Scoring Strategies for the Underdog: A General, Quantitative Method for Determining Optimal Sports Strategies

Brian Skinner 1
  • 1 University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

When facing a heavily-favored opponent, an underdog must be willing to assume greater-than-average risk. In statistical language, one would say that an underdog must be willing to adopt a strategy whose outcome has a larger-than-average variance. The difficult question is how much risk a team should be willing to accept. This is equivalent to asking how much the team should be willing to sacrifice from its mean score in order to increase the score’s variance. In this paper a general analytical method is developed for addressing this question quantitatively. Under the assumption that every play in a game is statistically independent, both the mean and the variance of a team’s offensive output can be described using the binomial distribution. This allows for direct calculations of the winning probability when a particular strategy is employed, and therefore allows one to calculate optimal offensive strategies. This paper develops this method for calculating optimal strategies exactly and then presents a simple heuristic for determining whether a given strategy should be adopted. A number of interesting and counterintuitive examples are then explored, including the merits of stalling for time, the run/pass/Hail Mary choice in football, and the correct use of Hack-a-Shaq.

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JQAS, an official journal of the American Statistical Association, publishes research on the quantitative aspects of professional and collegiate sports. Articles deal with subjects as measurements of player performance, tournament structure, and the frequency and occurrence of records. Additionally, the journal serves as an outlet for professionals in the sports world to raise issues and ask questions that relate to quantitative sports analysis.

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