SSAC18 Research Paper Competition abstracts are due September 20. While waiting to read the latest cutting-edge research, we caught up with Dan Cervone, Senior Analyst in Research and Development for the Los Angeles Dodgers and one of many young statisticians to have launched their careers through the Research Paper Competition. His 2016 paper “NBA Court Realty,” co-authored with current San Antonio Spurs VP of Strategic Research Kirk Goldsberry and Sacramento Kings VP of Strategy and Analytics Luke Bornn, used SportVu player location data to value different regions of the court and showed how those values can help calculate players’ offensive and defensive impacts. Cervone took a break from the excitement of the NL-leading Dodgers’ historic season to chat with us about SSAC and the Research Paper Competition.
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When was the first time you heard about the Research Paper Competition? What inspired to you get involved, and what were the topics you were most interested in back then?
I remember enjoying the research paper talks the first time I attended SSAC in 2010. The papers were a lot different back then, as I think many researchers viewed sports games as natural experiments to test ideas from psychology and economics. The first time I submitted a paper was “Pointwise” in 2014, with Alex D’Amour, Luke Bornn, and Kirk Goldsberry. My co-authors and I were all in academia at that point and envisioned that project as an article for a traditional Statistics journal. Presenting at SSAC was a great opportunity to share our work with a larger audience, as well as get feedback on how we could improve our work and make it more actionable to sports analytics practitioners.
What have your experiences at SSAC been like over the years? Any highlights from presenting your work or memorable conversations that you had at the conference?
The highlight of SSAC for me is definitely the mingling and networking. It is fun to see people from previous conferences and have so many people in sports analytics, executives, and athletes all in the same place.
What response did you get from the basketball coaches or analysts to your research? What kind of impact do you think your research has had on NBA teams?
My co-authors and I have generally received a pretty positive reaction from presenting our work. Since teams are generally very protective of their own research and methods, I can’t say for sure how much impact our work has had.
You co-authored “NBA Court Realty” with Kirk Goldsberry and Luke Bornn. Two years later all three of you have prominent analytics role with major pro franchises. Do you still chat with Kirk and Luke? How do you think the sports analytics field has changed in the last two years?
I do still chat with them. I think we each took a different path into working full-time in sports analytics, but in general the field has grown strongly in attracting people with scientific and/or computational backgrounds.
What impact did the Research Paper competition have on your career and getting to your current role with the Dodgers? Why the switch to baseball, and were there any specific challenges you faced when switching sports?
The Research Paper competition definitely helped spread my work to a larger audience, and my first conversations with the LAD front office involved work I had presented at SSAC. I really like baseball and basketball both as sports and from an analysis perspective. I think data-driven strategy decisions are more complex in basketball, since team and player interaction plays a larger role. However, topics such as projections and roster organization are more complex in baseball, since there is a much longer pipeline for player development and skills are harder to measure. The decision to join the Dodgers was not about baseball vs basketball, it was really about the fantastic and talented front office the Dodgers have and my enjoyment working with them.
The Dodgers are having an incredible year – how can you see your work having an impact on the field this year and in the future?
Credit for the Dodgers’ great season belongs across the entire organization, as all of our departments are working towards a common goal and eager to learn from one another. It’s rewarding to be a part of this… not only for what happens on the field at Dodger Stadium, but also to be continuously improving together our understanding of the game.
Any advice for someone who’s considering submitting their work to the competition this year?
Share data, code, visualizations, or anything else that can get people to interact with your work on their own.