Sports Betting — Can You Get a Handle on the ‘Art’ AND the ‘Science’?

By Charles Jay

At this stage I believe that every team in all of the major team sports (i.e., MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL) has some form of analytics department. That hasn’t been the case for all that long.

When the concept of using analytics in a serious way was somewhat new, there was a tug-of-war between the “old school” and “new school” people.

The new school consisted of those who saw the numbers as something that could not only apply to the process of player procurement, but also game strategy and training philosophy.


Many of the old school people wrote it off as the work of “nerds” who never played the game. And if they didn’t want to be so overt about it, they kind of gave it some lip service but went ahead and just did things their own way.

I noticed this the first year Jeff Luhnow and his crew came in and took over the Houston Astros, with a rather radical analytics experiment. Why they hired Bo Porter as manager was beyond me, because he wasn’t on board with that approach at all.

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In time, I think that an understanding of – and acquiescence to – analytics is going to be a requirement for any coach or manager in major league pro sports. But we’re not there quite yet, and there is still a little push-and-pull between the two philosophical factions.

All that having been said, I think even the best analytics people are going to tell you that’s only part of the entire picture. It is one important part of a mix that also includes scouting and the human element. And that is probably the right way to look at it.

Maybe others don’t view it this way, but I see some of this going on in sports betting, at least to some extent. That is to say, there are still people who are flying by the seat of their pants a little, perhaps making use of trend data, but not buying a lot of into the more advanced numbers.

Personally, I couldn’t imagine myself operating without analytics, and as much of it as possible. Who wouldn’t want as much information as they can get at their disposal?

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At the same time, I don’t see it as the end-all and be-all. People get into discussions with me as to whether handicapping is an art or a science. There is no honest answer, other than to say that it is a little of both.

I remember that the first year I ever used the internet for information with which to handicap football turned out to be the worst year I ever had. And there was a reason for it – there was so much stuff at my fingertips that I caught myself over-analyzing. And of course, that brings up the old saying, “over-analysis leads to paralysis.”

Indeed, I can.

I love all the data, but I see it as a tool with which to make decisions. I am distrustful of formulas which might spit out a number that is supposed to give you a winner. For one thing, any of these models are dependent upon data that must be plugged into them, and the process of “weighing” what each piece of data means is critical. This is bound to have a certain degree of inexactitude attached to it, and so it’s invariable that the human element is going to come into it anyway.

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That human element often manifests itself in the form of “situational” factors that can have a very real bearing on the outcome of a game. Sometimes it involves a team having a letdown, or suffering from internal dissension that you may not know all that much about. Maybe there’s a game they’re looking ahead to. It could be any number of things. Hell, sometimes the complexion of a game completely changes while it’s being played (I guess that’s why God invented live betting). The point is, these aren’t things you can easily plug into a formula. You can avoid operating with a little instinct when it comes to this stuff.

So yes, the “art” does come into it, and it marries itself with the science. It’s not so much what kind of data you have available to you, but largely how you are able to interpret it, and weigh certain “intangible” factors that are indeed difficult to evaluate, that will determine your level of success at this.

That’s just one man’s opinion.