Thursday, September 7, 2017

And Another Thing: Access

By Nick

The debate between and around Souhan vs. The Bloggers may have been downgraded to a Category 1 or even a Tropical Depression at this point, but I still have some thoughts on it.

I'm not going to re-hash the details.  There are good points on both sides, and there were displays of unprofessionalism on both sides as the thing peaked.

I've been a blogger around the Wild scene for a long time, at least relative to the history of blogging, and the lifespan of the Wild blogging scene.  What took the wind out of my sails was the realization that game or team "coverage", without access, wasn't going to provide any additional value above what the actual pros who were covering the team with access provide.  And, at that point, all I had was opinions.

There's nothing wrong with that.  But I ran out of opinions about the Wild that I wanted to explore via the majesty of the written word.  Maybe some of that is because the Wild has played out the same performance arc for what seems like every season since PariSuter appeared on the scene.  That set list of opinions just became different shades of the same color.  Or reruns of the same episode with different commercials.  But some of it also was due to a growing feeling that I was simply singing the same song over and over again.  I would have gotten bored reading someone else singing the same song over and over again, I assumed people were getting bored with me for doing it.

Here's where I come down on this debate:

There are circumstances in which what I want to read about the team will be enhanced by the author having (and using) access to the team.  Quotes - better to be able to read what a player/coach/GM actually said, as opposed to what someone imagined they might have said.  Informed analysis about team strategy/thinking/actions.  That kind of thing.  Insider stuff.

But there's also a time when what I want to read about the team would not necessarily be enhanced by the author having/using access to the team.  Ruminating on trades.  The efficacy of the GM.  That kind of thing.  We're all armchair QBs.  That is part of being a fan.  I'm generally willing to read someone else's armchair QB analysis/opinions.  But you just have to accept that, if that's all you're doing - armchair QBing - then you're just putting forth your opinion.  Which is totally fine.  Where I think some glorified armchair QBs (read bloggers) get ahead of themselves is when they lose sight of the line between informed analysis and uninformed armchair QBing.

What has really blurred that line is the emergence of analytics.  Now you can "know" things about team and player performance without even watching the game - as long as you can compile the data after the game.  And, once you know things, you can blog about them, presenting them as analysis without need of access.

I feel like I'm right smack dab in the middle of the analytics acceptance spectrum.  But the critical juncture for me is the perversion/engineering of statistical metrics analysis that goes on.  As soon as your process becomes coming up with a theory and then hunting and pecking for statistics that confirm your theory, and then claim that your theory is fact - as opposed to coming up with a theory and then invoking the sports analysis version of the scientific method to prove - or disprove - that theory, accepting whatever the outcome is, you're done.  You've got nothing.

In hockey, stats/60, extrapolated to indicate greater value for 3rd and 4th line forwards, or bottom-three defensemen, is one of those things to me.  You simply cannot say that a player who performs at a certain level while receiving an average of a handful of minutes of ice time, would continue to perform at that same level if their ice time increased.  You can't.  I'm not saying you can't run the math.  You obviously can.  You just can't make the blanket assertion that actual performance would follow the mathematical extrapolation.  Not if you know anything about how hockey is played.  Not if you're aware that, as a fourth-liner, so-and-so gets materially less time on the ice against the opposition's better defensemen than he or she would if he or she was a 1st or 2nd liner, for example.  And, if you don't know that, you shouldn't be writing about hockey in the first place.

That kind of analysis leads people to claim breath taking things like "so-and-so fourth liner performs at the level of so-and-so star player, on a /60 basis.  Ergo sum, so-and-so fourth liner is under-utilized, and probably under-paid.  And so-and-so GM and so-and-so coach is an idiot for not realizing that and either paying or playing so-and-so fourth liner more."  Every bit of the foregoing has been written by hockey bloggers among the analytics/non-access set.  One thing that having access does for the pros is it enables them not to have to resort to such Tom Foolery.

I don't think access is the only criteria by which to judge sports writers.  I don't think access gives sports writers licence to claim superiority over those without access.  But it does lend credibility to what they're saying, if not how they say it.  Credibility that the rest of us don't have.  We can voice our opinions.  But we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that that's all they are: opinions.

As always, we want to hear your thoughts on this topic on our message board.