Professor 1 on 1 Series: Dr. Jim Lackritz – Sports and Statistics

I have been privileged with the opportunity to interview our statistics professor, Dr. Jim Lackritz. As one of the founding fathers of San Diego State’s Sports MBA program, I looked forward to gaining his perspective as the program enters its 10th year. While we were asked to prepare the famous 31 unique facts and questions about Dr. Lackritz at the beginning of the year I was eager to learn more about his passions in sports and statistics.

During the interview, we discussed the role of statistics in his life, his career and in the sports industry. He concluded the interview with some words of advice for not only the current students, but also the incoming students and alumni. His fascination with sports statistics is contagious, and his enthusiasm and willingness to help his students has been part of this great experience we call ‘Sports MBA’.

What are your thoughts now that the program is now into its 10th year?

It’s been fun to watch it evolve. I’ve been a part of every single year from beginning to now, and have enjoyed it. It’s my favorite thing about my role at the university. The concern is always to make sure that year after year we can get classes in that are capable of doing the things that we want to do. But it’s been fun to be a part of the last 10 years, and I look forward the next 10 years.

What aspects of the program have you been most proud of?

Seeing students go out and make a difference in the sports industry world. That to me is what the program is all about. There’s two parts to that: One is seeing students who really go out and hit the ground running and make a difference in their firms, and are great spokespeople for the program. The second part of that is seeing the light bulb go on for students who struggled during the program, and all of a sudden, they just get it. Seeing these students having a successful entry into a great sports career is equally as fun. I expect the top students to do well, and I’m not surprised when they’re doing well, because they’re good. When the students who struggled end up doing well it validates everything that we did in staying with them and helping them when support was needed.

And lastly, the students and colleagues themselves. Working with the students has always been fun. And my colleagues: Joe [Joe Belch] and I have been together at this campus for more than 30 years. Bruce [Bruce Reinig] is one of my best friends. It’s been neat to see Scott [Scott Minto], who was from Sports MBA 1, become the director of this program.

How has statistics impacted the sports industry, even in the last few years?

It’s great to see statistics in sports. The word sports analytics has become a regular word in the sports community. Ten years ago, even with all the computers and modeling that we did, sports analytics was still an enigma, and it wasn’t accepted the same way. It’s been neat to see the progression of analytics in sports over the last few years: Bill James and Moneyball and even the MIT Sloan Conference, which has been at the forefront of sports analytics. The other side of it is I see people going overboard with it. It’s the hot buzz right now, and like everything else that’s the hot topic, there’s a tendency for people to jump on. The analytics can sometimes be a bit overboard versus something that can really be meaningful.

How much of the success of the Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder, or the Oakland Athletics, do you attribute to statistical analysis?

It’s hard to put a number on it, but I can guess on that. Where I see a difference that sports analytics can make is between being a good team and a great team; a marginal playoff team versus a solid playoff team. But all set aside, you need players and coaches before all statistics and analytics.

There’s two parts of the analytics side: The first part of it is the evaluation side, which is the Moneyball-concept. This part uses analytics for player development/evaluation, in hopes of putting together a better roster. The second part is the strategy side, which many people give to Daryl Morey. The Rockets have been shot-charting for years, but they’ve really taken it ten levels deeper over the past few years. The problem is that it’s really effective until it catches on and people find out that you’re doing it and then take the idea and use it for themselves. Just like Moneyball, you’re trying to use statistics and analytics to stay two or three steps ahead of the field.

If you had an hour with Bill James, what would you like to talk to him about?

First of all, I’d want to talk to him about what it took for the Good Ol’ Boys Network to accept him. One of the questions I’d like to ask him is simple vs. complex modeling. More than anything, I love to hear great people tell stories. We’re going to try to get Steve Fisher to come in to talk to you guys. When I sit down and listen to Steve Fisher talk, I feel like the kid in a candy store. I love to see greatness, and Bill James to me is greatness, in terms of the difference he has made. More than anything else, I would love to hear him tell stories about what it was like for him, with all these boxes of data, well before computers were big in his efforts in trying to break through the brick wall that has been established.

During your interview last year with Michael Schwartz, you mentioned your proudest athletic achievements. What has been your proudest moment or achievement as a statistician?

That one is a no-brainer. If you remember at the beginning of the program I showed you guys the article that I did on my early Moneyball. When that article came out, I was invited to be the keynote speaker at the National Meetings of the American Statistical Association. I got to talk about my baseball evaluation model in front of my colleagues and the national press, which eventually got me a bunch of radio and video interviews. That has been my proudest moment without a doubt.

Why do you think these statistical models and analytic studies have taken so long to gain traction in the sports world?

After I did that keynote speech, I got all this publicity, and I sent letters to every single MLB team with a copy of my article, saying, “I would love to have an opportunity to just talk about player arbitrations, salaries, and all that”. There’s 30 teams in the MLB, but I only heard back from three. And the best one was from Jerry Reinsdorf from the White Sox; he wrote me nice, personal, hand-written note, saying “It’s a great idea, we’d love to do it, but it will never fly with our office.” He also mentioned that the Collective Bargaining Agreement makes it almost impossible from a straight salary perspective. I didn’t agree with it, but that’s okay. You had to be ready for it. Baseball was just not ready for it. There’s great ideas and there’s implementation. The world has to be ready for it. Even when it’s right, the timing may not be right. So no matter how good your idea is, if I couldn’t convince any of the 30 MLB owners, it wouldn’t fly. And this was the time when the Quality Movement was just beginning, where businesses were starting to bring statisticians in to help out in manufacturing, engineering, etc. It was a different time, and I remember being disappointed with it, because I love to be in academics, but I really love sports. Ultimately, timing is everything. It took 20 years longer than it should have, but now, we’ve hit this tidal wave. Stat geeks rule the internet, rule Twitter, and rule everything else that goes through it. On a daily basis, there are so many people out there that are trying to be the next Bill James.

How has statistics reinforced your passions for sports? How has your passions for sports reinforced your love for statistics?

From sports to statistics, it’s given me more opportunities to do what I love and to create outlets for my work. It’s made my work more interesting, and now 90% of my research that I’m doing is in sports modeling and sports statistics. On the other side, statistics has allowed me to check out some of my biased beliefs about what the sports world is all about. It’s allowed me to answer questions like, “Is this really the case?” Now, you have data available to you at the click of a computer.

I’m sitting there the other night watching the New Mexico game, and Kendall Williams, who is a 79% foul shooter, goes 1 for 6 at the line. And immediately on the next commercial I run to the back, bring up my binomial model, to see what the heck was going on. And so it’s kind of nice to do those kind of things, because I listen to all these announcers giving all this trivial dribble, most of which is not even statistically significant. If I think something is absolutely incredible, I can go back and validate it. Some things take longer to validate, but that’s why I love this relationship between sports and statistics.

As a former point guard, who did you model your game after?

I can give you a bunch of names from when I was growing up, who you would most likely know nothing about. I can also give you someone I really admire in what I call the current college-NBA cycle. I was quick and a good ball handler and a good passer. A lousy shooter, but a good free throw shooter. Not a great defensive player, but on paper I would look good, because I could get steals. And I was left-handed. The best left-handed guard from my time was Lenny Wilkens. My favorite guards from way back were Ernie Digregorio and Pete Maravich. Digregorio never “made it” in the NBA, as he was a slow-white guy, who couldn’t really play defense. But he could make things happen. Maravich, or “Pistol Pete”, was probably my favorite player to watch during that era. From today’s era, Steve Nash. In a second. I have always loved the game that Nash plays.

Who do you have going into the Final Four this year? (Question asked prior to start of the tournament)

I have two 1’s and two 4’s. Louisville and Michigan State. I think the West is wide open. Arizona isn’t nearly the same team the second half the season they were than in the first half. First half of the season, I thought they were the best team in the country. I’ve watched them play, and they can’t shoot and can’t shoot foul shots. They still play great defense, and they’re a better version of San Diego State. They’re bigger and just as athletic, and they’re very good defensively. I’ve seen them shoot 50% from the line, and they just can’t score, and they have eight McDonald’s All-Americans on that team! The interesting thing about the NCAA is you’re getting matchups where there’s no familiarity. Steve Fisher talks about the fact that when you go into your conference, you’ve played against the same teams year after year, and there’s so much film and so it’s easier to defend a team in your conference. During the tournament, if you make it past the first round, you’ve got two days to come up with a game plan against a team you really haven’t seen much. It becomes really interesting to see who gets the upper-hand in these things. I have San Diego State going to the Sweet Sixteen, but losing to Arizona, because though they’re similar teams, Arizona is just a little better. But I can give you like 25 reasons why each team can win, but also 25 reasons why they can lose, as well, and that’s why March Madness is fun.

As an influential member of the program and in the overall scope of the program, what are some of the key takeaway points that you hope your students walk away with?

Big picture – as much as I talk in my class about statistics – I want statistics to be a part of the big picture. At the end of the day, the takeaways to me are: bust your tail, be a good team-player, try to see the big picture and make a difference in whatever you’re going to do. And ultimately, network! Create your relationships: finding a job by yourself is so much harder than when you’re networking and you have connections. What we’ve preached to every Sports MBA is, when you’re out there and successful, bring it back to the program. Help the newest remember where you were, but don’t ever forget where you once were, too.

Second, don’t expect this dream job as your first job. You’re most likely not going to work as the director of ESPN or the GM of the Lakers straight out of the program. These jobs are great, but the competition is ridiculous. Be willing to shoot for the stars, but also be willing to take on something that will help you grow, learn, and create new opportunities for yourself. And be damn good about it, because you never know who you’re going to run into. Be mindful that there are both positive and negative networking opportunities.

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