Jonathan Bales, a self-proclaimed "numbers guy" and the founder of TheDCTimes.com, writes for the New York Times, DallasCowboys.com, NBC, DMN, RotoWire, and 4for4. Additionally, Jonathan is the author of three fantasy football books that emphasize the use of analytics and smarter decision making. In this Q&A, Jonathan talks about incorporating analytics into writing, the future of NFL analytics, his Fantasy Football for Smart People series, and more.
You were a philosophy and psychology major in college. How did you get involved with and interested in analytics?
Well I majored in Philosophy and Psych Stats, so I already had that background. While I was in college, I also started charting Cowboys plays into 40-50 categories in Excel, then running different analysis off of that data. And since I had all of this info, I posted it online and then it eventually grew from there. But outside of the Cowboys and even football, I’ve always been interested in using math to explain various phenomena and, more important, to make predictions. I think most fields boil down to making accurate predictions, so that’s really what got me into analytics—to be able to more accurately forecast the future.
As mentioned earlier, you write a lot. What advice would you give to people trying to incorporate statistics into their writing?
The main thing is that you have to remember for whom you’re writing. In most situations, it’s going to be an audience not necessarily familiar with analytics or advanced stats, so it doesn’t make much sense to get too in-depth before establishing a basic foundation of knowledge. The goal isn’t to talk over their heads, but to introduce them to a new way of looking at things. It’s always smart to relate the numbers to stuff with which they’re already familiar.
You’ve written three books for your Fantasy Football for Smart People series. Can you give a brief description of each book and the overarching theme in the series?
The basic theme of the Fantasy Football for Smart People series is using analytics to make accurate fantasy football projections and, ultimately, win leagues. I wrote the first book, How to Dominate Your Draft, last year. That’s really focused on overarching draft strategies—valued-based drafting, year-to-year consistency, and so on.
This year, I published What the Experts Don’t Want You to Know and How to Cash in on the Future of the Game. The former uses stats to tackle 25 pressing questions in the world of fantasy football. Do players really perform better in contract seasons? Do running backs break down after lots of carries? How much does the 40-yard dash matter for different positions?
How to Cash in on the Future of the Game is really the first fantasy football book focused solely on daily fantasy. I show readers how to manage their money, make projections, choose leagues, optimize lineups, and other stuff relevant to daily fantasy. That book is really focused on how to use fantasy football as an investment tool.
Are advanced statistics becoming more prevalent in fantasy football? Do you look at any advanced metrics (Total QBR, etc.) when trying to find the best players?
No doubt about it. There are all kinds of advanced metrics out there that help me and others win leagues. I don’t use Total QBR because I think it overvalues “clutch” situations, but I look at other predictors of success in order to uncover value on players who haven’t broken out just yet, but are likely to do so in the future—yards per route, points per opportunity, 40 times, speed scores, average depth of passes, and stuff like that. As long as you can establish that a certain stat predicts future success, then it’s valuable.
The NFL obviously lags behind the NBA and MLB in terms of analytics. It’s very difficult to separate team plays into individual performances. What do you see in the future of the NFL in terms of analytics? Is there anything specific you would like to see accomplished?
Yeah, I think you hit the nail on the head that the future of analytics in the NFL is about separating the individual from the team. That’s a really difficult thing to do because football isn’t as binary as a sport like baseball; there are all sorts of situations and schemes, so you can’t really make apple-to-apple comparisons.
Personally, I’m really concerned with draft analytics. I still think that NFL teams draft rather inefficiently as a whole, emphasizing the wrong sorts of traits. That’s an area where we have data that could be useful and it’s not as subjective as some of the on-field stuff, so that’s where I’d expect the biggest strides to be made in the next few years.
What is your favorite part about working with sports?
My favorite part is just studying a subject that’s interesting to me. I choose every topic I write, so my days basically consist of researching stuff that I find interesting and want to know anyway. So there’s value in it for me outside of just being able to write about sports.
What advice would you give to students and young professionals looking to break into the industry?
Everyone says that writers need to write, but I think even more important than writing is reading. I set aside time each night just to read (and most of it isn’t sports-related), and I think that helps my writing more than writing itself. Also, everything you ever write should be the best you can do. It’s better to create one awesome article that you can promote and be proud of than 10 articles that are just okay.
Quick prediction for the Dallas Cowboys this year. You’ll be on record and held liable. All those who lose money on bets, you may sue Jonathan for false insider information.
I haven’t published my 2013 predictions just yet (and I won’t for a few more weeks), so this is the first that people are going to hear from me regarding the Cowboys’ fortunes. I haven’t yet determined a projected record, but I’ll tell you that I think they’ll be in the postseason. Super Bowl champs? Probably not, but I’ll have them projected for the playoffs.