There are countless online resources that provide an overwhelming amount of sports analytics information. In order to really make sense of all this data and these opinions, it helps to have a solid foundation in the overarching concepts. I believe that the best way to develop a foundation is through a good, old fashioned, book.
Below are 5 of my favorite books for someone interested in learning about sports analytics. A few of them are technical, focusing only on the equations used to evaluate players, improve performance, and predict outcomes. The rest are great stories that show the impact that data has had on sports at large. I hope that these books pique your interest in this field and give you a starting place to do original work.
(1) Sprawlball: A Visual Tour of the New Era of the NBA by Kirk Goldsberry — This book came out in April, and it quickly shot to the top of this list. Kirk has been doing excellent basketball analytics work for some time, and Sprawlball is his pièce de résistance. Through immaculate visuals, Kirk describes how the game of basketball has changed since the addition of the 3-point line. He uses fascinating case studies of impactful players like James Harden, Lebron James, Kevin Love, and Steph Curry to illustrate his points.
Why I love it: You don’t even have to like basketball or sports analytics to find it fascinating. It is genuinely a great story that he tells that has it’s foundations in data. With that being said, the statistics that he uses and the way that his visuals tell a story are second to none. If you are interested in basketball, I would order this book ASAP.
(2) Mathletics: How Gamblers, Managers, and Sports Enthusiasts Use Mathematics in Baseball, Basketball, and FootballBy Wayne Winston — This book is used as the main course material for many sports analytics classes. It is a little bit dated (published in 2009), but it provides the timeless mathematical foundation for most of the sports analytics that we use today. It also covers the 3 major sports in great detail and does a tremendous job tying the themes together. The book is largely a series of sports questions that the author poses then solves using statistics.
Why I love it: This book is a how to guide for many of the common sports analytics techniques used today. Warren includes the data that he uses as well as the excel workbooks that perform the analysis. While much of this work is done using python or R today, this book is still about as hands on as it can get. If you are looking to start doing analysis right away, this is the book for you.
(3) Trading Bases: How a Wall Street Trader Made a Fortune Betting on Baseballby Joe Peta — This is a fascinating story about how Joe Peta leveraged the skill-set that he learned in finance to create profitable betting outcomes in baseball. He clearly outlines the methodology that he used, making it accessible to you.
Why I love it: This is as much a biography as a how-to guide. I think it is awesome when we see sports analytics used to generate a specific outcome. In this case, the outcome was making Joe Peta rich! Joe is a great story teller and he is also a great teacher of the basic Sabremetrics concepts. This book only scratches the surface of the endless pit of baseball analytics, but it is more than enough to get you started. If baseball or sports gambling are in your wheelhouse, give this one a read.
(4) Every Shot Counts: Using the Revolutionary Strokes Gained Approach to Improve Your Golf Performance and Strategy by Mark Broadie — The concepts in this book started the golf analytics revolution. Mark, the inventor of strokes gained, walks you through the methodology and how it can be used to help evaluate and improve performance. My current work certainly wouldn’t be possible without the strokes gained concept.
Why I love it: Golf is largely an individual sport. Most other analytics focus on how individual players perform relative to a team. I think that it is fascinating to see how analytics is applied in this unique environment. Golf also lends itself well to analytics as there are discrete outcomes that are all measured by the PGA Tour. Give this book a read if you want to shave a few shots off your handicap.
(5) Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis — Odds are that you’ve already read this one, but this is the book that started it all. While Lewis isn’t a sports analytics guru, his writing shows the clear impact that data can have on creating wins. The book is also extremely well written and will keep you on the edge of your seat.
Why I love it: Every time I read this book (or see the movie) I fall in love with my work again. This is a good, old fashioned, underdog story. It’s fun to see the nerds come out on top for a change!
These are books that are still great, but may not be the best for getting started.
- Basketball on Paper by Dean Oliver — Many people believe that this is the best book on basketball analytics. I would definitely say that it is up there. For someone new to the field, this book may be a bit dense.
- Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction by Dan Gardner— This didn’t make the list because it is not explicitly about sports. However, this book talks through some of the most effective prediction strategies out there.
- The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball by Tom Tango — This is a great overview of baseball strategies; however, I think that it is largely covered in Mathletics. Worth a read if you want a second look.
- Fightnomics by Reed Kuhn — Again, I like books about unconventional sports. This book is a bit rough around the edges, but it is one of the only ones out there that attempts to quantify MMA.
- The Art of Smart Football by Chris Brown — I haven’t finished this one yet, so the verdict is still out.
I hope that this reading list gets you excited about the field of sports analytics. I also hope that the books give you the necessary tools to work on personal projects or find a job in the industry.