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While sports analytics are certainly useful in various applications, their ubiquity may not be best for the game.

Photo: Intel Free Pass / Creative Commons

You can’t go very far as a sports fan without seeing something about advanced statistics. In football, it’s DVOA [Defense-Adjusted Value over Average]; in basketball, it's ELO ratings and usage rate; in baseball, it’s every other acronym. 

It’s broken into the television medium as well, with movies like "Moneyball" and shows like "Sports Science" on ESPN with John Brenkus. The show takes athletes into the lab to test their physical prowess while Brenkus breaks it down with crazy information that no one would ever know or need to know, like:

“Antonio Brown completing this 8-yard curl with and without a blindfold vary by just .1 seconds.”

“Kyrie Irving dribbles the ball behind his back at about 21 miles per hour. That’s about 3 times as fast as the strike of a copperhead snake.”

“The tunnel where Steph Curry shoots his famous ‘Tunnel shot’ is just 40 percent as wide as the paint under the basket.”

“At 5-foot-9 and 168 lbs, Zack DiGregorio is just slightly smaller than the average adult man, but is over 42 percent more likely to spill on himself when drinking water from a cup. This number increases to nearly 68 percent when other people are present.”

Brenkus, while the most ridiculous of the bunch, is not the only sportswriter to seize on this new era in data in professional sports. Big names like Zach Lowe and Bill Barnwell at ESPN and Robert Mays and Jonathan Tjarks at the Ringer (let us take a moment here to recognize that Grantland no longer exists … gone too soon) use advanced stats and metrics in their columns year round.

This information can be incredibly useful to teams, and it has caught on incredibly quickly. Every team in the NBA has an analytics department and while NFL teams have been slower to come around, nearly every team has integrated some sort of data analysis into its draft process. Based on what I know about baseball analytics (see: Moneyball), MLB teams have little Jonah Hills running around doing math while the old guard of baseball scouting is phased out.

I love analytics as much as the next guy, and while I think it is a valuable tool for teams and fans, it should not drown out what pulls us to sports in the first place, what makes sports the object of human interest.

There is something about watching Aaron Rodgers throw a seam down the middle of the field when it seems like his feet never actually hit the ground, yet he is in complete control, despite the chaos around him. There is something magnetic about a James Harden "Eurostep" that somehow becomes even more captivating in slow motion. There is something special about watching the ease with which Jonathan Toews slices through NHL defenders, constantly one step ahead, doing things on the ice most others can’t do alone on solid ground.

These feats of athletic impossibility require human intelligence to understand. They are a truth in the sense that we understand the defiance of human limitation that is Michael Jordan’s “flu game” or Nate Solder playing an entire NFL season on a torn ACL.

Analytics are good for sports. They help teams make decisions on the field and the front offices to elevate the level of play and competition, and they improve the experience for fans and give them more content to absorb (which is funny because I think every sports fan is actually born knowing more than every other sports fan). But until we have a way to quantify “it”, we will have to keep watching games to try to come up with words to describe a Clayton Kershaw breaking ball, or a way to figure out what changes for some quarterbacks in the last two minutes of close games that doesn’t change for others, or why the "Buttfumble" is still funny even after watching it 6,000 times.

To conclude — channeling our good friend John Brenkus — sports and the spectacle of athleticism makes them over 78 percent more interesting. That’s like taking a video of a kitten playing the piano, and adding Neil Patrick Harris wearing a sombrero. Which one of those seems better to you?

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