger), but not up to the “huge” year he had in 2008-2009.  Since the level of performance reflected in his numbers, even when healthy, doesn’t argue for it.

We could go on drilling, and there are folks out there who could do it far more effectively than we could, but the point is not to cast aspersions on Malkin's ability to produce.  It is that there are two sides in this larger argument competing against one another when perhaps they do not have to.  In this instance, perhaps a non-representative one since it involves one player on one team over a three-year period, the eyes see one thing, while the numbers reflect another.  But do they have to be “competing” arguments?  Can they be “complementary” arguments or approaches that inform one another?

Both sides have their strengths and their weaknesses.  The folks of the old school who “see” the game lack the rigorous structure and method that an attention to data brings, or they are too uninformed about data and method to appreciate its potential contribution.  And the numbers folks with their “fancystats” sometimes lack the texture that watching the game entails and conflate a player’s “production” (does he “put up numbers?”) with a team’s “performance” (do his numbers contribute to or result in winning?).

Statistics are the revealed production of the game’s participants distilled into numbers that can be manipulated and molded into models of performance.  The observers of hockey have the stored memory of hundreds – thousands – of observations of players in different contexts, different situations, with different teammates or cities, and under different emotional or other intangible circumstances.  If those who “see” the game cannot inform the “stats geeks” as to why their observations are more important than the rigor a numbers approach brings to the game; if those with a command of and a fondness for numbers cannot teach those who are empirically challenged why methodology matters; then each side is going to be talking past one another, sneering at the other’s approach to the game. 

And we are going to see a lot more insufferable columns such as Whitlock’s.

Washington Capitals 2011-2012 Previews: Mike Knuble

Mike Knuble

Theme: “Experience is not what happens to you. It is what you do with what happens to you.”
-- Aldous Huxley

In late March of 1997, Comet Hale-Bopp was making its closest approach to Earth, and Mike Knuble was making his debut in the National Hockey League. The comet was probably the bigger story at the time, but Knuble has managed to skate in almost 1,000 regular season games in the NHL since then. That is a lot of experience. It commands a certain amount of respect, and it was on display last winter in a rant that might have shaken the Caps out of the doldrums of a losing streak far more effectively than what any coach might say…

"Today, it's 3-0 and it will not f***ing be one of these laughers again. "It will not f***ing turn into a 5-0, 7-0 f***ing laugher. Where they're f***ing giggling getting out of their f***ing mess here. We are f***ing down 3-0 and we are going to come back and we're gonna f***ing win this thing. We're not f***ing going in the thank. That is enough right there. That's f***ing more than a year's worth. It's not going to happen again."

In that game against the Boston Bruins, the Caps ended up losing, 3-2, coming up just short in a furious comeback effort. It was the last loss in an eight-game losing streak, and the team went on to finish the season 30-11-7. It might almost be cliché to say that it was the store of his experience that gave Knuble the sense of timing to go off like that, but Knuble does bring that stored memory of 968 games with five clubs to the room. It might not be the best skill set he has, but the club values that kind of experience enough to have sought out more of it for the 2011-2012 season in the person of Jeff Halpern (792 games) and Roman Hamrlik (1,311 games).

But Knuble isn’t a player who has merely hung around for 14 seasons. He has compiled a total of 268 goals over those 14 seasons and is riding a streak of eight in a row with at least 20 goals. Six times in the last 12 season he played in every game, and eight times played in more than 75 games – he has been durable. Only once in the past ten seasons has he been a “minus” player.

But at age 39, can he still contribute as a top-six forward? If last season was an indication, the question cannot be dismissed. He was third among forwards in goals scored per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, something to watch for this season in his role as a forward expected to clean up loose change from in close. There is the matter of Knuble being third on the team in shots on goal but seventh on the team in Corsi/on ice at 5-on-5 (numbers from Knuble isn’t necessarily a creator of shots in the same sense teammates Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, or even Nicklas Backstrom might be (they had the highest Corsi/one ice ratings at 5-on-5), but one thing that might be of concern is that Knuble had the second highest shots against/20 minutes at 5-on-5 among Cap forwards (Marcus Johansson had the highest, according to

Fearless’ Take: Knuble is a responsible player who still manages to do the little things well. His 31 blocked shots was fifth among Capital forwards last season, and he was fifth in takeaways. His takeaway-to-giveaway ratio of 2.5:1 was second on the team among forwards playing in at least 50 games (Eric Fehr was tops). Knuble doesn’t play outside his skill zone in ways that would make him sloppy with the puck. And there is this. In his last 25 games last season Knuble was 11-7-18, plus-7. That is a 36-goal scoring pace per 82 games. Seems he might have something left in the tank.

Cheerless’ Take: In the last ten seasons only 12 times have players age 39 or older have recorded at least 20 goals in a season (Dave Andreychuk and Teemu Selanne each did it twice). In no season in the last ten have more than two players at that age or older done it (although last season there were only six forwards in that age group who skated in at least one game).

The Big Question… Is Knuble the player in the 39-or-older age group to reach 20 goals in 2010-2011?

The 20-goal number almost defines Knuble as a player – it reflects consistency and durability, two of the hallmarks of his game. The other things he does – and he is a more of a player than just a garbage collector in front of the opponent’s net – flow from that consistency and durability. And looking at the 12 players age-39 or older who reached 20 goals over the past ten seasons, there are no flukes in there. They are players such as Brendan Shanahan and Mark Recchi, Ron Francis and Joe Nieuwendyk – players who consistently produced well into their late-30’s.

In the end…

The caveat we would attach to Knuble’s ability to reach 20 goals for Washington this season is that he would have to be playing alongside the likes of Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, or Alexander Semin. Knuble is not a player who will create many goals on his own. He is more opportunistic than opportunity-creating as an offensive player. And that is where age does and perhaps will come into play. Will he be a drag on those other players, or will he complement them? This question comes to mind having watched Marcus Johansson skating regularly with Alex Ovechkin in camp thus far. Knuble would seem an odd fit with that pair. But one of Knuble along with Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin – a more deliberate pair in style – could be quite effective. That’s what makes this time of year interesting…the possibilities.

Projection: 78 games, 24-21-45, plus-13

(photo: Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)