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Sabermetrics In Hockey

General Managers and statisticians are always trying to figure out a sure-fire way to bring their teams to victory. One of the common ways they try to do this is by figuring out a way to reduce the game to figures and plug them into a formula.

Baseball, as many of you may know, is a game of numbers. With a staggering number of individual statistics to simplify a player’s worth, the system of sabermetrics is perhaps one of the more complicated and off-putting aspects of the game. Sabermetrics, as featured in the 2003 book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” and its 2011 film adaptation “Moneyball” starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, is a process of determining how much a player should be worth based on statistics like on base percentage (heavy focus on the movie, less so in the book) in order to “buy wins.”

If you look at a full stats column of a baseball league, you will see traditional statistics like at bats (AB), runs (R), hits (H), home runs (HR), runs batted in (RBI), strikeouts (SO when dealing with batters, K when dealing with  pitchers dishing them out), walks (BB for bases on balls), and the all-important hitting average (AVG). However, since the dawn of sabermetrics, there are also columns that didn’t use to be there, such as doubles (2B), triples (3B), on-base percentage (OBP), slugging average (SLG, a calculation of total bases achieved on hits divided by at bats), and on-base plus slugging (OPS, a less exciting type of operation. Simple addition of on-base percentage and slugging average as the name cleverly implies). There are also many other obscure statistics that are not commonly seen in major media outlets, such as VORP (value over replacement player, don’t even ask how that’s measured), WAR (wins above replacement, not armed conflict), pNERD (how aesthetically pleasing a pitcher is to watch, based on their ironically named NERD statistic, an unfortunate acronym of narration, exposition, reflection and description), and many others.

Why is this important to hockey? Well, run of the mill fans and casual observers of the game will notice that hockey also tracks many statistics, but the potential for many more has arisen. Outside of goals (G), assists (A), points (PTS), shots (SH), plus-minus (+/-), and penalty minutes (PIM), there are also goals in different situations (short-handed (SHG), power play (PPG), game-winning (GWG)), and less traditional average time on ice (ATOI), and shooting percentage (PCT). With the use of sabermetrics in hockey, new, more complex statistics have a chance to be born to measure a player’s usefulness and to assess their overall value. Much like baseball, there are many different situations that could lead to statistics tracking, such as time on attack, attack efficiency, power play contribution, primary assists, secondary assists, etc. Emerging out of these weird statistics with complicated formulas is the Corsi Number, a statistic that I have noticed being used in many different media outlets with increasing frequency.

What is a Corsi Number you ask? I asked the same question, and what I came up with is this: named after Buffalo Sabres goaltending coach Jim Corsi, it is a measure of the differential of shots between the teams while a player is on the ice. The funny thing about Corsi Numbers, though, is that it measures any and all kinds of shots, whether they’re on net or not, meaning that missed shots, blocked shots, heck, even dump-ins could count under that definition if they just so happen to make the goalie flinch. This is supposedly a measure of the efficacy of the attack of a player, line or even team, as it can be applied to almost any scenario in order to get a stat.

This, in my opinion, is an unnecessary over-complication of the game, and an unreliable statistic; in essence, it’s a plus-minus but for shots as opposed to actual goals. It is intended to be a measure of a team’s defensive ability and offensive prowess; however, counting all shots, whether they are on net or not, seems rather silly. As shots blocked have become a statistic that has become increasingly important to measure a player’s ability, as well as shots on net, the Corsi Number becomes redundant as it is the only statistic that counts missed shots. The problem with counting missed shots, though, is that most of the time, they don’t make much of a difference, unless a player is trying to catch the goalie being too aggressive on the puck and intentionally missing wide to bank off the backboard for an assist, but where is the statistic for that? It’s called an assist, get over it.

In my humble opinion, the system of statistics that is currently in place for hockey simplify the game sufficiently; it leaves enough to the imagination to actually want to watch the game to see how those statistics came to be, as opposed to describing every possible aspect of the game in numbers. As a native of Venezuela, I love baseball, but watching it on TV is an absolute nightmare. Sabermetric statistics feel more like a talking point in an extended at-bat so that viewers don’t suffer from the crushing silence of a stadium cheering for its home team.

Pedro Rengel

Pedro Rengel

Originally hailing from the tropical paradise of Venezuela, I moved to Canada at age 11 for the sole reason of falling in love with hockey as a self-proclaimed Pittsburgh Penguins fan. Now a Canadian citizen, my mad love affair with hockey represents a statistical contribution as opposed to an anomaly. Being able to write this well despite having Spanish as a first language is enough of an anomaly (I'm occasionally biased).
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