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I, for one, welcome our new nerd overlords: While We’re Waiting

Nerds Ogre

The No. 1 comedy on television is the CBS’ Big Bang Theory. Comic book movies dominate the blockbuster landscape and hundreds of thousands of people travel to Comic-Con every year.

Many of the richest people in the world have accumulated their wealth due to a proclivity for writing popular software. Statcast is among the most popular recent MLB innovations and SportVU is the NBA equivalent. These trackers analyze every movement a player makes on the field or court and provides a large bucket of data for people to analyze scientfically. What once would have been considered droll by most is now fascinating. Yes, nerds have taken over the world, and those analytical points of view have popped into most every sport conversation.

While there certainly is plenty of room for nuanced looks beyond, the tired refrains that have been popping up lately in national discussions need to stop. The war is over; the nerds won. Embrace the new nerd overlords.1

Some of the harshest battlegrounds were fought in baseball, but the remaining old-school baseball folk have accepted the new norm. Even having Harold Reynolds and Brian Kenny continue to pretend the war persists seems more like a comedy act. The Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs met in the 2016 World Series backed by two of the most analytical friendly front offices in baseball. Mike Trout won the AL MVP Award easily despite playing for a horrific Los Angeles Angels team. The entire sport of baseball has been given over to the nerds who think pouring over statistical modeling is exciting much to the chagrin of guys like Dave Stewart.2 Even the player development side of the sport is steeped in anatomical research and methods. As a result, pitchers are pitching at faster velocities and injuries are normalizing. Batters are increasing their whiff-rate, but their contact is creating faster exit velocities with more ideal launch angles. Nerds. They’re everywhere.

Yet remnants of the old war still creep up from time to time and the past week has had quite a few of these topics demonstrate the undertones of those battles still exist. The difference is that the nerds now are the ones in positions of power.

Players Only Club

B.J. Armstrong is the former player, now agent in the Wasserman Group, who represents the Golden State Warriors Draymond Green. On Sunday, Green was charged with a Flagrant-1 foul for kicking Houston Rockets guard James Harden.

These “nerds”, as he so put it, have harmed the game. Armstrong said much more in an interview with USA Today:

But what, when the competition committee — whoever those people are — what have they actually done to improve the game of basketball? … Not to put more people in the stands, not to make the game more appealing for people globally. What has been done to improve the game of basketball? That’s it. That’s it. That’s my only question.

The argument Armstrong has invoked here is known as Back in My Day with the insinuation everything was better back when he played basketball and defenders would routinely grab, push, and clobber opponents who attempted to drive the lane. Armstrong even invoked an anecdote about knowing not to mess with Reggie Miller.

Draymond Green followed suit by attacking the rules committee by noting he believes that you must be a player in order to understand how a body reacts.3 Despite plenty of other basketball players disagreeing that he needs to flail his foot out in an upward motion often that catches opposing players in dangerous positions, Green wants everyone to know that the nerds and their kiniesiology classes are to blame in his interview with the Mercury News:

It’s funny how you can tell me how I get hit and how my body is supposed to react. I didn’t know the league office was that smart when it came to body movements. I’m not sure if they took kiniesiology for their positions to tell you how your body is going to react when you get hit in a certain position. Or you go up and you have guys who jump to the ceiling. A lot of these guys that make the rules can’t touch the rim, yet they tell you how you’re way up there in the air which way you’re body (is supposed to go). I don’t understand that. That’s like me going in there and saying, ‘Hey, you did something on your paperwork wrong.’

They need to go take a few more kiniesiology classes though. Maybe they can take a taping class or functional movement classes.

The argument Green has invoked here is known as the Players Only Club. It sets the bar at being a player in order to hold a NBA job or have a valid basketball opinion. It’s a nice system if you happen to be a current or former NBA player. Unfortunately for Green, plenty of non-players have proven to be quite capable of succeeding at NBA jobs and having basketball opinions with merit.

A Football GM

Player’s defending their right to kick opponents in the face and groin were not the only people attacking the boss nerds this week. Cleveland.com’s Mary Kay Cabot penned an article and defended it with a tweetstorm and Q&A post about how the Browns need to hire a Football General Manager.

Browns owner Jimmy Haslam has no plans to fire anyone after this season, but if he wants to turn his floundering franchise around, he needs to hire an accomplished football GM — and give him final say over all personnel decisions.

they’ve learned the nuances of every position and they know if a cornerback can backpedal or a receiver can high-point the ball. What’s more, they have sources on almost every college campus for inside info on a player.

Those things can’t be found on a computer database.

Someone should probably tell MKC that those things actually can be found on a computer database. The scouts who are reviewing film and going out to games are filling out reports and entering them into that computer database, which can then be pulled by various models and people looking to data-dive. The simplified explanation of the job of Sashi Brown and the team who meets with him in the leadup and in the war room on Draft Day is to craft those models and quell the lists of prospects in a way that allows them to maximize their draft allocated assets (through selections and trades).

MKC does make several notes that she is not looking to blow up the front office, but merely hand over the final decision to a football person. So, not quite to the extent of Green’s Players Only Club on the process,4 just on the decision-making — the most important component.

No one can fault Haslam for the innovative, analytics-based front office, but there’s no evidence it’s working in its current form. In fact, there’s data to the contrary — the Browns’ 0-12 record and a lackluster 2016 draft class.

Now, the Browns have tried football people as the general manager in the past and failed. They have tried nearly every method. MKC waves her hands at those attempts though.

Mike Holmgren was a football coach, not a personnel man. Ray Farmer was in over his head and wasn’t ready for the GM job. Same with George Kokinis. I’m talking about someone with a well-deserved reputation for drafting Pro Bowl players and quality starters

A high bar considering there is no way for an external team to truly know that there was a specific person responsible for drafting all of those Pro Bowl players and starters if there is such a person out there. Ray Farmer was part of a team in Kansas City that drafted many of those types of players as was George Kokinis and Phil Savage in Baltimore. If there was a guaranteed person who could come to Cleveland and start drafting Pro Bowl players every year, then that person would have alreayd been hired (by the Browns or someone else).

Personally, I’d hire someone who’s worked forever in the scouting department of a multiple Super Bowl-champion such as the Ravens or the Patriots and is next in line to run a team.

Even more important, handing over final roster decisions might not blow up the front office in terms of staff, but it certainly would in terms of structure. Jimmy Haslam has developed the current structure and put people in their positions because he believes the analytical-based approach. It was known that this would be a major rebuilding effort and that on-field results would be minimal at the start. The Plan should not see such as seismic shift so early in the process.

The Heisman

There has been much discussion about whether Jabrill Peppers should have been invited to New York City as a Heisman finalist.

Some of the debates even took a nuanced look at the advanced statistics that demonstrate Michigan had the best defense in the country. Alabama had a better rush defense, but the college game is a passing league these days and the Wolverine’s superior pass defense was able to push them to the top of the defensive heap. There was mention of Peppers’ double-digit pressures on the quarterback and the 15 tackles for loss. And, of course, a look at how Peppers’ elite defensive versatility allowed the Michigan defense to morph on the fly in order to stop opposing offenses.

But it is still the Heisman voting. Ultimately, the reason that Peppers is being invited to NYC is that he took some snaps from a Wildcat formation, returned punts and kickoffs, and his name was part of the narrative early in the season. The Heisman used to just pick the quarterback with the most buzz from one of the top ranked teams. Recently, there were added factors that memorable plays or an onslaught of GIFs could help make up for a team that might have a few losses. Regardless, it has always felt that the voters have selected their choices on buzz, then back-filled their reasoning with statistics.

So, if you are feeling a bit squeemish in this new world of the nerds, then perhaps the Heisman Award is your safe haven. For now…

  1. Full disclosure: I am an engineer who was programming video games—Choose-your-own-adventure-style was my favorite—since I was in second grade. []
  2. It was not a coincidence that the Arizona Diamondbacks replaced Stewart with a analytic-friendly GM from the Boston Red Sox who has ties back to the Cleveland Indians organization. []
  3. Many members of the competition committeee are former players, chaired by a Hall of Famer in Kiki Vandeweghe, but he kindly leaves that off. []
  4. MKC adds in the scouts who have worked their way up slowly through the system as part of her club. []