Wayne Winston, author of famous textbooks in operations research and a new book on math and sports, and sports statistics/decision making guru, has a column in the Huffington Post, which certainly catapults him to rock-star status in the operations research world. The entries are also posted on his personal blog, where he posts additional material.
His recent post is on a controversial decision that the coach, Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots (US football) made yesterday. With just a couple of minutes left to play, Belichick decided to try for a first down on 4th and 2 deep on his own 28 yard line. If the Patriots had made the first down, the game would be over with a Patriots win. If they failed (which they did), the Indianapolis would need to move the ball about 30 yards in two minutes to score and win (which they did). The alternative would have been to punt, which would then require Indy to move perhaps 60 or 70 yards in that time to score.
The vast majority of coaches in this situation would punt. Winston suggests Belichick made the right move, given that Indianapolis had a high probability of scoring even from 60 or 70 yards (Indianapolis has the quarterback and team to do so). The result is pretty clear: as long as you believe that Indianapolis had at least a 50-50 shot of scoring after the punt (and in many cases with a lower probability than that), you should go for it. Advanced NFL Stats has a slightly different take on this, with the same conclusion.
I think it is important to note that Winston doesn’t just do statistics. He combines it with decision making. Sometimes that decision making is reasonably straightforward but unintuitive (like the above), and sometimes it is more complicated.
Winston has done a lot to bring clarity to the complicated world of basketball statistics and decision making. I look forward to seeing what he has to say to Huffington’s huge audience. And maybe have him sneak in the phrase “operations research” once in a while.