Why Buy Hockey Abstract?

Ryan Pike
August 16 2014 09:22AM

bookandlaptop

Folks, here at FlamesNation, you know we don't often use this space to shill or endorse things. Thus, when we do, you know it's probably for a good cause. This is one of those times. Our good friend Robert Vollman, who you all probably know and love for his excellent analytics takes, has written a book (along with some other great contributors). It's about hockey analytics, something near and dear to all of our hearts. You should buy a copy. And don't just take our word for it. Here's ga heart-felt discussion of the merits of Hockey Abstract 2014 by Mr. Vollman.

Oh, and Mr. Vollman was also on NHL Numbers' Log Off Podcast earlier this week discussing this tome for your listening pleasure.


Hockey Abstract 2014 is all about hockey analytics and their mainstream applications and limitations. It's a book that asks interesting questions, like who will be in the Hall of Fame, who is the best penalty killer, and what actually makes a good players good, and shows how objective statistical analysis can be used to help find the answers. More information is available over at Hockey Abstract.

It sounds like a great book, so why haven't you heard about it before? Basically, because it's an independent self-publication that isn't backed by a big media outlet. That means that the only way to get this book into the hands of those who would enjoy it most is through podcasts, websites, and word-of-mouth. That's why Kent has invited me to share a preview, and why I'm going to make my case here, despite the fact that humility comes far more naturally to me than this kind of self-promotion.

First of all, if you're reading this far, you must have at least some interesting in a book on hockey analytics. If so, you may enjoy detailed explanations about how today's new statistics actually work, how they can be applied, and what their limitations are. You may also appreciate a handy reference for hard-to-find data, and for today's leading edge studies. It's also a heck of a fun read, and a great way to support the analytics community.

On the flip side, the most obvious reason to take a pass on buying this book is because of all the free content available online. With great sites like this, and statistical databases like Behind the Net and Extra Skater, all available for free, why buy a book?

That's an awfully good question, I'll admit. First of all, it can sometimes be a hassle to wade through all the various websites and articles. It isn't always easy to find the truly fascinating and ground-breaking work, and even when you do, sometimes it can be hard to locate the necessary background information. At the very least, this book organizes a lot of that information into a single place.

Indeed, some readers enjoy Hockey Abstract primarily as a reference to all of the latest studies, including over 150 references to work of over 50 authors. While the work of some analysts are well-promoted, there's some amazing work being done by more obscure statisticians, including those who have specialized in specific areas.

For example, did you know that Rob Pettapiece studied how AHL goalies fared against NHL-calibre opponents? Or that Brian MacDonald (now of the Panthers) developed a playmaking metric? Or how about Paul Busch's “Dirty Rat Penalty Minutes” statistic, and how it can be used to determine the value of enforcers? One of the greatest appeals of Hockey Abstract is how it covers some new ground, and studies interesting questions from as many different perspectives as possible, and not just the prevailing consensus approach of the day.

HomePlate

Furthermore, online pieces normally need to be kept short, but the format of a book allows analysts to go into additional detail. With the additional space, there's no need for the writer to rush any particular point, allowing us to develop our thoughts in full, exploring all the applications and limitations in detail, and in a variety of ways (e.g with words, charts, tables, and examples). For example, you may have achieved a cursory understanding of score effects, or a high-level familiarity with the shot quality debate, but this book allows you to get right into the meat of it.

Of course, the other advantage of the online format is that the statistics can be kept current. But Hockey Abstract is not meant as a point-in-time book, nor an annual guide book. Much like the Bill James Baseball Abstract books that inspired it, Hockey Abstract is intended to be more of a timeless reference about how hockey analytics work, and how they can be applied. There is a brief section of team essays, but it's more about how various analytics, like Corsi data and Player Usage Charts, can be used to evaluate the current status of today's NHL teams, as opposed to stand-alone evaluations themselves. David Staples of the Edmonton Journal, for example, has already used it to take a closer look at the Oilers this season.

And if you bought last year's inaugural edition of Hockey Abstract, you'll be pleased to read about another similarity with Baseball Abstract. This new 2014 edition is not a simple re-hash of last year's book with updated data, but is 40% bigger with all new material. It builds on the 2013 version with a deeper dive into the most popular topics, like goaltending analytics, and breaks some brand new ground, like drawing penalties.

Buying this book is also a great way to support and build the hockey analytics movement. After all, don't you wish you were a baseball fan so that there would be lots of books like these from which to choose? And be honest, didn't you wish that this book had been written by your favourite analytics guy, instead of me?

Don't worry, I'm not taking that personally, because I'd also have loved to read a similar book written by, say, Gabriel Desjardins. But do you know why he hasn't written a book? Probably because it's an incredible amount of work for virtually no money.

Buying books like this can change all of that. Based on the support last year's book received, I already know of a couple of analysts putting serious thought into following suit. As these books come out, and as the sales numbers rise, publishers will start seeing its value. And then the day will finally come where we can stroll through Chapters or Indigo, see several books with hockey stats, flip through the pages, and select our favourite.

And besides, it's not like we're a bunch of slouches. At the risk of appearing immodest, it would be difficult to assemble a more established collection of authors in this area. Tom Awad, Iain Fyffe, and I have been in this field since around 2000, have co-authored a combined nine books, and have developed dozens of key innovations, including GVT, Player Usage Charts, Quality Starts, the VUKOTA projection system, and advances in translating data from other leagues to the NHL (NHLe), just to name a few.

Kelly Hrudey, TSN's Steve Dryden, Scott Cullen, and Steve Kouleas, James Mirtle of the Globe and Mail, Nashville play-by-play commentator Willy Daunic, and Jeff Solomon of the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings are all among those who offered back cover endorsements, and Hockey Central's Jeff Marek recently tweeted that the book was “outstanding”. Dimitri Filipovic just gave it a glowing review on the Sporting News, and it's currently the #1 best-selling hockey book on Amazon (publishing in early August has its advantages), as was last year's edition.

Of course, the most compelling reason to buy this book is because it's fun to read. It's not a hostile attack on the mainstream, nor some kind of contest to prove who's the most clever guy in the room. The authors involved have a deep love for what they do, and it really shows. There are lots of fun stories, and illustrations, and digressions. Iain Fyffe's take on the value of enforcers, for example, or my response to last year's spectacularly blown prediction about the Ottawa Senators, are arguably worth the cover price by themselves.

So that's my case! If you have any interest whatsoever in hockey analytics, this is a great way to get up to speed on all the different types of statistics, and how they can be used to shed light on some fascinating questions. If you're already quite comfortable with analytics, it's a great way to explore the underlying details, and discover more about how these analytics can be applied, and to become more familiar with their limitations. And everyone can enjoy the book as a reference for hard-to-find data, and leading edge studies from more than just the half-dozen analysts that we all know best. And, if nothing else, it's a great way to support the analytics community and ensure more books like these hit the shelves in the future.

Hockey analytics is my passion, and I feel truly honoured to have been allowed to serve as one of its voices for so long, and appreciate the opportunity to continue. Get more information at Hockey Abstract, including details on how to buy it on Amazon, or how to purchase a PDF version.

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Ryan Pike is a Calgary native and FlamesNation's managing editor. He's covered the Flames and the NHL since 2010. His work can also be found at The Hockey Writers and The Wrestling Observer.
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#1 ChinookArch
August 16 2014, 09:47AM
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Alright, I'll buy on condition he starts writing for FN again.

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#2 Alt
August 16 2014, 10:00AM
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How much? His marketing agent makes you hit the purchase button to find out the cost.

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#3 Baalzamon
August 16 2014, 10:34AM
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ChinookArch wrote:

Alright, I'll buy on condition he starts writing for FN again.

Yeah, I liked the blackbox too.

Tom Awad and Iain Fyffe are goodies as well. I remember reading Fyffe's series on Hockey Prospectus a few years ago about the fictional, hypothetical team the Saskatoon Westerns. That was fun.

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#4 jeremywilhelm
August 16 2014, 11:15AM
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Dude. Serial? Who buys paperback books anymore. Save a tree. Go digital.

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#5 Robert Vollman
August 16 2014, 12:24PM
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Thanks guys - probably the only two that read that weekly "Black Box" stat series back in the 2011-12 season. You were ahead of your time!

Perhaps analytics has grown to the point where it would be more of a hit this time around?

Alt: the prices vary based on Amazon's discounts (and mood?) but it's roughly $15 for the PDF and $25 for the physical copy.

Jeremy: there's a PDF option. Sales are generally 50/50 actually.

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#6 mattyc
August 16 2014, 02:15PM
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@Robert Vollman

I also enjoyed the blackbox stuff.

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#7 Lober
August 17 2014, 04:54AM
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I would but I can't read... :(

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