The second-annual “Analytics Issue” of ESPN The Magazine, currently on newsstands, looks at how next-level metrics are redefining what we think we know about sports. Front Row connected with The Mag’s Executive Editor Scott Burton to discuss the analytics of the “Analytics Issue.”
How does this “Analytics Issue” differ from the first?
We were thrilled by the way the first Analytics issue came out, largely because we placed a premium on storytelling. We followed that same philosophy this year; the issue features some of the best feature writing we’ve done all year, fueled by amazing access to some of the key players in analytics. That said, we worked hard on improving the presentation of the numbers, in the form of infographics. This issue also features what we hope will become a new franchise for The Mag: a narrative told exclusively through infographics.
How did you decide on WAR (Wins After Replacement) and the two cover subjects? Why was this the right time?
In following the MVP debate between Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera, it was shocking to me to witness the backlash to the analytics argument in favor of Trout. It was like we were stuck in 1998. And the fact that Trout lost handily, despite being superior in almost every meaningful way to Cabrera — as encapsulated by WAR — represented a failure for the analytics community. We lost the fight, badly. So this essay was meant to be a mission statement of sorts, a rallying cry for why analytics, and WAR, matter. And no two players represent this debate better than Trout and Cabrera.
What do you hope the sports fan who’s not stats-obsessed takes away from this issue?
Every story in this issue essentially advances a central argument: Analytics enhances the experience of being a sports fan. There’s this notion out there that analytics is an impersonal enterprise that seeks to reduce sports to cold, hard digits. To me, it’s quite the opposite: Analytics is the equivalent of taking a telescope to the sky. It enhances your view of the world around you; it also shows you corners of the universe you can’t see with the naked eye. What could be more thrilling than that?