The History of Performance Analysis: America’s Favorite Pastime

By Duncan Ritchie

23-July-2020 on News

14 minute read

I first noticed America’s obsession with statistics during the 1994 FIFA World Cup, held in the USA. It wasn’t the greatest tournament, marred by Maradona being sent home in disgrace on drugs charges, the murder of Colombian defender Andrés Escobar and the oppressive heat of the American summer, but there were some good matches to be had before Brazil broke Italian hearts and went home with the trophy.

Stats and More Stats

 

Being a young British European, I’d never been exposed to the dazzling array of statistics produced by NFL, MLB and NBA matches, the beating heart of American sport, and the sheer amount of real-time data revealed by American TV coverage. In soccer terms, the only stats we really got before this tournament were the score and, sometimes, the time…but the Yanks went for it big time and infected the rest of the world with stat fever after ’94.

 

FIFA World Cup - USA '94

 

Some say it was overkill, a simple way to get statistic obsessed American audiences interested in the beautiful game (there wasn’t even a domestic soccer league in the USA at this time with MLS coming in ’95 as a FIFA prerequisite to the USA hosting the world cup in the first place). But many of these statistical introductions have been adopted by fans around the globe and are now commonplace in soccer coverage.

 

 

The static clock was one such change. Remember TV coverage before this? I do…time left in the game would appear at intervals of maybe every 10 minutes or so then disappear. The static clock introduced a bit of drama to the game, especially during a tight 1-0 game, leaving you biting your nails as the clock ticked slowly towards that 90-minute mark (and a barrage of blue language when the ref didn’t blow the whistle). A simple change, but a big one.

 

Then we had the procession of statistics. The number of corners, throw-ins, goal kicks, fouls and eyelets in the players boots (ok, that last one is a lie…but not too unbelievable) were all accounted for and given prominence alongside player specific stats like shots on target, shots off target, shots off target which went wide, shots saved by the keeper…you get the idea. A brand new hitherto unseen stat also appeared at this tournament, causing a certain amount of consternation in the ranks…assists. A stat which was adopted from ice-hockey, is still around today and still causes consternation!

 

After 0-0 at full time, Brazil eventually beat Italy 3-2 on penalties. 

 

The point is that Americans are obsessed with sporting statistics. They are the life and breath of fandom for many, provoking arguments, discussions and deep-and-meaningfuls. They can foster friendships and, in some cases, destroy relationships.

 

So, where did this obsession come from?

 

Well, all roads in the history of sports analysis lead to one sport, America’s favorite pastime, baseball.

 

Moneyball and Sabremetrics

 

Brad Pitt was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Billy Beane in Money ball.

 

By now, many of us, even those who are not particularly big fans of baseball, will be familiar with Moneyball. A best-selling book by Michael Lewis and an Oscar nominated film starring Brad Pitt, Moneyball tells the story of Billy Beane, General Manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team who used statistics and sabermetrics to construct a winning team on a very tight budget.

 

 

Undoubtedly, Beane was a pioneer in professional baseball and changed the face of the game forever during the 2002 season. But we’re not going to dwell too much on Beane’s legacy, go and watch the film or read the book if you want to know more (it’s actually on our Top 10 Sports Analysis Books list and our Top 10 Sports Movies list). But we are going to talk more about his predecessors. Those on whose shoulders Billy Beane stood.

 

A direct line can be drawn from the work of mathematician, Bill James in the 1970s through Billy Beane and Oakland Athletics’ success to the Boston Red Sox winning the World Series in 2004 for the first time in 86 years and, in some ways, to the advent of video analysis software such as Nacsport.

 

Bill James’ work was called sabermetrics (derived from the acronym SABR – Society for American Baseball Research) and was a comprehensive statistical analysis of baseball. The conclusions by James and others working in the field flew in the face of traditional baseball thinking. One of the major considerations was that on base numbers were more important to a team than batting averages, a theory that was soundly rejected by scouts and industry leaders of the day.

 

Bill James in 2010.

 

Sabermetrics was given short shrift when James published in the 70s. Who was this geeky mathematician to come and upend years of scouting tradition? It wasn’t until the 90s when Billy Beane and others started to prick their ears up and notice and it’s only now that Bill James can join us in our list of true pioneers in sports analysis.

 

But James isn’t the focus of our article today either. Again, we’re going to go much further back in time to the 19th century, to the origins of baseball itself. Today we’re going to meet…The Father of Baseball.

 

The Father of Baseball

 

We seem to be meeting a lot of “fathers” in this series! First, we were introduced to Charles Reep, "The Father of English Football Analysis" and then we met Gentleman Jim Corbett, “The Father of Modern Boxing” and now, in this article, we encounter “The Father of Baseball” and his name is Henry Chadwick…

 

Henry Chadwick, 1824 - 1908.

 

And, surprisingly, he’s not American!

 

Henry Chadwick was an Englishman, born in 1824 and throughout his childhood he passed his time playing bat-and-ball games such as cricket and rounders. However, it wasn’t until he and his family shipped off to Boston, Massachusetts when he was aged 12 that this pastime became a passion. This was when he discovered baseball for the first time.

 

Very similar to, and probably derived from, the English game of rounders, Chadwick loved the speed and energy of baseball. To him it was an embodiment of the new world, the hustle and bustle of his Boston home and the positioning of his adopted country as leaders of the modern world. On baseball, he wrote: “Americans do not care to dawdle over a sleep-inspiring game. In baseball, all is lightning; every action is as swift as a seabird’s flight.

 

Baseball gained popularity throughout the 19th Century.

 

At this time, in the mid-19th Century, baseball was not the same sport it is today. There was little organisation and no fixed rules. All that was about to change, however, and Henry Chadwick would be right at the forefront.

 

Baseball Analysis and Box Scores

 

Chadwick was a talented writer and journalist and it was this skill that put him at the centre of baseball’s rise in popularity in the 19th century and dominance in the American psyche in the 20th century. His writing is also what earns him a place in this article as an important figure in the history of sports analysis.

 

With no video and little photography available at the time, Chadwick had to find a way of bringing the game to life for his readers. Baseball is a long game, the average length being around 4 hours, so words alone were not sufficient to convey the action on the field. To this end, Chadwick developed a system for recording match statistics at a glance...the Box Score.

 

An example of one of Chadwick's Box Scores from the 19th Century.

 

He assigned numbers to players on the field and used abbreviations to describe the action on the field (H – for “home run”, E- for “error” and K – for “strike out”, the latter due to the fact that he had already used S for “Stolen Base” and therefore used the last letter of the word “Struck” instead. To this day, if you go to a baseball match, you may hear fans chanting “K! K! K! K!” when cheering for a strike out…so now you know why!). These stats were then put together into the Box Score, developed from cricket scoring methods, to provide a succinct way of viewing the action.

 

Bringing Baseball to the Masses

 

Publishing columns in several national newspapers, Chadwick, with his Box Scores and statistical analyses of games, brought the game to those who couldn’t attend live. He gave the common man something to discuss and pore over in workplaces and bars all over America.

 

Because of this he was instrumental in baseball becoming America’s Favorite Pastime.

 

Chadwick went on to edit Beadle's Dime Base-Ball Player, an annual baseball guide where he would record, amongst other things, games played, outs, runs, home runs and strikeouts for all major baseball clubs. This makes him one of the first people in history to have created a comprehensive sports analysis database!

 

Chadwick edited Beadles Dime: Base-ball Player

 

Chadwick continued to be a prominent figure in the world of baseball, sitting on offical baseball organisation's boards and helping develop the rules of the game, until his death in 1908. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1938 in recognition of his contribution, without which, arguably, baseball would not be the multimillion-dollar sport it is today.

 

In addition, his work directly led to the founding of the first ever sports data provider…yep, that’s right!

 

The First Sports Data Provider

 

Nowadays, there are many companies dealing in sports data and analytics. Companies such as InStat or Opta who specialise in selling data gleaned from sporting events around the world.

 

In 1913, however, this type of industry simply didn’t exist. That is until Al Munro Elias and his brother Walter founded the Al Munro Elias Bureau in New York. Building on Chadwick’s earlier analyses, especially the use of Box Scores, the brothers started to meticulously extract baseball data from games before selling their weekly “averages” to newspapers.

 

Al Munro Elias, 1872 - 1939.

 

From here they went on to be appointed the official statisticians of the American National Baseball League, providing game data to all major newspapers nationally and internationally, and publishing authorised annual compendiums of baseball statistics.

 

Building on this success in the 1940s, albeit after both brothers had passed on, the Elias Sports Bureau, as it became to be known, went on to become the official data suppliers for the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLS amongst others. It’s still an active, ongoing and respected concern in the modern world and, like Henry Chadwick has been one of the major players in helping baseball become the most discussed and dissected sport in the USA.

 

Baseball Video Analysis Software

 

There are many more baseball tales in the history of sports analysis, people who have stood on the shoulders of Henry Chadwick and the Elias Brothers and taken the game to another level through statistical and performance analysis.

 

Baseball: America's Favourite Pastime.

 

Of course, this includes Billy Beane of Moneyball fame. He may have rejected many of the accepted practices of baseball analysts and scouts, but we’re sure that even he would acknowledge the importance of these earlier sports analysis pioneers and their importance to American sport and the national obsession with statistics.

 

And, of course, their importance to you, dear reader. Without these earlier innovators, sports analysis wouldn’t be at the level it is today and video analysis software like Nacsport probably wouldn’t exist.

 

But it does exist and, if you are not yet a Nacsport user, why not give it a try today. Download a completely FREE, no-obligation trial today. You can also get in touch with us at media@nacsport.com or through any of our social media channels to discuss anything in this article or to simply chat. We’re here for you!

 

 

Thanks for reading!

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