There’s little doubt that we live in an era that’s all about Big Data. Everything from businesses to politicians—even online dating sites—heavily rely on stats and number crunching to determine not only effectiveness and efficiency, but also to suss out whether or not something (or someone) is a winner. Perhaps no other business is as invested in winning and winners as professional sports, so it stands to reason that stats-obsessed sports franchises are increasingly using Big Data to get ahead of the game—and to win.
The 2011 Hollywood flick “Moneyball” has become the exemplar of how Big (and Little) Data can transform a losing sports team’s fortunes. Based on the eponymously titled novel by Michael Lewis, “Moneyball” tells the story of how Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane reversed course for the struggling baseball franchise and transformed its 2002 season through the rigorous application of data and analytics to assemble a winning dream team, despite a considerable financial disadvantage compared to other MLB teams.
Back in 2002, when Beane used an evidence-based approach to snap the Oakland A’s out of their doldrums, there was widespread doubt about the wisdom of using data and analytics to identify talented players and subsequently build a winning team. Since then, statisticians like Nate Silver have become minor celebrities, creating cottage industries focused on sports and analytics. Today, Big Data plays a critical role in many pro sports leagues, especially when it comes to recruiting. Team owners and coaches now recognize that the days of relying solely on the insights of talent scouts won’t lead to a championship-ready roster.
Perhaps taking a page from the Oakland A’s 2002 playbook (or maybe inspired by the movie that recounts the story), the Toronto Maple Leafs has been shoring up its team roster through the systematic application of analytics. For non-Canadians, the Leafs are to hockey and the National Hockey League what the New York Yankees are to baseball and Major League Baseball. Love ’em or hate ’em, the Leafs are a hometown favorite with deep pockets that can’t seem to catch a break.
After a disastrously bad end to the 2013-14 NHL season (the Leafs had a 89.7% chance of making the playoffs on March 13, but still managed to squander away the opportunity), the Leafs have added a new star to its 2014-15 lineup: a stacked analytics team.
Under new team president Brendan Shanahan, the Leafs hired 28-year-old Kyle Dubas as the assistant general manager. Previously serving as the general manager of the Ontario Hockey League’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, Dubas is a numbers wonk who had relied heavily on business acumen, hockey smarts, and most notably, advanced analytics, to turn the struggling team around. Under his guidance, the Greyhounds finished with an overall record of 109-76-12, including two playoff runs and a West Division title of 44 wins this past season.
So what does this all mean for the Blue and White? The Leafs are the NHL’s most valuable team ($1.15 billion), and are the only NHL team on Forbes Most Valuable Teams list. However, a $69 million salary cap—and no luxury tax option—prevents the team from buying their way to an all-star roster, à la the New York Yankees. The past decade has been dismal at best for the team, with only one playoff run during the 2012-13 season after a nine-year drought.
But the 2014 off-season has been promising and different from past years. New signings and contract extensions have resonated well with the die-hard Toronto hockey community. The most popular new additions to the roster, surprisingly, is the brand-new analytics department. In addition to Dubas’s arrival, prominent hockey bloggers and analysts Darry Metcalf (ExtraSkater.com), Cam Charron (Yahoo! Sports) and Rob Pettapiece (Buzzing the Net) were all hired by the Leafs. Their popular stats-driven hockey blogs will no longer be in operation, and have been folded into the proprietary analytics technology of the Toronto Maple Leafs. With a stacked analytics team, Leaf Nation can only pray that the “‘Moneyball’approach” will benefit the team as much as it did for the 2002 Oakland Athletics.