Math is becoming more and more integral in sports. The move toward professional sports teams making more analytics-based decisions for their teams has been underway for sometime, famously outlined in the Michael Lewis book Moneyball, where Lewis showed how that transition toward “advanced stats” happened in baseball.
That transition is underway in hockey now as NHL teams hire statisticians and advanced stats gurus who can help give their team an edge. The forefront of this rapidly evolving field in hockey has largely been online through sites like Hockey Prospectus, Behind the Net, War on Ice, and many others.
Rob Vollman has been at the forefront of this movement since 2000. He and cohorts like Tom Awad and Iain Fyffe have authored a number of books, including Rob Vollman’s Hockey Abstract, which helps outline in “clear, focused and applicable terms” what is happening in the movement toward analytics.
Inside the field of hockey analytics, Vollman’s most popular innovations included Player Usage Charts (now in wide use), the Quality Starts metric for goaltenders, as well as “measuring a player’s cap value with Goals Versus Salary (GVS) and advances in the field of NHL Translations and League Equivalencies (NHLe), to understand how well players coming from other leagues will perform.”
Rob was gracious enough to talk about with STEM Jobs about how math and statistics have led to working in and around hockey for him.
STEM Jobs: As a student, were you digging into math already or was math something you came to love later in life? Was there any sort of “aha” moment where you started to understand the possibilities of math outside of a workbook?
Rob Vollman: No, I was born with a passion for numbers. As a student, the thrill was meeting others who shared that comfort and passion, and in learning the fundamentals of the concepts I had previously only discovered through trial and error.
SJ: Was your love of math and/or stats always tied to sports and hockey? How did the intersection of math and sport come into your life?
RV: My passion for hockey is deep and lifelong. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of taking that first stride on a sheet of clean ice! The blood starts pumping, the adrenalin starts to kick in, and all of life’s stresses fade away. I just don’t feel like myself if I go too long without a game.
Unfortunately, I was born without any athletic aptitude for playing the sport, but have always managed to make myself useful to the team with enthusiasm and energy. As for math, that fortunately comes to me far more easily. I naturally view most things in life in terms of numbers and patterns, so it’s only natural that I would view my favorite sport that way, as well.
SJ: Do stats change your love of sport or do you find that your love of sport and stats feed each other?
RV: Everybody has different elements of the sport that magnify their enjoyment. For some, it’s knowing and understanding the equipment that the players use, or following the game at the business and/or financial level. For others it’s knowing a bit about the players on a personal level, or their ties to their families and communities. For me, it’s understanding the underlying numbers. People discover their own different ways of enjoying the sport, all of which are equally valid.
SJ: From know people inside the NHL who do similar work to you, do you have the sense that STEM education is becoming an integral part of working in the front office of a NHL club?
RV: With the NHL, the adoption of analytics in hockey varies from team to team. Some teams have a sophisticated and comprehensive approach that’s been in use for over a decade, and that touches various aspects of their organization. Others have done little more than to hire a blogger to count Corsi events and zone entries.
Regardless of where teams currently are, it’s obvious where it is going. Organizations that have adopted analytics have proven to have a big advantage over the others, which is why teams will continue to invest more in this area.
SJ: If a student had an interest in pursuing a career in the statistical analysis of sports, what advice would you give them?
RV: Having made my living in an unrelated field, I’m not sure that I’m qualified to answer that. There are very few positions available and those that exist are woefully underpaid, especially relative to what someone who is comfortable with numbers can earn elsewhere. While things may change in the long run, right now only those with an insatiable passion for the field will find any kind of success or fulfillment in sporting analytics, in my view.
Thanks to Rob Vollman for taking the time to talk. For more on Vollman and to see some of his stats and writing in action, head over to HockeyAbstract.com. For more on STEM Jobs in sports, check out the recent post on ESPN Dc2, where technology, engineering, and sports collide.
Watch Rob Vollman discuss the history of statistical analysis in hockey at the recent DC Hockey Analytics Conference.
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