This article is for every general manager, executive, or coach who ever belittled or wrote off a player because of some preconceived metric that said they couldn’t fit a specific task or role. For too long the concept of the ideal height, speed, weight, wingspan, hand size, 40 time, or even vertical leap has overshadowed the intangibles. Grit, determination, leadership, knowledge, drive, and skill outweigh the metrics that the aforementioned experts thrive on.
Yet, the obsession continues. Events such as the NFL Combine conceal the important aspects of a successful athlete and steer the attention towards raw athleticism. If metrics were devalued, teams would end up with players, not experiments. Sports metrics should be devalued, at least somewhat, in order to acquire the most substantial talent available.
Why Sports Metrics should be Devalued
Consider some of the top athletes in every sport. The likes of Lionel Messi, Steph Curry, Antonio Brown, Tom Brady, or maybe even an outsider like Marcus Stroman may come to mind. What do they all have in common? They were all overlooked, counted out, or told they weren’t good enough. They were too small, too slow, or not strong enough. Although these players all possess the necessary athleticism to be professionals, it interesting to study why other teams overlooked them.
Was it lack of need? Did they not trust the scouting report? Did Mel Kiper Jr. not have them going in that round? It’s all relative; yet, it shouldn’t be. In some cases, they were told from a young age they didn’t have what it takes to make it to the next level. Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player ever, didn’t even make his high school team in his freshman year. Did he become an elite player overnight? Perhaps not, but why was this decision made?
There are certain psychological elements that play into selecting a player in a draft, or acquiring one via trade, and that is a valid study. But it’s still metric based. However, there is an inverse to this idea as well: the players who were selected based on metrics, but ended up being busts.
Drafting From Metrics
There are numerous cases of failed first overall picks, and to highlight all of them would be a waste of time. The most common offenders are the NFL and NBA, where size and speed dominate the draft process.
A scouting report will be written on every player declaring for a draft. For many GMs, this is a primary way of identifying potential picks. Watching every player individually would take years of preparation. This process narrows the search and allows them to watch the individuals best suited to their needs. However, these reports will be loaded with stories and concepts that tend to be less important in a game setting.
Take JaMarcus Russell, a quarterback out of LSU drafted first by the Oakland Raiders in 2007, for example. A dominant player in college, many believed he would be a next generation NFL All-Pro. Not highlighted in his scouting report were certain quarterback characteristics such as his offensive know-how, his leadership presence in the huddle, or even his pocket presence. What was highlighted was his arm strength.
Sure, successful quarterbacks usually have a strong arms. Yet, playing at the college level should suggest that their arm strength is above average. The scouting report even said, “while seated on the turf, he threw the ball 40 yards.” This demonstrates brute strength, but isn’t applicable to a real game scenario. Can he run an offense? Can he learn a playbook? Is he the right face for a franchise? Simply throwing a ball hard can equal success in college, but not in the NFL. Each those questions went unanswered. As a result, Russell is still considered one of the worst first selections ever.
Another excellent example is when the Portland Trailblazers drafted Greg Oden, also in 2007. Oden was highly saught after because of his athleticism as a seven-foot-tall center. The issue with Oden wasn’t his athletic prowess; he just wasn’t a good basketball player. Kevin Durant was, however, and he was selected right after Oden. Durant demonstrated the same athleticism, although playing a completely different position, and a basketball mind. Oden is currently out of the NBA, while Durant is an 8x All-Star. Don’t become infatuated with the metrics.
Drafting Without Metrics
There is really no exact data or metric that would allow evaluators to pick winners out of a crowd of athletes. Those aforementioned dominant players, such as Tom Brady or Antonio Brown, weren’t drafted in the first, second, or even third round. Those two were selected in the sixth round.
There is probably some confusion here, so let’s clarify. Brady was an underdeveloped, weak-armed backup quarterback out of Michigan who probably should’ve stuck with baseball. Brown was an undersized receiver out of Central Michigan who lacked functional strength. The fact that they were drafted so late is a statement on scouting reports and metrics. Idealism can’t create gems in the late rounds, where players are selected based on need, and most likely gut instinct and likability. If their abilities and skills were scouted, some team would’ve earned a player in the first round who deserved to be drafted in the first round. The outcome? Brady has five rings and Brown just became the highest paid receiver ever.
The overall goal is to get the best talent at the right time. Players like Brown and Brady should be found in the first round. Players like Jake Long shouldn’t be drafted at all, let alone #1 overall. But how can the best talents be identified, and how can faux talents be pinpointed? The current process isn’t working. Aside from outlying players that are almost guaranteed to succeed, all the talent comes later on. Late round picks in football, botched trades in basketball, and relatively unknown players in farm systems in baseball all contribute to the bulk of the talent. True, that’s where the bulk of the players are found, but one might expect the best talents to appear earlier on.
Certain players, like Mike Trout, come into farm systems as an unknown players, and bounce between the big leagues and minors for awhile before becoming the best players in the league, while some #1 overall talent sits on his couch. Remember when the Hornets traded Kobe Bryant to the Lakers? The Hornets took a gamble on a high school phenom, and passed on a first ballot Hall of Famer. The moral of the story: take risks, draft players instead of metrics, and always identify developing, not developed, potential. You can build skill and muscle, but you can’t make a player smarter or more driven.
Obviously, a 5’5 person probably shouldn’t be playing center. But there are counters to that as well. Le’Veon Bell (a second round pick) is taking the NFL by storm. He doesn’t have blazing speed, yet plays running back. He found a different way to play the position; with patience. This contradicts everything known about the position.
The foremost ambassador of this idea is Stroman, a young and already very successful pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays. At 5’8, he is not the ideal size for a pitcher. Coming out of Duke, he had consistently been told he was too small, yet his ability to generate ground balls at a rapid rate eventually turned him into a potential ace. However, at every level prior to the majors, producing many ground balls would be viewed as ineffective because they aren’t strikeouts. Again, abilities outweigh metrics and even statistics.
Stroman coined his phrase HDMH, or “height doesn’t measure heart”. He has even monetized this concept as his brand. Heart measures drive and determination, while height measures how your potential can be capped by some. These are the players GMs should seek out. Those who don’t, and instead sign, draft, and acquire based on measurables, often find themselves looking for work.
Having the best players, not necessarily the best talent, creates the highest possible chance of team success. At times, the concept of Moneyball may seem necessary and effective, but it doesn’t win anything on its own. Statistics and metrics may provide temporary success, but don’t identify the x-factor that brings records, trophies, and championships. If players were hired based on personality, interests, skills, work ethic, determination, and eagerness, many professional teams may have had much greater success.