Anderson Angle: The Conundrum with Statistics
I recall a line used by a professor of mine years ago while sitting in a college health class of all places. He warned us about the danger of stats; you know, numbers. He said “there are lies, damned lies, and there are statistics.” While the line was hardly original, it was profound to me because that was the first time I had ever heard it.
Let me try it on you. Take the 2018 first quarter report on President Trump from FactCheck.org. Is President Trump “the greatest jobs creation president that God ever created?”
Statement #1: Under President Trump, the unemployment rate fell from 4.8% when he took office to 4.1%; the lowest rate in 17 years.
Statement #2: Under President Trump, the average monthly job gains is 181,000 jobs; nearly 17% below the monthly average of 217,000 during President Obama’s second term.
So which statement is true? If you believe the report, which I have no reason not to, both are correct. If you look at statement #1 only, you may conclude that President Trump may not be the greatest job creation president ever, but he has been a good one. If you only were to read statement #2, you may conclude that he is the greatest job creation president since, well, President Obama; who left office a year and a half ago.
I use those statements not for political purposes, though I do enjoy a healthy political debate (just not on Facebook). I use it as an example of what my professor was talking about years ago. You see, it is easy to find a statistic to back up whatever point you are trying to make. The numbers are true, but they can be interpreted in a variety of ways. As a wise man once wrote, remember “statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.”
So why am I writing about this on a hockey league blog? It comes back to a debate the league has had for a few years now. Statistics or no statistics…that is the question.
For years, there was never a debate. The league had been recording goals, assists, penalty minutes and basic goalie data since the XHL began in 2001. But things began to change after the league moved to Reynoldsville. As participation waned, there was even less enthusiasm for players to stick around for games just to keep stats. It became more and more of a problem after Brian Anderson became president of the league. By 2015, Anderson was having a difficult time getting teams to fulfill their duty of watching other games to keep stats. So in 2016, at a league meeting at my house, those in attendance finally came to what seemed to be an inevitable crash course decision: eliminate stats.
And so the numbers went away for a season. But with that, so too did end of the season awards and website hits. Brian Anderson wasn’t happy with that and pushed to bring stats back in 2017. Volunteers have been stepping up to the plate each week since to tally the results.
Obviously, there are pros and cons of stats. To be honest, I’ve been on both sides of the debate. I understand the convenience of them. It adds a more professional edge to the XHL versus the Fall and Winter leagues. It gives league members a reason to go to the website. It gives Brian and I the resources necessary to write the game recaps each week. And it gives us a few more awards to hand out at the end of each year.
But on the other side, and as much as people don’t want to admit it, stats mean more to players than they want to let on. Almost everyone inevitably looks at their numbers to compare their play against their competitors. I know because I’m guilty as well. I’m left wondering if it changes the way we play? Do we get a little more loose with our defensive play because we are willing to sacrifice defense for offense? Do we abandon some team elements of the game to increase our individual output?
This is the conundrum we are left with as we continue to debate this issue. Actually, there really hasn’t been a debate, but I wrestle with it personally. I like the idea of the end of the year awards. In fact, we have thrown out the idea of having an end of the season gathering to distribute those awards. I think players who achieve them deserve such an event. But even so, I hope people realize that the numbers don’t tell the whole tale. Hockey is a team game, requiring several different styles of players to win. Not everyone has to be a scorer on a team. Some guys are better at preventing goals. In the end, a team only needs to have one more goal than the opposition to win.
With all of that said, let me throw out a few numbers that stand out to me this season, in no particular order. Remember, I’m the interpreter.
1 The number of undefeated teams left in the league four weeks into the season
In a way, it’s exciting that we only have one team left unbeaten. I think that speaks to the level of competition we have this year. But who would have thought that one team would be the Renegades?
The Renegades have had an impressive start. While they’ve defeated teams like the Vikings and Mayhem, they have also knocked off experienced and accomplished squads like the Colonials and the Hooligans along the way. If they didn’t have everyone’s attention a month ago, they do now.
4-6 The number of weeks Dave Jewell will supposedly miss due to injury
Most would have predicted the Xtreme to be the league’s last undefeated team. After all, they only lost one game last year in the regular season and it took until late July for that to happen. But the Xtreme lost 10-3 to the Hooligans Monday. Of course, the injury to Dave Jewell is a big one. Nobody controls the game from the back side the way he does. Joe Bussard is a great individual player. But what makes him even more dangerous is the fact that he knows he has Jewell backing him up. The Xtreme will be just fine in the end. They’ll have Jewell back in plenty of time for the playoffs, and rest assured, they will make the playoffs. But will they be the first or second seed? Or will they slide down the ladder as a result?
154 The number of shots Yeti goalie Adam McKinley has faced so far
The Yeti have played four games so far. The math is simple. The Yeti are giving up 38.5 shot a game. That’s a lot for a team that is built on defense. McKinley has stopped 136 of them, over 88% of those hurled his way. That’s a great number for an XHL goalie. But compare McKinley’s shots faced to Knights’ goalie Todd Schickling who has only seen 78 shots over the same number of games. The disparity in work load is not something you would expect with one team built for defense and the other for offense. Is there something to see here? Maybe not when you compare strengths of schedules.
.800 The save percentage of all XHL goalies combined this year
I’ve always viewed a goalie’s save percentage as not only a reflection of the goalie’s ability, but also as a way of judging a team’s defense. In a lot of ways, save percentage is a team statistic. You can put the best goalie in front of a bad defense, and their numbers won’t look very good. And sometimes you can put an average goalie in front of a great defense, and their numbers look great. To get the number above, I added up the total number of saves from all the goalies combined and the total number of goals given up by all the goalies in the league. I took the saves and divided it by the goals and rounded to the nearest thousandth.
So what does the number above tell us, err, I mean me? The XHL is a high scoring league. Rob Keith, one of the great goalies in XHL history, posted a comment on Facebook reacting to the results of Monday’s scores: “Wow, some teams need to work on defense.” I can’t say he’s wrong, but there are also a lot of factors that contributed to the scores he reacted to. But what is interesting is that, statistically speaking, 1 of every 5 shots will be goals in our league. Does that mean we need to shoot more often? If we do, will that skew that number?
32 The number of players with more points than Steve Kalgren right now
I don’t bring this up by any means to belittle the play of the Hooligans’ captain. In fact, I bring it up because it is the perfect example of why stats don’t tell the story. Kalgren is a solid two-way player. I found out first-hand in the Fall league how valuable he is to a team’s performance. He’s the kind of player that does what you need to do to win games. He’s scrappy, defensively responsible, and unselfish. In short, he’s the kind of guy that I would happily take on my team. So his 1 goal and 2 assists through three games won’t put him among any of the league leader categories. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t a good player.
2 The number of teams that have gotten goal contributions from every skater
The Renegades and Xtreme have gotten plenty of production from throughout their lineup thus far. It turns out they are first and second in the standings as well. Secondary scoring is important, especially when games get tighter in the playoffs. Both teams should benefit well from that when the games become more important.
10 The number of weeks left in the regular season
It’s early! Don’t pay too much attention to what has happened so far. They may make it easier to gauge what will happen in the next 3 months but don’t over-analyze what we’ve seen so far. Nobody should get too wrapped up in the results of a game or two.
6 The number of teams that will make the playoffs.
Of those, I’m sure I could make a case for any of them to win the championship this year. That’s exciting!
90 The percentage of the game of hockey that is mental according to Wayne Gretzky.
“The other half is physical,” he added. Perhaps that’s all you need to know about statistics.
½ My approach to statistics
So how closely do you follow the statistics? How much weight do you give them? Are you a metrics guy or do you let your eyes make the conclusion? I say go ahead and keep those stats, but don’t get too wrapped up in them. I’ll approach them the same way the acclaimed author Edgar Allen Poe wrote in one of his stories: “believe nothing you hear and only half of what you see.”