Winston, Sports, Statistics, and Decision Making

winstonWayne 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.

4 thoughts on “Winston, Sports, Statistics, and Decision Making”

  1. Wayne is going to be speaking at the Dallas/Ft Worth INFORMS chapter event in January on his latest book and this subject of sports and OR. If anyone is in the area be sure to come the Dallas INFORMS event which is going to be held at SMU.

  2. It’s interesting to see some of the discussion on various Web sites about this. Plenty of comments along the lines of, “If the statistics say he should have gone for it, the statistics must be wrong. Everybody knows that that’s a punting situation.”

    I’m a football tyro and I haven’t seen the replay, but it seems to me from the discussion that the flaw wasn’t so much in going for it as in the choice of play. Something where the reception occurred more definitively past the first-down marker would have been a better choice than one where the receiver still needed to take steps after the catch.

    Monday morning QBs, have at it…

  3. I’m with Matt on the problem being the choice (or maybe execution) of the play. Running a 1.5 yard route on fourth-and-two means you’re depending on the receiver to get yards after the catch. I’d be curious to see statistics on how often throwing short of the sticks on third or fourth down works.

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