To put it mildly, the impact that NBA advanced stats creator Wayne Winston has had on professional sports has been monumental. Now, he and his son Greg are turning to lacrosse.
One of the pioneers of advanced sports analytics — one of the fastest growing industries in the analytics industry in terms of what people are learning about it — in the NBA has given the league its numbers-first philosophy as teams across the basketball giant hope to gain an edge by analyzing data from the floor.
The Story Behind PLL: By The Numbers
NBA Advanced Stats Guru
Winston has always been a big fan of sports, but was “never really good at any of them,” according to the Professor Emeritus at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University.
Winston, a graduate of both the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Yale University, originally became connected to the sports world through his classmate Mark Cuban — yes, that Mark Cuban.
“Gregory (Wayne’s son) is a big Pacers fan, so we went to a game in Dallas. He saw us in the stands and said, ‘Do you have a way to make the Maveriks better?’ So, my colleague Jeff Sager — who is famous for the USA Today ratings — and I came up with the ratings for the players and lineups,” Winston describes.
The New Jersey native has helped write the book on sports analytics, as he released his own book titled, “Mathletics: How Gamblers, Managers, and Sports Enthusiasts Use Mathematics in Baseball, Basketball, and Football“.
A Family Affair
Greg Winston, Wayne’s son, watched his dad growing up and always believed he had an upper hand following sports teams.
“I was amazed, because my dad had created a literal formula for how well players impacted their teams. It was pretty much as precise as you can get,” Greg remembers.
A good basketball player in his own right, Greg eventually moved to lacrosse later in high school — eventually playing at Hanover, a Division III college who had one of the best lacrosse minds for a head coach in the game in Skip Lichtfuss.
“He taught me a lot of concepts and how to identify — while watching film — the strengths and weaknesses of a player,” says Winston.
It was then Winston decided that he wanted to combine his passion for lacrosse and the deep connection he had to the analytics world into one passion.
“I began to realize what I should do is combine those two things, analytics and lacrosse. When I put those two things together that’s sort of when I realized that was something I could do,” Winston says.
Advanced Stats In Sports
According to Greg Winston, sports analytics has shaped the industry in two ways — to figure out the efficiency of a player or lineup, and the concept of centering a whole team around an analytics-based strategy (i.e. how the Houston Rockets only take the most efficient shots).
Team analytics are always tougher to figure out, unlike baseball where it is easier to track individual matchups such as pitcher – hitter relationships.
One significant, according to Greg, is that when somebody tries to go topside on a long-pole from the top, they shoot significantly worse from that dodge than any other place on the field. Redwoods LC statistically is one of the best teams from dodging up top. However, Redwoods also is last in the league in two-pointers.
Wayne and Greg have also found that the layups-and-three’s model now found in the NBA also applies to lacrosse. Greg points to Chaos LC as an example for how that strategy has been successful.
Another interesting factor for a player’s offensive efficiency is turnovers from shots.
“Faceoffs are important in hockey, but they are incredibly important in lacrosse. Most of the time, when you shoot the ball in lacrosse you get it back. That’s not true in any other sport. When you shoot it in lacrosse, you lose the ball. We’ve kept track of how many botched backups and things that go behind the net. If you shoot it at the goal a lot, and that doesn’t go in, that’s a turnover basically. That affects how good some guys are,” says Wayne Winston.
The Future Of Analytics In Lacrosse
So, what is the future of analytics in lacrosse — and in sports in general?
Wayne thinks that “lacrosse will probably never get to the standpoint where there is as much money in it as the NBA.”
According to Greg, the future of analytics will much more specialized for a given team.
“The difference of skill level in lacrosse is greater than any other sport. What’s true for a PLL team doesn’t trickle down to a high school team as much as it would,” says Winston. “The future of lacrosse analytics is independent contractors looking for individual teams to help make clear what (strategy) they should pursue next. The differences in different types of lacrosse games are too strong.”
Wayne Winston adds that the “holy grail” of sports analytics is a player’s efficiency rating — a stat that he and Greg are currently working on.
“Baseball, you can tell how good a hitter is or with a pitcher it’s wins above replacements,” describes Wayne. “The holy grail in lacrosse would be to take all of the stats and put it all together to figure out how good a player is.”
The discoveries for major sports such as basketball and football, however, seem to be slowing.
“There’s a lot less to do in all of these sports. Most of these sports have camera data. For basketball, they chart the ball 20 times a second. I think that will take them years to figure it out.”
The only difference would be if there were major rule changes to a sport, such as bringing in the two-point line closer to the goal in lacrosse.
So, what’s next for the NBA advanced stats creator and his son Greg?
All that is guaranteed is that it will probably involve a lot of numbers and computations.