The analytics revolution in sports has led to profound changes in the way in which sports organizations think about their teams, players play the game, and fans consume the on-field product. Perhaps the best-known heuristic in sports analytics is sample size — the number of observations necessary to make a reliable conclusion about some phenomenon. Everyone has a buddy who loves to make sweeping generalizations about stud prospects, always hedging his bets when the debate heats up: “Well, we don’t have enough sample size, so we just don’t know yet.”
Unfortunately for your buddy, sample size doesn’t tell the whole story. A large sample is a nice thing to have when we’re conducting research in a sterile lab, but in real-life settings like sports teams, willing research participants certainly aren’t always in abundant supply. Regardless of the number of available data points, teams need to make decisions. Shrugging about a prospect’s performance, or a newly cobbled together pitching staff, is certainly not going to help the bottom line, either in terms of wins or dollar signs.
So the question becomes: How do organizations answer pressing questions when they either a) don’t have an adequate sample size, or b) haven’t collected any data? Fortunately, we can use research methods from social science to get a pretty damn good idea about something — even in the absence of the all-powerful sample size.