Statistical analysis in volleyball recruiting

An article about Daryl Morey, the General Manager of the Houston Rockets in the NBA got me thinking about Moneyball for Volleyball. Should I trademark that phrase?

Using statistics in player evaluation

For those who don’t know, the “Moneyball” concept is where a sports organization uses statistical metrics to evaluate potential signings. This is in contrast to the old school eyeball analysis of scouts. The term Moneyball comes from the Michael Lewis book of that title about how baseball’s Oakland A’s used statistical methods to evaluate players and built a highly competitive roster with limited resources. There is also a movie based on the the book staring Brad Pitt. I recommend the book. It provides a bit more insight.

Before going on too far, I should say the Morey article got my attention because of it’s link to behavioral economics. My PhD work was in a closely related field. The article’s focus is largely on the interview process teams use. It’s a long one, so give yourself a block of time to read it.

Anyway, back to the Moneyball idea. Statistics have long been part of volleyball. In recent years it’s gotten a lot more focus thanks to improved applications and data. Joe Trinsey, who worked with the USA women’s team, has been one of the leaders in that regard. Have a listen to the Coach Your Brains Out podcast he’s on (Part 1, Part 2) for a bit of what he’s looked at.

That stuff is all about analyzing our players and teams. And there’s also the scouting element. How are we most effective? What is the other team’s weakness? That sort of stuff.

Stats in volleyball recruiting

What we don’t see much, if anything, about is using stats in the recruiting process. I have no doubt they get used by professional coaches. When I evaluated American players to sign for Svedala I definitely looked at their college stats, though I don’t know how far others take it. One day maybe I will get Mark to talk about it on a Volleyball Coaching Wizards podcast.

But what about college recruiting?

How many college coaches evaluate recruit statistics? My guess is few, if any. I say that in part because of how much time they spend watching video and attending Juniors tournaments. That’s basically the definition of old school scouting as described in Moneyball. The question, though, is whether they could actually go with analytics. I think most will argue that they can’t.

Why? Lack of useful data.

Issues with statistical data in volleyball recruiting

Yes, it is true that lots of high school teams keep stats these days. And much of that information is public. Juniors clubs, though, don’t really publish that information. That’s assuming they even collect it in the first place. My guess is most don’t in any comprehensive fashion. Though a few probably do.

Even if a high school or Juniors team does collect and publish stats, there is the question of reliability. Who is recording the stats and do they know what they’re doing? Even at the college and professional level there are issues regarding the quality and accuracy of the stats we get. Imagine a bunch of junior varsity kids taking them!

Finally, there is the question of comparability. What can you ascertain from a given player’s high school stats? What do they really say about that player? We want to gauge how a player will do at our level. I think, however, most college coaches don’t know how high school and/or Juniors translate. Juniors stats are probably a bit better as college coaches very often understand levels of play across the clubs.It can be a lot harder with high school stats. Unless you recruit in a very small area, you struggle to know the caliber of the schools your recruits play against, and more importantly how that compares to a recruit from a different part of the country.

One exception

The exception to the above is transfer prospects. Since those are college players, it is easier to draw a comparison. True, at the junior college level you often have the same statistics issues as you have in high school in terms of quality. It is easier there, though, to know the relative level of play the stats come from. And of course a player transferring within your own level of four-year school play is even more straightforward.

I would say the junior college to four-year college transfer process is most akin to the college-to-professional evaluation process. It provides an opportunity to make better use of statistics.

Are we doing enough?

Those are, I suspect, the reasons college coaches would put forward as to why they don’t use stats in recruiting. Are they valid reasons, though? Should high school and/or Juniors stats get more use? Or should we perhaps base things most heavily on something like the VPI developed by the AVCA?

I am not suggesting we shift completely to an analytic approach. I think most, if not all of us, agree that there is a personality element which must be considered. After all, we’re talking about a sport where one individual’s success is highly dependent on the performance of their teammates. Still, it does seem like some work on what statistics are predictive of success at the next level is worth doing.

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John Forman
About the Author: John Forman
John currently coaches for an NCAA Division II women's team. This follows a stint as head coach for a women's professional team in Sweden. Prior to that he was the head coach for the University of Exeter Volleyball Club BUCS teams (roughly the UK version of the NCAA) while working toward a PhD. He previously coached in Division I of NCAA Women's Volleyball in the US, with additional experience at the Juniors club level, both coaching and managing, among numerous other volleyball adventures. Learn more on his bio page.

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