Author:Piazza, Alex
Position:Sports analytics

The score is tied 4-4 in the bottom of the seventh inning; two out; bases loaded; up to the plate steps a senior who has struggled in recent weeks--does the coach insert a pinch-hitter, or trust that the batter will break out of her slump and knock in the game-winner?

This scenario is nothing new for University of Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins, who has had to make tough decisions like this for the last 34 seasons. The only difference is that Hutchins today has an arsenal of research that shows how the senior outfielder performs in a myriad of situations. In 1985, when she took over the Wolverine helm, Hutchins did not have access to this sort of data.

Hutchins, the winningest women's softball coach in NCAA history often goes with her gut instinct in pressure situations but, in recent years, she admits that analytics have played a greater role in her decisionmaking. "Analytics are a huge part of the game, especially nowadays because of the amount of information we have access to. It's another one of those tools we use to get a better look at our opponents as well as our own players."

The same is true on the hardwood. For instance, when a basketball game is on the line, is the go-to play the pick-and-roll, and if it is, how do teams defend against it? They can start by reviewing research from UM's Jenna Wiens of the Institute of Data Science and her former student Avery McIntyre. Along with colleagues from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, they identified more than 340,000 screens from five NBA seasons. The researchers then tabulated how each screen was defended and the outcome --an essential gold mine for cage coaches.

The thing that excites me most about this sort of work is that we can automatically identify discrete parts of the game, like the pick-and-roll, and then produce some really interesting analysis that teams throughout the league can use to gain a competitive edge," says McIntyre.

McIntyre and Wiens (assistant professor of computer science and engineering) recently presented their research at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. It was a prestigious invitation considering hundreds of researchers worldwide submitted their work for presentation, yet only eight finalists were selected.

It marked the third research presentation at the Sloan Conference for Wiens, who has been studying sports analytics since 2010. Her research initially focused solely on analyzing large health care datasets to help identify...

To continue reading