Abundance of Diet Soda Starts Stats Revolution

By Don Wade

One man, one room, one micro-fridge stocked with diet soda.

In his Lawrence, Kan., home, this is where Bill James would hunker down and create his yearly “Baseball Abstract.” It was an obsessive, solitary labor of love that started a statistical revolution in baseball. It’s just that it took another generation and Brad Pitt starring in a movie inspired by a book, “Moneyball,” for much of the world to notice numbers in a new way.

But a young Jersey boy named John Hollinger noticed.

“All through the ’80s I was getting his book and just devouring it,” said Hollinger, the Grizzlies’ vice president of basketball operations, and considered one of the NBA’s advanced statistics pioneers. “First one was when I was 13. Read it, re-read it.”

Even though Hollinger grew up in New Jersey, he was a Milwaukee Brewers fan – specifically, a fan of future Hall-of-Famers Robin Yount and Paul Molitor. But as much as Hollinger loved baseball, basketball was the sport he enjoyed playing as a teenager.

“Naturally, I started thinking about ways to apply what (James) had done to basketball,” Hollinger said. “Over time, I experimented – a lot of trial and error, worked a couple of jobs, and finally this thing called the Internet came along and I was able to create a website and put some of my ideas out there.

“Bill James is the father of this whole thing. And the entire reason people like me have a job in this business now.”

As a writer for ESPN.com, Hollinger developed a following. His best-known “idea” is an advanced stat called the Player Efficiency Rating (PER). Like just about any other advanced metric, we could use up a lot of space attempting to explain it in full. In essence, it rates a player’s effectiveness on a per-minute platform.

That’s my oversimplification, mind you, and though I have occasionally poked fun at the new Memphis management team’s all-in commitment to advanced analytics, I believe analytics have their place and that it is smart to employ people such as John Hollinger.

Consider, just for one example, how things might have gone differently back in the Vancouver Grizzlies days if there had been more data and someone like Hollinger on staff to weigh in on the decision to use the overall No. 2 pick in the NBA draft on Stromile Swift.

You remember the “Stro Show,” don’t you? Stro was good for several spectacular dunks each season – he had a great PER for highlight footage – but despite being 6-10, and crazy athletic, Swift was out of the league before age 30. Over nine seasons, he averaged just 8.4 points, shot 47 percent despite many of his points coming on dunks, averaged 4.6 rebounds despite being able to leap over tall buildings in a single bound, and averaged 0.5 assists and 1.3 turnovers (which doesn’t even seem possible).

And those are just the traditional stats; a major part of the Stro Show was his disappearing act.

“Almost play to play,” Hollinger said with a laugh. “That’s where scouting information can give you some insight.”

Yes, he said it. Hollinger believes scouting has its place, still, and does not believe advanced data, including what comes from the cameras now installed in the rafters of all 30 NBA arenas, are the be-all, end-all.

So when it is suggested that the more we know the more we realize how far there still is to go, he doesn’t argue.

“That’s a really fair statement, yeah,” he said. “You start out and you think you’re pretty close to solving everything. It’s really phenomenal how quickly you realize how much you don’t know.”

That’s why Bill James had to re-stock the micro-fridge. And why John Hollinger has reason to get up and come to work every day.

Don Wade’s column appears weekly in The Daily News and The Memphis News. Listen to Wade on “Middays with Greg & Eli” every Tuesday at noon on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM.