The Value of Things: Signs of Success and Failure
One of the things that was forced upon us during our political science classes was the fact that you couldn’t attribute causality to any human endeavor. There are just too many variables. What we can do is determine how closely one factor correlates with another. If the correlation is strong, the statistic is significant. Ultimately, that’s what we’re trying to do with The Value of Things. We want to find meaningful statistics.
Of course, sometimes we will succeed and sometimes we will fail. Success and failure are also often left to the eye of the beholder. We start with team stats and move on to individual stats. As one commenter said in the last post, there are simply too many moving parts to assign much importance to individual notes. I don’t know if that’s true, but we’ll stick with that notion for today.
It’s easy to see how we can just look at the overall balance sheet, then the pros and cons and call it a day. One of the things we’ve learned in baseball is that there are behind-the-scenes stats that are actually better predictors of player and team performance than pure game results. For example, if a guy hits hard, but hits people directly, he’s likely to see a performance boost when he gets a different hit chance. The same can be true for pitchers.
In our case, we’re going to look at four different metrics to see how well they correlate with success and failure. We’re going to split the league into four quadrants and just focus on the top eight teams and bottom eight teams. Those in the middle are often separated by a game or two and therefore the results are likely to be more random. First, let’s list our top eight and bottom eight teams by record.
What are the statistics?
The stats we will look at include the revenue differential. If you ask any expert, they’ll tell you that turnover is the name of the game. That’s probably both true and misleading. The question is to what extent the turnover rate is correlated to the win and the loss. Of course, we also don’t know if spins are consistently generated or consistently avoided. Further study should be done season after season on this issue.
The second stat is simply yards per game gained minus yards per game allowed. This seems to be pretty basic and yet it’s probably related to the third stat: possession time. The longer you hold the ball, the less likely the opponent is to gain yards. So one is likely correlated to the other and not necessarily meaningful on its own. Finally, we get the number of times you forced the team to kick minus the number of times your team had to kick.
I realize that these last three statistics are obviously related. The fewer punts you make, the more chance you have of gaining yardage and the more chance you have of preventing the other team from gaining yardage. Obviously, the reverse is likely to be true. However, if this is the case, we should notice that the three are highly correlated.
We could pull out the tables, but the results are probably easier to understand if they’re explained simply. Yard differential and punt differential were the strongest correlations with winning. In each case, five of the teams that finished in the top eight in wins also finished in the top eight in yard differential and punt differential. At first glance, that doesn’t sound impressive, but what’s impressive is that every team that finished in the top eight in yards was a playoff team.
Baltimore was the only team to finish in the top eight in punt differential and not make the playoffs. Like many AFC teams, they were less than a game away. The correlation between having the worst differentials and losing wasn’t as compelling, but six of the eight teams that finished in the worst eight records were also among the worst yardage differentials. The correlation was near perfect for punt differential as seven of the eight teams at the bottom of the punt differential also had among the league’s eight worst records.
Time of possession and turnover more or less were not as correlated with winning and losing as yardage differential and punt differential. Three teams finished in the top eight in turnover differential and failed to reach the playoffs. Houston was 11th in that category and was one of the worst teams in the league. Meanwhile, a few playoff teams actually had negative turnover differentials (Tennessee, Las Vegas, San Francisco).
The possession time wasn’t even worth it. Four of the teams that finished in the top eight in possession time failed to qualify for the playoffs. Bad teams were more likely to have their defenses on the pitch longer, but the ultimate goal here was to see which stats actually had a stronger correlation to winning. Obviously, among those four stats were the yard differential and the punt differential.
If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably waiting for the reward. I don’t blame you. Below is the Houston Texans’ standings in each category. As a warning, young children under 18, people with PTSD, and people with heart conditions should probably skip this part of the article.
Yard differential: -106.3 (32nd)
Clearance Differential: -30 (32nd)
Time of possession: 28:14 (on the 28th)
Turnover differential: +3 (11th)
David Culley kept his promise to focus on football. Lovie Smith kept her promise to focus on football kidnapping. Baseball uses the Pythagoras record to see how good teams really are. It doesn’t work well in a 17 game schedule. In short, we can often be deceived if we look at individual games. The team was 4-13 and probably should have beaten New England and Miami at the very least. So a 6-11 season doesn’t look so bad.
This is where fans and executives can get caught up in wishful thinking. Magical thinking occurs when both groups ignore positive luck and focus only on negative luck. “The Texans should have gone 6-11 and they ended up getting nine draft picks and top free agents. If a few of the undrafted free agents surprise us and if we get some positive development from some of the young players, maybe we could win 8 or 9 games.”
Any Sunday is one thing. So far be it from me to disappoint anyone’s hopes. Although some call Tim Kelly one of the top five callers (looking at you Spencer Tillman), most sober people agree that’s far from the truth. Maybe Pep Hamilton and his aides are planning better and pushing for some improvement. Maybe a second season in Lovie Smith’s defensive system creates more cohesion and better overall performance. These things are all possible. However, the rankings above also indicate that this team still has a long way to go before it can hope to get closer to a .500 record.