The Wizard of Math and Sports
Professor of Operations and Decisions Technologies
If there was a fantasy sports league for statistics experts, you would want Wayne Winston on your team. In fact, you would start him every week.
Winston, a professor of operations and decisions technologies, and the Eli Lilly Faculty Fellow at Kelley, not only lives, breathes and eats "math in sports", he is about to be known as the author of a book on the topic. Winston's book will soon be published by Princeton University Press, joining a long list of books written by the ODT professor, and lifelong sports fan.
"I've loved sports since the 7th grade," says Winston. "My best friend is (USA Today stats guru) Jeff Sagarin. I met him in college at MIT. We have worked with the Dallas Mavericks since 2001 ranking players. I looked around and saw that there wasn't a good book on math in sports."
Sports fans got a taste for the financial side of sports stats with "Moneyball," Michael Lewis' insightful look at how the Oakland A's achieved success despite a small payroll. But that book, explains Winston, doesn't do the math, so to speak. "There is a lot I know about the math of sports in baseball, basketball, football—and gambling," he says. "The book is a cross between a textbook and a book for the intelligent layman who wants to really understand how to use math to analyze sports. I developed the math in the book and all it requires (to understand) is basic probability and basic statistics."
Winston will take sports math into the classroom this spring. "I am very excited about it. I am teaching a course in January to undergrads on math in sports," he explains." To my knowledge, there has never been a college course anywhere on how you use math in baseball, football, basketball and gambling."
For every sports fan who formerly poured over statistics found in the fine print on sports pages, it is a whole new era. "There has always been an interest in batting averages and other statistics, but until lately there hasn't been much done about making it analytical," says Winston. "The great thing is that there is now infinite data to work with. You can go on the Internet and get any player's batting average or pitching statistics in the entire history of baseball and put it in an Excel spreadsheet. There should be some wisdom put behind those statistics, however."
The NBA dilemma
"Optimizing your spending under the salary cap in professional basketball is really critical," says Winston. "In the book we look at how you compute a fair salary per player. The whole issue for me is translating player performance as defined by box scores and other measures. If you look at how many wins a player creates you can basically figure out what he's worth. I spend a lot of time in the book explaining how to figure out what is a fair salary for a player."
But how much statistical information is too much? "Actually, I think the problem with professional sports is that they don't keep enough statistics," says Winston. "They should probably track deflected balls and charging fouls taken in the NBA. For me it's about determining the contribution the player makes in the team's success. Then I can parse out what he is worth." For example, Winston asks, how many wins is Kevin Garnett of the Boston Celtics worth? "A team wins so many games, the holy grail is figuring out how many wins each player can create," he explains. "Once you know that, team owners can really make smart decisions. They could say that a certain player is worth five wins, but he can be signed for half as much money as a player who is worth seven wins. That's a better buy. The owner is getting more player for the dollar." Being efficient with the money you have is the key to being successful in professional sports. Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian "is a genius at this," says Winston. But he warns that "math is a tool, not an end-all solution. Math is a tool to be used in the evaluation process."
But leveraging the math always pays dividends. Winston offers as an example the statistical work he conducts for Mark Cuban (BS'81), owner of the Dallas Mavericks. "Math tells the story of who we have to stop, and what are the best player combinations to use to do that. We are really good at measuring a player's defensive abilities. A lot of teams struggle with that. There is so much going on in a typical basketball game that the published box score doesn't even begin to tell you."