Why Boston is better than you
Love 'em or hate' em, Boston teams schooled yours this decade
This story appears in the Oct. 3, 2011, issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Boston teams have dominated over the past decade for one reason: They have brains.
Across the American sports landscape, there are still holdouts who question the value of statistical analysis, battling on like lost Japanese soldiers fighting World War II into the 1970s. Meanwhile, the Patriots, Red Sox and Celtics have become sabermetric pioneers in their leagues.
By doing so, they have gained advantages on the field, in the war room and at the gate, helping Boston claim seven titles and 29 playoff berths since 2001.
Before we go any further, we should stipulate: Nothing we're about to say applies to the Bruins. Advanced metrics have become commonplace in some sports. Hockey isn't one of them. There are some statistically progressive NHL teams. The Bruins aren't one of them. The Stanley Cup they won last season, while a lovely capstone for Boston fans, is a useful reminder that sometimes sports is about lining your guys up and beating the hell out of the other guys.
But maybe someday the sophisticated use of data will even reach the B's, the way it's spread to the rest of the city's pro teams. It seems inevitable, really. Boston is a rabid sports town that semi-regularly goes into hysteria over events that the rest of the country hardly notices, such as Doug Flutie drop-kicking an extra point in 2006 and Tim Wakefield notching his 200th career win this season. It's also long been a place where a familiarity with statistics, from ERAs to Democratic primary percentages, permeates everyday conversation. "Cotton Mather probably had a slide rule," jokes Current TV host and former Boston sportscaster Keith Olbermann, referring to the 17th-century minister from New England.
Boston is a premier college town too but one that doesn't have a dominant major-conference team (again, excluding hockey). Harvard, Boston College, Boston University, MIT, Northeastern and Tufts are the best known of the more than 50 schools in the area. They incubate a steady stream of young, free-thinking fans focused on the city's pro franchises, who are unshackled by the übertraditional thinking that attends big-time football or basketball programs. In fact, if you listen to diehards from Billerica, Saugus and Worcester, you'll notice two things. One is that nobody outside the state of Massachusetts knows how to pronounce their hometowns. Two is that they're ready to deploy the latest statistics as debate weaponry.
"On sports radio in this town, you hear about WHIP and OPS and VORP more frequently," says Doug Tribou, a producer for Only a Game, a National Public Radio sports show produced at WBUR in Boston. "And I get deluged by e-mails saying we should be more detailed in what we discuss. When Albert Haynesworth came to the Patriots this summer, there was an entire chain with breakdowns of his play."
"Having said that," Tribou adds, "remember what it's all fixated on. At Celtics games, 'Yankees suck' chants routinely break out."
Revolutions always seem inevitable after they happen. But it took Boston decades to evolve from a geeky sports town to a town where geeks run winning sports teams.
Step one was academic: In the 1960s, researchers started using mainframe computers to analyze sports, and especially baseball, laying the groundwork for reevaluating traditional strategies. They began to see the game as a system that moves from one state of baserunners and outs to another. They also began to understand the profound importance of regression to the mean and random chance, two hallmarks of analytics.
In virtually every area where stat geeks suggest NFL teams could operate better, you'll find Belichick applying their advice.”
In 1975, a statistics professor named Carl Morris, who later chaired Harvard's statistics department, co-wrote a paper in the Journal of the American Statistical Association. He used Bayesian statistical techniques to not only estimate the rate of a blood disease called toxoplasmosis but to also project batting averages. Two years later, his forecasting methods reached a much wider audience in Scientific American. The pieces helped establish sports as a legitimate subject for research; PhDs could finally, openly, profess their love of games. Eventually, many fans-turned-academics began to congregate in the Boston area, specifically in Cambridge. At Harvard in the mid-1980s, you could find Stephen Jay Gould, the popular paleontologist, investigating the disappearance of .400 hitters, and Ed Purcell, who had shared the Nobel Prize in physics in 1952, talking about batting streaks.
Around the same time, from 1977 to 1988, Kansas author Bill James published his influential Baseball Abstracts. In 1990, USA Today started printing dramatically expanded box scores. Desktop computers got cheaper, and so did access to sports data and research. All of this meant that if you were growing up around Boston 15 to 25 years ago, you were surrounded not just by passionate fans but also by some of the smartest people in the world analyzing sports, and by endless reams of new information. It meant that if you were Theo Epstein, who graduated from Brookline High School in 1991, or Daryl Morey, who received an MBA from MIT in 1996, you dreamed an entirely new sports fantasy: not of being the athlete who hits game-winning home runs but of being the GM who puts together rosters of game-winning athletes.
Lo and behold, those kinds of jobs opened up in Boston about a decade ago as team ownership suddenly became more professional. For most of the 20th century, Boston teams were run as dynasties: Tom Yawkey and his wife owned the Red Sox from 1933 to 1992; Billy Sullivan founded the Patriots in 1960 and owned them until 1988; the Celtics had a series of owners, but Red Auerbach was either president or general manager of the team from 1951 to 1997. There were some advantages to operating teams essentially as family businesses -- Yawkey spent his own fortune to acquire players (as long as they were white); and nobody assembled talent like Auerbach -- but by the late 1990s it was clear that none of the clubs was maximizing its potential in an affluent, sports-crazed city. Investors saw Boston's mediocrity as an opportunity, and they swooped in to acquire each team. Fortunately for the Hub, these buyers were not media companies looking to dally in sports, which has done so much damage to franchises in New York, LA and Chicago. They were men who made their wealth largely by using data to target and acquire undervalued financial assets, and their respect for statistical analysis extended to the field of play.
Robert Kraft came first, buying the Patriots in 1994 for $175 million, a record price for an NFL franchise at the time. After an up-and-down run with Bill Parcells, Kraft hired Bill Belichick in 2000. The coach, a former economics major, has refused to play along with the idea that the NFL is a copycat league. With help from Ernie Adams, a film and stats obsessive whom Belichick has known for more than 40 years and who is the current director of football research, Belichick constantly searches for information that can give his team an advantage. In 2002, he shocked the media by saying he had read a little-publicized research paper in which Berkeley economist David Romer argued that teams should be more aggressive on fourth down. After newspapers quoted Harold Sackrowitz, a Rutgers statistics professor, saying teams didn't go for two points often enough, Adams asked Sackrowitz to study the conversion chart New England was using. "Nobody had any real interest other than the Patriots," Sackrowitz told The New York Times in 2004.
In virtually every area where statistical analysts suggest NFL clubs could operate better, you'll find Belichick applying their advice. The Patriots are among the least-conservative teams on fourth downs. They pay for expected future performance, not the past: Drew Bledsoe and Lawyer Milloy are among the many beloved veterans Belichick has summarily let go over the years. And they trade down in the draft, accumulating far more player value for the dollars they spend than most clubs. The rest of the NFL still hasn't caught up: Coming off a 14-2 season, the Patriots had nine draft picks this spring.
As for the Red Sox, maybe you've heard about how wunderkind Theo Epstein became the youngest GM in baseball history in 2002, vanquished the hated Yankees and liberated the team from its 86-year-long curse. But you might not appreciate just how thoroughly statistical analysis soaks the organization. Principal owner John Henry, whose group acquired the team in 2002 for $700 million, is a commodities trader whose firm specializes in computerized trend-spotting. Larry Lucchino, the former Orioles and Padres executive who took over as Red Sox president and CEO, once wrote a list titled "Top 10 Qualifications of the Ideal General Manager."
No. 2 was "Familiarity with, and willingness to use, modern quantitative approaches in evaluating players, in addition to traditional methods." The Red Sox employ not only Bill James but Tom Tippett, who created the popular computer simulation game Diamond Mind Baseball.
Backed by a front office that relentlessly studies everything from batting average on balls in play to how the weather at Fenway Park affects pitchers, Epstein has hauled bales of underappreciated talent to Boston over the past nine seasons. His first Red Sox teams were loaded with cheaply available sluggers, including David Ortiz, maybe the greatest pickup of a released player of all time. Then, as other teams began applying the lessons of Moneyball, which was published the year after Epstein took over the Sox, he proved adaptable. As early as 2004, Epstein traded Nomar Garciaparra for two defensive-minded players, and last season he announced the team would focus more on run-preventing talent (enter Carl Crawford).
Yes, Epstein has splurged to acquire superstars such as Curt Schilling and Adrian Gonzalez. But the Red Sox also invest heavily in the amateur draft, the surest way to lock up talent below market prices. Mixing sabermetric evaluation with traditional scouting lets Boston find players who might be overlooked by organizations more focused on physique, tools or reputation. And the Red Sox are willing to spend more than slot (MLB's recommended levels) to sign them. The Henry-Epstein regime has developed Jonathan Papelbon, Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, Jacoby Ellsbury and Clay Buchholz -- plus a boatload of other players still on their way to the big leagues.
In September 2002, nine months after Henry landed the Red Sox, local venture capitalists Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca headed a group that bought the Celtics for $360 million, and sabermetrics came to Boston basketball too.
The Celtics keep most of their findings confidential, with one exception. It's about the hidden downside of turnovers.”
Morey, then a 30-year-old consultant who helped calculate the team's value, proved to be a statistical whiz during the sale, and Grousbeck soon hired him to be the Celtics' senior VP of operations and information. "First, we reorganized the company," Morey says. "That means we hired and fired some folks. Then we made ticket sales work better. But pretty rapidly, we figured out that getting the right players for the right amount of money is about 85 percent of a team's economics."
Saddled with horrible contracts (the Celtics were paying Vin Baker more than $41 million to start a total of 42 games in green), the new owners couldn't remake their roster right away. But by 2003, Grousbeck and Morey hatched a plan -- based on their analysis of how NBA teams had won championships -- to build around an all-time-top-50 player. The idea was to sign decent players and then trade them one day for a superstar, who would pair with incumbent cornerstone Paul Pierce. The superstar they targeted? Kevin Garnett. Morey assessed players essentially by looking at their plus/minus: how well teams performed with them on the court compared with when they were on the bench. Garnett rated as the best player in the NBA, though he was languishing in Minnesota. "He was severely underappreciated, even though he was an All-Star," Morey says. "Our research showed he had the most defensive impact in the league by far, almost by an order of magnitude."
Morey left for Houston in 2006 (he is now the Rockets GM), but the Celtics followed through on his plan. In 2008, with Garnett keying one of the greatest team defensive turnarounds in NBA history, the Celtics won it all and then made another run to the Finals in 2010. They continue to seek out new thinkers, recently promoting analyst (and Harvard Law grad) Mike Zarren to assistant GM. Zarren breaks down game data and video, evaluates players and trades and reports to GM Danny Ainge. The Celtics keep most of his conclusions confidential, but he does volunteer one finding: Turnovers are even more costly than most teams realize. As he puts it, when you give up the ball, you not only give the other team an opportunity to score, you forgo your own.
By the way, the Celtics cheerleaders have a nickname for Zarren: "Stats."
Bottom line: The past decade has been spectacularly successful for Boston's teams on the field and off, and the forecast looks even brighter for the next decade. After all, more wins lead to higher attendance and broadcast revenues, and spending those extra dollars wisely leads to more wins. The Red Sox, Patriots and Celtics took in a collective $756 million in revenue last year, according to Forbes, more than double their total from just 10 years ago. Their franchise values have soared even faster, and the three teams are now worth a staggering $2.7 billion. That's quite a foundation for building long-term winners.
Meanwhile, Boston's championships have made the city a hotbed for students and entrepreneurs looking to get into sports management, media or consulting. Harvard has a stats club, advised by Carl Morris, called the Harvard Sports Analytics Collective. Tufts offers a course titled Sabermetrics 101. In 2007, Morey and Patriots director of new business Jessica Gelman worked with MIT's Sloan School of Business to launch an annual sports analytics conference. At first, the event took place on the MIT campus, under the radar. But this past spring, more than 1,500 attendees jammed into the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center in South Boston to hear speakers such as Malcolm Gladwell and Mark Cuban. (ESPN was a sponsor at the event.) Grousbeck, Morey, Pagliuca, Tippett and Zarren appeared on panels too. All that brainpower, on the stage, in the audience, in the front offices and on the sidelines, means Boston's success is self-sustaining.
"This city has a passionate fan base and smart fans and a supply of intelligent people coming out of universities nearby," Morey says. "Boston's got the lead. And they're going to hold it for a while."