Outcome-Based Stats vs. Player Development

“You can identify value, or you can create value”

Chris Long

The current environment prevents watching a live baseball game. So instead of watching baseball, I’ve been reading about baseball. Although other sports are gaining, baseball is still the most analyzed game around. Basketball and football are also joining the sabermetric revolution; however, both sports pale in comparison to the unique and historical relationship between baseball and statistics. Although advanced statistical analysis of the game is still present, most teams are moving away from the model presented in the book and movie “Moneyball.” 

The objective in “Moneyball” was finding players that were already good, but undervalued. Nowadays, franchises are moving away from this model of finding value and are instead placing an increased emphasis on creating value. With the available technology, discovering a great player is something that all clubs can do. The successful teams are the ones that can develop a player. 

“I don’t think people realize that if you’re a Moneyball team right now, you’re getting your ass handed to you,” says one quant for an MLB club. “When you hear the smart teams saying they use analytics now, they’re not saying they’re doing Moneyball. They’re saying they’re doing the thing that comes after.” This new phase dedicated to making players better is “Betterball,” and it’s taking over.” – from The MVP Machine

So, what is this “Betterball” thing and why should we care? “You can identify value, or you can create value,” says former San Diego Padres senior quantitative analyst Chris Long. What a concept! A focus on developing players! Baseball has never placed a priority on player development. The accepted mindset was after a player reached the major league, they will have plateaued relative to performance.

Baseball is now taking player development very seriously. Can a pitcher refine their mechanics to get an extra mile per hour on their fastball? Or, what is the spin rate on my slider and if I change my delivery, will the slider break a little more? So, they take an outcome statistic, for example, the spin rate on a fastball, and use that statistic to work on improving pitching mechanics.

Take a similar concept to the volleyball court. When I coached the Youth National Team, I would explain to all the players that, in most cases, their success at this point in their career is related to physical attributes. The “volleygods” had blessed them with height, jump, and a physique of steel. However, players from Russia, Italy, Brazil, etc., are blessed with the same attributes. Because all the teams were blessed with similar physical characteristics, the difference between a win and a loss was the skill level of the teams. Consequently, there was more time and resources in practice placed on skill development rather than statistical analysis of performance.

If you look at the statistical model that is prevalent at all levels of volleyball, most are outcome-based. What number is attached to passing accuracy, sideout percentage, or the opponent’s weakest rotation, etc.? Those are all outcomes of what took place during the play.

Look at the money and personnel that collegiate programs devote to these outcome numbers. Division 1 programs devote significant financial and human resources to determine these numbers and associated video for both their squad, along with the opponent.

Is there value to this information? Yes, there is value. However, volleyball coaches have a limited resource of time and money. Is there is more potential for raising the level of play by focusing on player development rather than scouting reports and outcome statistics? Baseball is trending in the direction of using statistics to impact player development, and volleyball should follow their lead. Outcome statistics will tell you about the current level of play exhibited by a player. It doesn’t do much relative to helping that player get better. When I say player development, I mean using available time and resources that help a player get technically better in their skills.

If I tell my left side attacker, they need to hit at a higher efficiency, okay, now what? In most situations, the coach will give an eyeball observation for improvement with some vague form of verbal feedback like, “get your elbow up.” Then it’s up to the player to manufacture their growth. To take player development seriously, the coach needs to take advantage of the sophisticated technology available to show the athlete with great detail on how they can perform at a more efficient level.

There is an organization called Driveline Baseball that serves as an example of using technology to foster skill development, not merely outcome statistical feedback.

Check out the video below:

I have no vested interest in Driveline Baseball. I’m a volleyball guy. However, I like the fact that resources are used to develop the skills of a player.

The most valuable resource for a coach is their time. I prefer to place less emphasis on scouting reports and outcome statistics and place a greater priority on player development. I’m a huge fan of Dartfish software because of the robust tools that are offered that break down skills and provide very specific information to the athlete on how to get a little bit better.

I put together a short video that goes into detail about how the setter should contact the ball. This is the type of feedback a player needs to continued improvement. Telling a player to “set a little higher” isn’t the type of specific feedback the player needs.

I would urge coaches to spend their valuable time in player development and even if this means sacrificing the study of stat sheets from a previous match or pouring over a scouting report for a future opponent. Outcome-based statistics do have value, but player development is more exciting and in the long run, will produce a more competitive team.