Dr. Jim Lackritz: A Q and A with SMBA’s Statistics Professor

Dr. Jim Lackritz, one of the founders of the SDSU sports MBA program, combines his passion for sports and statistics in his popular stats class. Lackritz discusses what he wants students to get out of his class as well as his work in producing a Moneyball-like study two decades before its time and a chart on when to go for it on fourth down for the SDSU football team in our inaugural professor interview. The common theme throughout this interview is how much fun Lackritz has had using statistics in sports and academia throughout his career.

Michael Schwartz: What draws you to the field of statistics?

Dr. Jim Lackritz: I was a math geek. When I was in college I took my first statistics course and really liked it. I liked it better than just raw mathematics because I like the field, I like the applications and even without all the computer and technology stuff it was fun to dive in and play with numbers.

Jim LackritzMS: What was it like back then?

JL: Imagine doing everything by hand, OK? It was something I was really good at, so I was much, much better doing that stuff than everybody else. It was fun to do, and I could do it faster than other people. Life is totally different from what it was when I was in school in the ‘60s.

MS: What do you want students to get out of your class?

JL: I want them to understand that statistics is important, that data is important, how to make data-driven decisions and recommendations, and how to talk to a statistician so if this isn’t your thing at your organization, you can at least get somebody to do the number crunching and know how to work with that to make that a part of your daily operations and your decision making and your recommendations.

MS: As one of the founding fathers of this program, how have you seen it grow in the last nine years?

JL: It’s been fun kind of watching the program evolve. We’ve made a lot of academic changes, and we’ve gotten a better niche in the marketplace in terms of what people can and can’t do and where students fit in and a more realistic idea on what your futures are all about, which I don’t think we had as good a grip on when we started the program. We evolved the program itself that once we get past the core classes that are part of any MBA program to slide in courses we thought were going to be really, really helpful in a sports business career.

MS: What was your proudest athletic achievement?

JL: There’s so few of them. It would be either winning the Ohio hardcourts in singles when I was in college, or making three semifinals in the nationals in senior doubles and being ranked as high as third in the country.

MS: You produced a study with Moneyball-like results years before Moneyball. Can you tell me a little more about that?

JL: John Ross, who is a former MBA student of mine, it was his master’s thesis. This was 1982 or so. He collected all the data, he did all the grunt work. So I worked with him and said, ‘Hey, do you mind if I tinker with some of your data results to see if I can make it work and do a little more with it?’ It was so data-intensive. Now I could just download everything from MLB.com or ESPN.com, it would be so much easier to do. I just got stoked with it, and so I took the ball and ran with it and was able to write a couple papers that were a little bit more academic than what John was doing for a master’s thesis.

MS: What were the main results of it?

JL: The idea was that a player’s value could be estimated from his performance on the field relative to other players in the league at their positions. Basically you have overvalued players and undervalued players, so from an economic point of view strategically you’d like to have undervalued players to overperform for you.

MS: On-base percentage was a big thing in Moneyball. Were there any stats that you found that were undervalued?

JL: On-base percentage came out No. 1, I believe, in that. What we’re doing now in Moneyball is nothing different than what Bill James was doing 30 years ago in his basement in collecting all this data, but it’s become far easier and we’ve been able to develop new metrics and new variables with all this stuff to make it work.

MS: Why don’t you think anybody was interested then since it’s such a hot topic now?

JL: Good old boys network. It’s not the way we do things around here. It was a real lesson in reality, like I think I’m hot stuff and I’ve got all this stuff, and I’m getting national publicity and I’m doing talk shows and radio interviews and things like that, but MLB probably because there are certain things also they would have to admit that there are certain things that are just wrong with the system. The second thing is, and the guy from the White Sox said, ‘Great idea, but with the union contract this isn’t about fair value, people just want to compare to length of service. … Just because I pay you that doesn’t mean that’s what you’re worth.’ It was 20 years before it’s time, which is fine. It was neat, and it was fun doing it.

MS: So what were you thinking once Moneyball came out? Were you kind of saying, ‘I told you so?’

JL: No, it was more like I’m glad we finally have the technology to really start doing this stuff, and that they’re finally recognizing and getting out of the good old boys network because it’s clear that your $50-60 million teams can’t compete with $150 million teams, or you can’t compete dollar for dollar so you have to find better ways to find the people who make up the pieces of your puzzle. The other thing is the distribution of player performance. At what point do you fall off? Unless you’re giving someone a contract which is not a performance contract. … It’s really interesting to look at that. With pitchers, I would never give a pitcher a long-term contract.

MS: You also helped SDSU football head coach Rocky Long develop a chart on when to go for it on fourth down. What were the findings there?

JL: The idea is if you have a decent chance of getting a first down, you’re far better off to go for it than to kick a field goal or to try to punt. It depends upon your defensive statistics, too, but on a punt on a net 30- or 40-yard difference, you’re better off to go for it and take your chances. It’s easy to say when you’re not calling the shots. Early in the game to go for it on fourth-and-2 on your own 20-yard line, you’ll get booed out of the stadium if you don’t get it. But the fact is for the long term, and part of the problem is you have three or four, five opportunities a game. This strategy works if you have a thousand opportunities, and you’re playing against a team that’s about even with you. So all the times that you don’t get it at the 20-yard line you also end up counterbalancing that by going for a touchdown at some point. It was fun to do it.

MS: How did you get involved in this?

JL: I reached out to him because there was an article in the paper, he had read about the high school coach in Arkansas that goes for it on fourth down all the time. He thought it was really intriguing, but he said he’s too stupid to understand it. Let me tell you something, that guy is smart as a fox. He really is, but he’s not mathematical. When I saw the article in the paper I called the football office and said if you really want some help with it, I’m happy to do it. I didn’t really expect to hear back from him, and I did. It was fun to do.

MS: So you just kind of modeled different percentages?

JL: Yeah, I took the NFL model that they had and I created an algorithm for him where you put in your own success rate on fourth-and-1, fourth-and-2, fourth-and-3, fourth-and-4. You put in whatever you think your net punting average is. You put in whatever you think your defense, if you make them drive 80 yards how often are they going to score? So I set it up with dummy numbers based upon the NFL statistics. When I demonstrated, I said, ‘Now you change this into whatever you think works for you and the algorithm changes automatically.’ It will either say, ‘Go for it, punt or kick a field goal.’ It automatically adjusts on that. It’s not rocket science. It was fun to do.

MS: It’s not rocket science and it seems kind of intuitive yet nobody goes for it on fourth down.

JL: No, because they’re risk-aversive. The point is from almost anywhere on the field if you’re fourth-and-2 or better, you should go for it. Because a 35-yard net punting, the other team’s likely going to have a good chance to score anyways, so why not do it? Every time I see the pro teams, they do the measurement and they are off by half a yard and they don’t go for it, and I’m going, ‘Oh my God, come on guys.’ You see this happen all the time in sports. They play not to lose instead of playing to win, but what happens is if you go for fourth-and-1 on your own 13-yard line and you don’t get it, you’re booed out of the stadium. ‘Oh, what an idiot, blah blah blah!’ Now in pro football also it’s a little bit different, you have punters who kick the ball 60 yards. In college, you have kickers who kick the ball 35 or 40 yards, and it just depends on the confidence you have in your defense. It’s a really interesting philosophy, but hey I’m not paid millions of dollars to make those decisions, and if you have an owner who doesn’t understand it, your life is on the line.

MS: There was a panel at Sloan a couple years ago that basically said coaches are going to be computers in 50 years. Do you think we’ll ever get to a point where they’ll make the right mathematical call always?

JL: There’s going to be a better understanding of it. It’s all computerized now anyway, football especially. They’ve already got that down and distance plugged in the minute that play’s over. It’s totally computerized, but this is true for me, I want the individual making the decision, I don’t want the computer making the decision for me. I want the individual because there are times where I’m going to be risk-aversive.

MS: How do you see statistics being used by pro teams in the future? It’s kind of a night and day difference from a decade ago. Where do you see this next decade going?

JL: It’s like lightyears. It’s going to be really interesting because with this proliferation of data, everybody should have the same data. Now we have computing power that’s like ridiculous compared to when I was in college and even 10 years ago. So it should be a part of everything. The issue is are we overly micromanaging? I’ve talked to coach [Steve] Fisher about this, a coach has a feel. The statistics are designed to be information that’s helpful, but not the catchall, hear all behind every single decision. The coach has to have a feel for what he thinks is best, and there’s times where that gut feel, the coach knows better. I’ve come across people in my field who are phenomenal decision makers who never rely on any data. Yet I’m convinced that if we threw all the data into the computer, the computer would tell you to make the same decisions they are. So there’s some people who are really good at doing that. It’ll become even more valuable in 10 years than it is now, but when you look at the learning curve, the learning curve is everybody’s doing it. So the question is, what’s that marginal difference? It’s going to be harder and harder and harder because every team is going to have their roto-geeks that are sitting in their computers doing all this stuff and all this information, and it’s like, so how can we find that little marginal difference to make that edge? … I don’t know what it’s going to look like 10 years from now. I would think just more of what we have now dug down deeper with more people doing it and it’s easier for people and better computer resources. But the question is, if we get to a point where everybody has that same information then do the rich just get richer? Because what’s fun for me is to see the small market teams get to the playoffs and see the Yankees and the Red Sox not in it. This is great, this is kind of cool. If the Yankees can hire anybody they want, why aren’t they going to hire someone from MIT and have all their computer geeks and their stat people and a 20-person team that’s doing all that stuff?

MS: So were the A’s crazy for letting Michael Lewis in?

JL: No, I don’t think the A’s were crazy. It would have come out eventually because what’s going to happen at some particular point is either Billy Beane’s going somewhere else or his assistants are going somewhere else and then it becomes proliferate. Were they crazy? There’s two sides of it, but there’s a reason why he let him in, too.

MS: You are one of the biggest San Diego State hoops fans around. What’s your favorite moment in all the time you’ve been at this school?

JL: I know my most painful moment was losing the UConn game.

MS: What was that like? I assume you were there.

JL: I was there, of course I was there. That was so much fun. It was so exciting. It was probably a highlight and a lowlight at the same time, to watch them with a team that was actually capable of being a Final Four team because they were better than Arizona, and UConn just had it going and Kawhi [Leonard] got two fouls early and then they claw themselves back in the game and they make their run. Going to watch them just dominate UCLA this year was a blast. I went up to the Honda Center for that one, too. That was really a lot of fun. Those would probably be my two favorite moments, funny both at the Honda Center. From a bigger point of view, watching Viejas Arena just turn into a madhouse where every game is just nuts over there. The BYU game when Fredette was playing, it was so loud you couldn’t hear yourself talk. Having Steve Fisher come to my retirement party when I retired from my full-time position, that was cool.