Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Oilers and reasonable expectations

I don't follow many people on twitter - as of today I only follow 37 people.  But I do keep track of a number of other people on twitter, particularly those in the sabermetrics and hockey analytics community.  A good # of those people, including one person who I follow (Jonathan Willis), are Oilers fans.  This shouldn't be a surprise to anyone - the Oilogosphere (as I believe it's called) is heavily active online and features some of the brighter analytical thinkers out there for Hockey. 

That said, I do think there's a pattern out there in the Oiler blogosphere, at least in certain parts, where people who should know better have higher than reasonable expectations for the team to begin the season. 

What touched this off by the way, though a similar idea has been in my head for a bit, was Willis taking issue with Rob Vollman labeling the Oilers as likely 30th next year.  Now I don't agree a lot with Vollman's methodology, and I don't know what he used here.  But let's begin by saying such a prediction isn't TERRIBLY unreasonable.  Again, last year's Oilers were:

28th in Fenwick Close (a miserable 44.48%) and 29th in Corsi tied (at 44.5% per HockeyAnalysis).  This was not a good team, despite the solid goaltending of Devan Dubynk and the 3 #1 overall picks. 

Who's returning from that team?  (Relying upon this: http://oilersnation.com/2013/7/8/the-edmonton-oilers-today-tomorrow/)
First Line: Hall-RNH-Eberle - Completely the same, although RNH may miss some time.
2nd  Line: Yakupov-Gagner
3rd   Line: Hemsky
4th   Line: Smyth, Jones
Extras: Brown
D: Smid-Petry
D: Schultz-Schultz
D: Potter

So you have a decent amount of turnover, but a large amount of players from the awful Oilers team of last year ARE coming back.  Of course, saying that is missing part of the picture.  RNH should be better if he recovers fine from surgery, as should Hall ( a scary thought).  Same for Yakupov of course.  On the other hand, that 4th line is still bad.  And well, the D was pretty awful, and 5 of those guys are coming back.  And only Justin Schultz should really be expected to be a little better. 

So again, despite the presence of 3 top picks, this isn't exactly a strong core.  How about the additions?  Well on D, the Oilers clearly have made a bunch additions:

Andrew Ference is probably the most high profile, and as noted on Copper & Blue, he's just not...very good.  Some of the negative parts of his relative corsi undoubtedly comes from the fact that the #1 D on Boston was a guy named Chara, who he didn't play with.*  On the other hand, the last two years, his relative corsi is more than a little bit bad - it's pretty darn bad.  He's not exactly being buried in the D Zone either (Neutral Zone Starts).   In the small sample of the playoffs last year, he was easily Boston's worst D Man in scoring chances.

*Tyler Dellow has argued that in addition, Ference's time with Chara was handicapped by playing off-hand, further limiting his relative corsi.  Of course, the negatives of playing off-hand are at this point purely anecdotal (SOMEBODY RESEARCH THIS) and I can point to plenty of examples of off-hand players performing quite excellently.  

Denis Grebeshkov is another addition - a D man who went to Russia after a few years in the NHL.  He had two good years for the Oilers under MacTavish, and then had a bad year where he was eventually shipped to Nashville.  From there he went to the KHL, where his career is interesting.   After a few years of high usage suggesting being a top KHL D man, Grebeshkov's TOI dropped with his team SKA until this year, when he was traded to Yugra.  In Yugra, his minutes returned.  I'd guess he was probably considered a borderline top pair KHL D man in Russia, but it's hard to tell from that kind of time.  As for the NHL - it's hard to say - is the the 2009-2010 guy or the 2008-2009 guy?  The latter guy won't help the Oilers too much.  Grebeshkov is also going to be 30, so he's not going to get much better. 

The other addition is Anton Belov, another KHL D man.  Belov played a ton of KHL minutes, and has a pretty praising scouting report up on Oilers Nation.  On the other hand, Derek Zona's recently tweeted out D pairs suggested he was the current 6th DMan or fighting for that spot with Nick Schultz.  There's a lot of uncertainty there, and he could be good.



Finally, Oskar Klefbom is the wild card.  Pronman projects him as a #2 D Man.  If he was to play, we'd probably figure he's more likely to be a #4 type guy right now.  But that's still an improvement.  Of course, it's hard to see where he cracks the lineup right away. 

So the Oilers will add potentially 3 guys whose abilities are highly unclear but could range from good 2nd pair to meh 3rd pair at best and a meh player in Andrew Ference.  Other than Ference - a bad signing - these are actually smart moves for the Oilers.  But the ranger of expectations is high here.  It's entirely possible that Grebeshkov and Belov bust, and then you're left again with the same bad Oilers D.  So it's not like you can't see the D of the Oilers leading to another poor finish. 

How about the forwards?

The Oilers have added 2 "major" additions at Forward.  The first, a swap of Parjaavi for David Perron, seems like an improvement (although Parjaavi could've improved as well).  He's a solid possession forward (although some argument can be made others were driving the bus) and adds some points.  The 2nd line last year was dreadful for the Oilers, despite the supposed high quality of Gagner, but at the very least Yakupov should get better and Perron should be an improvement at wing.  Is that enough? Hard to tell. 

The other is Boyd Gordon, a defensive center to replace the failure of Eric Belanger.  Of course, Belanger was once thought to be a pretty good defensive center whose signing was celebrated at Copper and Blue.  Meanwhile, it's unclear how well such guys are at consistently maintaining good performance in defensive minutes.  Look at Gordon - in 12-13 his D possession #s are terrific.  In 11-12 they're poor.  In 10-11 they're good in easier minutes.  In 09-10 they're horrible.  The odds of Gordon being another Belanger seem awfully high.

A few others were added of course.  Jesse Joensuu was an enigma on the Isles, and now he's one for the Oilers, for example. 

CONCLUSION:

The Oilers this offseason, with the exception of Ference (and the signing of LaBarbara to be the backup, an excellent signing), went for the unknown, taking a # of gambles on D improvements from the KHL, but didn't improve really at forward.  When your additions are like this however, your range of outcomes is wide.  A bottom 5 finish is very plausible.  So is a middle of the pack finish. 

But I've forgotten one element.  Coaching. 

Willis argues, as have several other Oilers fans, that Kreuger was the major problem and the reason for the step back last year, and that his failure to line match and flawed strategies were responsible for the gigantic step back.  I'm far from convinced. 

For one, line matching competition wise doesn't seem to be very influential on results - coaches simply have little ability to get players out against specific opponents (particularly on the road), resulting in each player playing similar loads of competition.  This is why the gaps in QOC metrics are at most 4 shots, and usually within 2 if not lower.  That's not much.  ZONE matching does seem more effective, but I've seen nothing to suggest Eakins is going to make this extreme.  So perhaps we get a marginal benefit here by getting line 1 out in the O Zone more often (on the other hand, this isn't going to help the extremely poor other lines). 

For another the suggestion that the players' step back was due to Krueger seems to imply that a coach's impact is HUGE: able to take a just sub average team into a bottom 3 team.  This seems incredibly unlikely, and would make certain coaches dramatically underpaid. 

Yes both C&B and Dellow have used video to show that certain plays seem particularly poorly designed, or that the strategies used were unconventional (C&B at one point argued there was a defensive strategy by Krueger which no one in the NHL used).  On the other hand, we don't have data showing that such poor looking plays were the results of the coach's strategies, as opposed to the players' being poor.  Or that certain plays were destined to get poor results.  We simply do NOT have the data to conclude that Krueger's coaching was to blame, despite the results.    (How to separate coaching from roster talent is a difficult one). 

Finally, as hinted previously, like the players, it's not a guaranty that Eakins is a good coach at all, or even better than Krueger.  Yes the Marlies had good results under him.  That's not a guaranty of anyone being a good coach.  Kreuger may not have been as high profile for instance, but he was once considered a pretty good coach in waiting. 

Jonathan Willis stated on twitter that, and i'm quoting to avoid misquoting here:
Shot differential collapsed in 2012-13 despite an improved roster, and it seems a safe bet to me that Dallas Eakins will reverse that trend.
The problem is that the only proof of 12-13 being an improved roster is well, the presupposition that those players were better.  That seems unclear at best - they certainly performed a lot worse!  Why is that on the coach and not the players!   Moreover, Eakins is not a safe bet - he's an unknown.  Like the rest of the Oilers moves this offseason. 

The Oilers certainly could be in the middle of the pack next year.  Or they could be in the bottom 5 yet again.  Nothing is certain about this team, and thus a prediction of utter atrocity is not exactly unreasonable. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Improving Fighting Game Commentary for Major FGC Events

Around 2 years ago, at the release of Marvel vs Capcom 3, I discovered the Fighting Game Community (the FGC).  I'm not much of a competitive gamer myself - I've enjoyed playing online against others in some video games, but really have never been particularly good at it.  Moreover, my hand-eye coordination sucks - I would never really be good at fighting games, and when I was a kid and had SF2, Mortal Kombat, and another SF variant for the SNES, I never could do any of the moves reliably (I'm sure had I put time into it I could've mastered that much, but still, games that require quick inputs in specific directions have always been tricky to me). 

But since my discovery of them, FGC games, streams and tournaments have been something I've been fascinated with.  Fighting Games are essentially nothing more than a variant of chess played at high speeds, with strategy and action mixed in a perfect amount to create an awesome product to watch.  Top level play is absolutely thrilling to watch and if you haven't ever given it a try, I encourage you to do so.  It's pretty awesome.  So I've become the dedicated stream monster of FGC events, and rarely miss a major. 

That said, there's one element of FGC streams and tournaments that has always bugged me as not being quite up to the level I think it can be at: and that is fighting game commentary.  Don't get me wrong, the FGC has its share of classic commentators: from Ultradavid and James Chen (UltraChen) to Yipes, from Magus1234 to Arturo Sanchez (Sabin), etc. etc. etc., there are a ton of guys who are on the mic a lot at FGC events and attempt to commentate the matches for the stream monsters and to explain what's going on and to hype it up properly.  Yet while so much of the commentary is done right, leading to some classic moments, there are a lot of things the commentator do which make it harder for people to watch and enjoy the FGC as much as people could. 

I've been rewatching EVO's Top 8s and QFs/Semis while on my commute, and came up with a few thoughts on how FGC commentary can really be improved at getting people who aren't big time fighting game players into the action:

1.  Explain the Matchups

 This is easier in some games than others (Solo games as opposed to team games), but one aspect that is common across every fighting game EVER is that a lot of how a match is played is dictated by the matchup between the characters chosen by each player.  A Balrog (Boxer)-Akuma match will play out much differently than a Balrog (Boxer)-Makoto matchup in SF4, for example, just because of what options each character has.   And then individual playstyles of various characters can be extremely different, leading to totally different results (contrast Tokido's matches with PR Rog with Infiltration's from EVO). 

Of course we can't expect the commentators of every game to know the playstyles of every competitor in a tournament, especially before top 8 (more on this in a bit).  But there's no reason commentators shouldn't know how various characters matchup against each other and what each character is seeking to do in a match.  And that information is something that commentators should TELL THE VIEWERS at the beginning of a match, if not pre-match (Button checks are an excellent time for this if you already know the characters to be used). 

So when you see that Boxer-Akuma matchup coming up in Winners Semis, start the match out by explaining what Akuma wants to do in the matchup and what Boxer needs to do to counter.  It enhances the viewing experience if the guys following the match know what each player is TRYING to do, so they can see truly which player is being more successful and when one player or another is going wild with an unconventional strategy. 

For example, a first time viewer of the AE Top 8 wouldn't know that Gen's shtick is that he has two stances, each of which carry different moves (and just as importantly, jump arcs), allowing for crazy mixups.  And in the commentary, while this was referenced a few times, it wasn't talked about at the beginning of the matches, so first time viewers did not quite have a clue why Gen is so technical or what Xian was actually pulling off. 

Obviously this is harder for some games: In Marvel, you can't really explain 3 characters in the time alotted, and playstyles are more important.  Still explanations are possible.  Moreover, in games like Marvel or KOF, while individual character matchups are hard to vocalize, players will often switch out various characters for matchups (or order in KOF).  When that happens, EXPLAIN what the difference is!  In KOF Top 8, Reynald switched his anchor against Verna from Kim to Chin, but to a casual viewer, they'd have no clue what the difference is (I can tell the difference in their moves myself, but why that would be a better anchor in that situation is something I don't even know). 

Seriously, this one little addition to a broadcast of matches would enhance viewers' perceptions immensely. 

2.  Don't Use Terms And Acronyms Without Defining Them

This is a major problem with FGC commentary: there are a ton of terms, often game-specific but sometimes not, which are thrown out by commentators as if they were part of every day english.  And while terms like "frame trap" or "option select" may be common to the average FGC member, they are complete gibberish to the casual fan, and make a broadcast frustrating or even indecipherable.

For example, in the Smash QFs, Semis, and Top 8, the term "DI" was thrown out constantly, multiple times per match ("Great DI" said Prog about 100,000 times).  To the casual viewer, the response to this is simple:  "WHAT THE HECK IS DI?"  (Apparently it's Directional Influence, a term when explained is pretty easy to understand but is something I guarantee 99.99% of people who've played Smash are unaware of).  I watched every bit of Smash outside pools, and not once did any of the commentators define "DI."  That means every time the commentators talked about it, the casual viewers completely missed their points and were left shaking their heads. 

I don't mean to single out Smash here - in several matchups in SF, you'll see things like "frame trap" or "option select" thrown out constantly, but to an ordinary viewer these words mean nothing.  In Marvel, "chicken blocking" is a pretty standard term, but it means nothing to an ordinary viewer.  In Anime games, the term "Call out" is used instead of "read" for some reason, which will confuse a lot of people.  Hell, even "overhead," a standard fighting game term, means nothing to most casual viewers: how would they know from that word that it means an attack you need to block high, but that word will be thrown about in a TON of tourneys.*

*Even worse of course, is the 3d game phrase for overheads being "mids", which does not imply that you need to block high at all.*

You can't define every term.  But you can, in the first few matches of a broadcast, particularly top 8s, go over what those terms mean the first few times they're used.  That's enough to change gibberish into vivid language. 

3.  Don't try to explain every move by the players - You do NOT need to identify every move as it comes out. 

In sporting events, it's frequent to have a play by play guy along with a color commentator, and a play by play guy narrates the events of the action.  Sometimes, especially on radio, they'll literally describe each play as it happens. 

But fighting games don't need that.  WE CAN SEE what is happening, so you should only truly narrate what specific moves are being used if they're rare or part of a consistent strategy.  This is ESPECIALLY the case in games where moves have names based upon the numpad: sprouting out talk about how 5D is an especially good move is a great way to lose every person you're broadcasting to.  But this applies even where the moves are simply "toward fierce:" unless there's a specific reason we need to know a move is that specific move, don't waste your time telling us about it. 

MK, Injustice, Tekken and other games where moves are #s (1,2,3,4) or letters (KOF's A,B,C,D) don't require the commentators talking about how "got him with Jump D" or even worse "Back 2-3, Back 2-3, Back 2-3," etc.  Like the undefined terms above, that is simply creating gibberish that loses the viewer and hurts the viewing experience. 

Talk about the strategy each player is using during a match.  Don't talk about the individual moves as he's doing them. 

4.  Do some homework about the Players and their previous matchups against their opponents:

This one is only for later stages of the tourney, particularly in top 8.  At that point, you know all the players left before the day begins, and who is facing who.  And chances are that the players involved have faced each other before, or at the worst they've faced players with the same characters.  You know what enhances a broadcast?  When you inform the viewers what was the outcome of those matches. 

This was done excellently by Prog in Smash, where his gigantic collection of notes enabled him to tell us each of the head to head records of players in the "big 5" of Smash.  The viewers knew who had won before and how close certain matchups were, making the differing outcomes particularly exciting. 

By contrast, there were missed opportunities in the AE top 8 at EVO.  Sako and Xian had played a month prior in Topanga Asia league, which the commentators were aware of (I'll admit to tweeting some of the results of that league to James Chen during the event to explain Xiaohai's odd counterpicks against Evil Ryu in the semis).  The match was 9-7 Sako, and Sako went solely with Evil Ryu at that time.  Instead, James actually got the result wrong on the stream (Actually what he said had to do with an irrelevant Xiaohai-Xian matchup from Topanga Asia League, which wasn't the match that recurred at EVO.  Whoops!).  Cmon, there's no excuse about that. 

There's an easy way to do your homework about this actually - find the players before they go up to play in top 8 and ask if they've played their opponents before.  Chances are: they remember pretty well, and in 5 seconds they can give you info that will help make your broadcasts more interesting.  And when you get results that differ from the past, suddenly viewers will understand why it's so damn hype. 

Conclusion:

FGC matches can be incredibly hype, and good commentary can really bring through that hype to the viewer.  And if done well, it can transform the first time viewer into a multi-time viewer, and can transform guys new to fighting games into those who want to actually start playing them.

The suggestions above are just a few of the ways FGC commentary can improve toward that goal, by removing the gibberish and nonsense from broadcasts and explaining the matches better such that the casual viewer can truly understand what's going on, what's pretty damn hype, and have a good idea of what they themselves can do to try and get themselves on that stage..  

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Current State of Hockey Analytics on Evaluating Defense

Steven Burtch of Pension Plan Puppets has been active on the internet, particularly twitter, in trying to figure out a method to evaluate the defensive performance of various hockey players, particularly defensemen.  He's come up with a statistic using shots against, called SDI, in order to attempt to quantify defensive performance. 

The problem with Burtch's methodology is that it uses shot attempts against as a measure of defensive ability.  In theory, this should be sound - shots aren't affected by goaltending, and we use shots all the time.  Surely those who are the most sound defensively prevent shots!

But the problem is that it's not quite that clear cut.  For one, certain teams, such as the New Jersey Devils, employ systems that quite clearly reduce the amount of shots for BOTH teams during each game - in other words, they play "low event hockey."  This isn't rink bias as it shows up on the road as well, and is notable as the Devils in 2013 were by far the leaders in neutral zone faceoffs (http://stats.hockeyanalysis.com/teamstats.php?disp=1&db=201213&sit=5v5&sort=NZPCT&sortdir=DESC).  Similarly, my zone tracking of 5 devils games, i found they had less 5 on 5 zone entries on average than most teams.  And the NZ faceoffs #s are consistently up near the top every year.  In short, the Devils keep the puck in the neutral zone for more than other teams, so their D #s by Burtch's metric look great (while their O #s presumably look lousy).  But that's not great defense! 

Of course there's a second problem with Burtch's methodology, and it's not unique to Burtch's "SDI" statistic.  Burtch, of course, isn't the first one to try and separate out defensive performance from the other parts of the game.  Hockey Prospectus' GVT uses Relative +/- to evaluate D performance (a stat I find garbage for the same reasons most of us don't use +/- anymore, but never mind that) and David Johnson's HARD statistic attempts to measure D using goals, shots, fenwick, or corsi against, again similar to Burtch. 

All of these metrics share the 2nd problem, which is this: the best offense is often the best defense for the obvious reason that possession in the offensive zone heavily reduces time in the defensive zone, thus reducing shots against.  So amongst your devils on the fenwick against leaderboard, you also see supposedly offensive-only Jake Muzzin of the Kings, Thomas Hickey of the Isles (alongside more known for his offense Lubomir Visnovsky), Anton Stralman of the Rangers, etc.  SDI and these other metrics will have these guys as great defensive players, when their teams would certainly not label such players as their first or second choice or maybe even 3rd or 4th choices in the last few minutes off a defensive zone faceoff. 

But here's the thing:  WHO CARES?!  As I just put it: The best D is often a good O, or to put it another way: the best way to avoid being scored on is to have POSSESSION of the puck.  We have metrics meant to measure possession of teams while a player is on the ice: in other words Corsi or Fenwick.  If a player's possession metrics are extremely positive, the end result is that the player is by DEFAULT a plus defensive player - after all, even if the player's doing it by way of keeping the puck in the offensive zone a lot, that's still preventing opponents from scoring.  And Possession Metrics, considering both shots against and shots for, essentially do away with the problem of low-event or high-event systems resulting in oddities like the NJ Devils or perhaps why Niklas Lidstrom's teammates allow less shots (but perform worse overall!) against without him on the ice, than with him. 

Now this isn't perfect obviously - if you're a GM or a coach, there's obviously still some value at determining which player is the best at limiting shots against if you're going into a defensive shell at late game, and possession metrics won't tell you that - and using shots against still runs into the two problems above.  There are however, solutions on the way: for one, zone entry tracking allows us to separate performance of players into offensive zone, neutral zone, and defensive zone performance, and to separate out the effects of system vs player.  There are some questions of whether teams or players can sustain better than average OZone or DZone performance, but despite Eric's original post, my findings suggest to an extent they can. 

But for now, until every team's neutral zone play is tracked, we really can't measure pure "defensive ability" of any player in the NHL.  And you know what?  That's still pretty damn OKAY!  If we built our team around only plus possession players, we'd come out ahead even if our team didn't have a so-called defensive specialist. 

Side Note: This blog used to be used for random thoughts and mainly for storing images for some posts on Lighthouse Hockey, but I think i'll add some hockey analytics thoughts here for thoughts that aren't big enough to be full time posts (or don't have the math).