It’s a numbers game for college coaches

PHOTO BY ZACH BAKER Heidelberg baseball coach Chad Fitzgerald holds a hitting scouting report from this past season. The report includes charts and percentagaes of where hitters hit the ball against various counts, which helps Fitzgerald and his staff position their defense.

Jessie Ivey thought she was on the cutting edge.

In 2010, her senior year as a basketball player for the West Florida Argonauts, Ivey wanted to be able to watch her games on film and look for ways to improve.

“I did watch myself, but it was on VHS tape,” Ivey said. “And I don’t know if you remember, but the video camcorders had the small disc. That was just coming out my senior year, and I thought I was big time, because I was able to watch that.”

Nearly a decade later, the now-Tiffin University women’s basketball coach can chuckle about it. A combination of technology and the prevalence of available analytics have combined to change the game remarkably.

A player watching video of themselves to improve is not only common, it’s relatively easy.

“Now, our kids for example, it’s all web-based,” Ivey said. “So they can log in from their phone and watch their individual clips. And they can watch just their scores, or just their misses, or just when they got scored on. So, I just think technology has changed the game, and is making it more accessible, so players can watch themselves.”

While much of the talk about analytics has focused on professional sports, the numbers game is becoming a vital piece of college games as well.

During an interview on the topic, Heidelberg baseball coach Chad Fitzgerald produced a chart for an opposing player. It showed where that player hits the ball in not only most at-bats, but most counts.

And that’s just the beginning.

“It’s a program we purchased,” Fitzgerald said. “We buy this service that goes through all of (Heidelberg sports information director) Jeff Garvin’s play-by-plays and gives us this kind of information on people.”

How detailed is it? Well, if you’ve noticed the shifts at the big league level, then you have an idea of what Fitzgerald is looking at.

“This is very similar, in my opinion, to what the big league guys have,” Fitzgerald said, gesturing to the sheet with baseball diamonds made of ink on it. “This portion of it talks about their game as a whole. This person in particular, they don’t hit the ball up the middle very often, so we would play our guys further away from second base, basically playing the numbers game. If 50% of the time they stay out of the middle when they hit the ball on the ground, we know we don’t have to cover a certain area more times than not. Basically we’re just taking historical data, and trying to use that in our best interest as we can. We’re gonna position ourselves where their tendencies are.”

With new computer programs, it’s easier to compile the data. In 2009, after a season in which the Heidelberg baseball team was nationally ranked and reached the Division III regional, Fitzgerald — then an assistant to Matt Palm — talked about something called the “Pythagorean Theorem,” where a team could measure runs scored vs. runs allowed and reach a simulated win total.

Those were the good old days.

For instance, how Fitzgerald and his team position their fielders against a hitter comes down to specific data.

Data that no longer takes that long to collect.

“Ten years ago when we started doing all this stuff, we’d have to go through every single game, every single inning, every single stat to see how it went,” Fitzgerald said. “Something that used to take us 10 or 12 hours a week, now will take us however long it takes us to walk over to the print shop and get it printed. It’s made our job easier, as far as knowing what else is out there.”

It also must be working. After all, Heidelberg is coming off a Division III World Series appearance, its second in program history.

And Fitzgerald isn’t the only person who sees the value of advanced statistics.

“Personally, I enjoy it, and I love stats, and looking at these things,” Heidelberg women’s basketball coach Morgan Harrigan said. “I know it’s baseball related, but ‘Moneyball’ was one of my favorite movies.”

Harrigan was a four-year player at Heidelberg. Now as a coach, she said looking at numbers and trends have played a big role in her staff’s scouting reports.

It’s no longer saying to a defender that a guard likes to go right when she drives.

There are numbers to show how often she does it, how often she makes a basket when she does, and what can happen if you force her to go left.

Instead of saying, ‘Hey, this is the type of move this person likes to do,’ we’ve changed that to say, ‘This is how we’re guarding this person on the right block every time,” Harrigan said. “So, now it’s a lot easier for the players to know, where to jump and move, compared to thinking what’s coming next.”

Then there’s the plus-minus stat, which may be just as effective as reading points, rebounds and assists.

A plus-minus stat seems simple enough. It is, when a player is on the floor, does the team outscore the opponent or does it get outscored.

That’s a very simple explanation of a complex system.

To give some kind of an idea, look at Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals. The Cavaliers’ LeBron James was plus-4, while Kyrie Irving was plus-10. Cavs reserve Iman Shumpert was minus-9.

And he had a big four-point play in the game.

Harrigan said it’s similar when she looks at the numbers.

“I think that plus-minus allows us in real time to see who’s influencing the game in a positive way,” she said. “It allows us to adjust lineups to see who’s playing well together, who’s … maybe this game they’re not matching up very well defensively whatsoever and how they’re affecting that game.

“Jeff can also print off season plus-minus, so we can also see the best lineups together,” she said. “We can see who … some people might think they play well together, but statistically they’re not showing that.”

Ivey said she likes the plus-minus stat, but is hesitant to share it with players. But she and her staff do share some advanced statistics with the athletes.

“I love the plus-minus. I think sometimes … I don’t think our players completely understand it, so it doesn’t do us any good,” she said. “The ‘game within the game’ that we do is very specific, and they understand why it’s beneficial to us. And it changes. Halfway through the year, we looked at, ‘OK, we win games when we do this. And we lose games when we do this.’ And so, we changed it, and the kids understood that, and what we were trying to do and why we were trying to do that.”

For Garvin, it’s all about a changing culture in college sports, one that has changed his role from getting stats and writing recaps for the Heidelberg’s website to gathering more information for coaches.

“We’re fortunate we have a great relationship with Jeff, but I think if you don’t use that relationship with your SID, you’re behind in that,” Harrigan said. “Some of the stuff we’re able to get through this technology is pretty incredible, and it’s undoubtedly changed in just the six years I’ve been here, let alone as a player.”

Garvin described his work in culinary terms.

“The way I describe it to people is, I’m putting better ingredients into the salad, and getting a better salad out of it,” he said. “If you use old lettuce and stale carrots and moldy tomatoes, the salad’s not going to be very good. For years, that’s the only thing you had to do, cook bad ingredients in and get a bad result. Now, we can put the fresh organic ingredients in, and get a much richer output.”

Garvin said it’s something the NCAA is pushing.

The analytics, that is.

He said the NCAA livestats will feature a more modern approach for sports like soccer and volleyball this fall.

“So, soccer would track possession time, possession in corner of the field,” he said. “Volleyball will have a better rotation summary of everything. For me, it’s not working any harder. I’m still at the game, I’m still keeping stats, and I’m just working more efficiently.”

But even with all the numbers and the effectiveness that results from using them, the coaches agreed that numbers and technology alone don’t win games.

“It all comes down to execution,” Fitzgerald said. “You can have the best gameplan in the world, have all the numbers, but if you can’t execute, you can’t win.”

Harrigan even said she’s not enamored with some stats-obsessed players.

“In recruiting, when we build that relationship and really see, it’s kind of positive and negative,” she said. “In recruiting, if I come across someone who’s paying attention to their stats, I absolutely don’t want them, so it’s sort of counterproductive to a lot of that.”

And while an analytical approach in basketball has led to some changes — Ivey said more fouls get called and more free throws get attempted — the most noticeable difference in today’s cage game is the number of 3s teams attempt.

But Ivey, who admits she’s a numbers person, doesn’t mind going against convention.

“We like 3s, but we love layups,” she said. “I think that’s kind of like a lost art in the game, because everyone just wants to jack the 3-pointer up. Our style of play is very different than this generation, and what our conference is used to doing.

“So, I don’t know,” Ivey said. “For me, we play differently, so I still love the game just as much, but I do think it is a lost art, of playing the game the right way, as people would say.”

The type of game that would be captured on an old camcorder.