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Marc Gasol, The Conquest of Advanced Metrics, And What It Means For Football

Advanced metrics and nerd analysis are toppling the hierarchies in every sport. NBA Defensive Player of The Year Marc Gasol is further proof of that fact.


In 2010, Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young Award despite winning only 13 games. He likely deserved it, despite the uproar it caused among many fans, "baseball men", and less analytically inclined journalists. The notion that a pitcher can't control his team's offensive output shouldn't be revolutionary, but in a world where "good face" was a key piece of prospect scouting reports, it's understandable.

Hernandez's achievement - absolutely unthinkable before the Moneyball revolution - is often hailed as the final proof of the conquest of advanced metrics in baseball. The hierarchy of the "seasoned baseball man" and the narrative of the winner or loser athlete (dependent on their team chemistry!) was overthrown. That doesn't mean there aren't numerous holdouts - you can hear them on your local sports radio every afternoon; and statistics can certainly be misused and abused without contextual understanding, but our comprehension of baseball has irrevocably changed.

So, too, basketball.

This year, the NBA sportswriters selected Grizzly center Marc Gasol as the 2013 NBA Defensive MVP. Gasol is a middling rebounder (7.8 per game) for his position, ranked 12th in the league in blocks, and 59th in steals. By those traditional measures of defense, he shouldn't even be in the voting.

Yet, he was the overwhelming favorite for the award. Just as Tyson Chandler - with a similarly unimpressive profile - was last year.


The Grizzlies play the NBA's best defense. And they were 6.8 points per 100 possessions better when the big Spaniard was on the floor. That's it. That's really all there is to it. When Marc Gasol is on the floor, the Grizzlies are a dominant defense - irrespective of his modest box score. He is preventing scores by his mere presence - whether by showing, hedging, bumping cutters, pushing big men out of their preferred set-up spot, whatever. And that allows his teammates to guard differently.

Even five years ago, that justification would have been laughed at or met with a quizzical look from most NBA media. Now it receives a knowing nod and a 1st place Defensive Player of The Year ballot. I'm not even sure many older generation NBA journalists know what 6.8 per 100 possessions actually means, but they do know it means something and they risk being laughed at if they just give the award to whoever is leading the league in steals or blocks.

By the way, that doesn't mean advanced metrics are always right. They can ignore context, team tactics, defensive philosophy, pace, or personnel groupings. Gasol could be a beneficiary as much as a cause. But the takeaway isn't rightness or wrongness, the point is this: advanced statistics now comprise the primary justification for educated opinion. And it happened really, really fast.

While advanced metrics may have won many front offices years ago, when it wins the media, you know the dissemination of new standards is complete.

Football is still a relative holdout, though not for lack of trying. Partly because of the nature of the game itself and the difficulties it poses for analysis, partly because football fans, coaches, and journalists still like their thinking full of chemistry and natural winnerness, just like baseball and basketball.

It too will fall. The question is: when? And how?