Scholar brings 'Moneyball' analysis to the ice

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Michael Lewis’ 2003 book, “Moneyball,” and the movie of the same name based off it, challenged the long-held beliefs of baseball scouts and executives by confronting them with data and analytics.

Steven Bollendorf, who graduated from Penn State this spring with a degree in industrial engineering, applied the same approach to his favorite sport, ice hockey.

Bollendorf’s honors thesis examined both individual player and team statistics for the Penn State men’s ice hockey team and the 2015-16 Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, confirming some common hockey maxims and disproving a few others. A poster based off that research took first prize at Penn State’s inaugural Sports Analytics Conference in April, which was organized by the Center for the Study of Sports in Society.

One of the primary statistics Bollendorf examined was Corsi For Percentage, which measures how many more shots a team generates when a particular player is on the ice than when he is not.

“If you’re generating more scoring opportunities, then your team is possessing the puck,” Bollendorf said. “And over the course of the season, if your team is more effective at possessing the puck than your opponent, then you’re more likely to win.”

A player’s Corsi For Percentage could help coaches or general managers determine his value to the team. Bollendorf also looked at team statistics, such as at which points in the game a team did most of its scoring, or which points in the game lacked scoring. Some of the spikes could easily be explained — good teams, for example, saw spikes in scoring toward the end of games, often the result of empty-net goals. Others, such as relative scoring droughts in the second period, could have other causes.

“Maybe they were playing more conservatively in the second period because the team switched sides, so your bench is farther away from the goalie,” Bollendorf said. “You might make quicker changes and play a more conservative neutral zone strategy.”

His research also found that goals given up are more impactful to team standings than goals scored, and that defensive defensemen contribute more to their team’s success, on average, than their typically higher-paid offensive defensivemen teammates.

All of it is potential food for thought for NHL teams, many of which are using more data to drive personnel and in-game decisions. Many others remain reluctant to do so.

“I think it’ll take time for a lot of organizations to completely buy in,” Bollendorf said.

Bollendorf, of Southampton, Pennsylvania, has been a hockey fan since he was a small child. Picking his thesis topic was easy. Then again, so was his choice of major.

“The more I learned about it, I think it really fit who I am as a person,” he said. “I hate wasting things; I just don’t like waste in general, and that’s a lot of what (industrial engineers) do, is use their math background to essentially eliminate any type of waste — time, money, resources.”

Bollendorf discussed his work with a few of the professional data analysts who attended the conference, including Sam Ventura, the Penguins’ director of hockey research, but at this point he isn’t considering a career path in hockey analytics.

What began as a passion project, though, did provide Bollendorf with skills that he believes will benefit him in his new role as a transportation adviser for ExxonMobil, which he will begin this summer.

“If I’m ever trying to convince my manager that we should go with this project or that project, the question will be ‘Why?’” he said. “What the thesis teaches is, can you back up your assumptions with tangible proof?

“This helped me improve my communications. I can do the technical work and look at big data, but can I make it make sense to the average reader? It teaches me how to justify my assumptions and then how to communicate that effectively so that you can make impactful change.”

The Schreyer Honors College promotes academic excellence with integrity, the building of a global perspective, and creation of opportunities for leadership and civic engagement. Schreyer Honors Scholars, including Gateway Scholars admitted after their first or second year of enrollment, total more than 1,900 students at University Park and 20 Commonwealth Campuses. They represent the top 2 percent of students at Penn State who excel academically and lead on campus

Penn State industrial engineering student Steven Bollendorf won first place in the poster competition at the inaugural Penn State Sports Analytics Conference for his research on hockey analytics. Credit: Penn State / Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated May 18, 2018