For this year’s 928 voters for the Heisman Trophy, the instructions were as straight forward as ever: select as many as three candidates for college football’s most outstanding player.
The media members (145 in each of six geographic regions) and former Heisman winners (58 currently living) who electronically submitted their votes by 5 p.m. on Monday were not told to consider how valuable a player is to his team’s success, whether he plays at the highest level — an Oberlin College player is just as eligible one from Oklahoma — or whether to value one position or side of the football over another.
There is no suggestion that academic prowess, community involvement or questions of moral turpitude should be part of the equation.
Just simply select the most outstanding player.
Yet, while voters in the information age have more data points than ever to consider, how they select the Heisman Trophy winner has changed little over the years: quarterbacks dominate, winning matters and the body of work must be buttressed by a Heisman moment, the more viral the better.
So it was again on Saturday night with quarterback Bryce Young becoming the second consecutive Alabama player — and fourth in the last 13 seasons — to win the Heisman Trophy, finishing comfortably ahead of the other finalists who were invited to New York: Michigan defensive end Aiden Hutchinson, Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett and Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud.
Consider that Young, a precocious sophomore who played behind an often leaky offensive line and delivered a sterling performance in Alabama’s upset last Saturday of Georgia in the Southeastern Conference title game, may not even be the best player on his team. That honorific has been bestowed by many upon Will Anderson, a menacing pass rusher who leads the nation with 32 ½ tackles behind the line of scrimmage. (Anderson finished fifth in the voting).
The same could be said of Stroud, a freshman quarterback who after some early struggles directed the top offense in the country, built around a trio of elite receivers who repeatedly make themselves open. Pickett, the senior, put up similar video-game numbers and could certainly make the claim of influencing the game: his fake slide and touchdown run in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game was outlawed within a week.
Hutchinson, who has 14 sacks — including three of Stroud in Michigan’s win over Ohio State, is only the third defensive player to finish among the top four since another Wolverine, Charles Woodson, became the only defensive player to win the Heisman in 1997. Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o in 2012 also finished second.
Still, for one of American sports most cherished awards, there has been little evolution in how selectors make their choice. Over the last decade or so, more sophisticated statistical analysis has dramatically changed how baseball awards are determined, with old standbys like batting average and pitcher wins being diminished in favor of other metrics that may even take ballparks into account.
And in basketball, points and rebounds have been put into greater context to detail the efficiency with which they were compiled.
“The guys who are inefficient and put up highlights, it was easier to make a case for them 10 years ago,” said Ryan Jones, a former editor of SLAM magazine, noting that high volume shooters, like Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant, would be appraised somewhat less favorably today.
“You don’t have to be a hard core analytics guy to appreciate Steph Curry, or what Jokic has done. Or Giannis,” he added, referring to the N.B.A.’s best shooter and its past two most valuable players who have well-rounded games, Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo. “Some of it is real obvious, but the advanced stats sometime tell you in a different way how impressive some of that stuff is.”
There has been an even greater reconsideration in baseball.
In 1990, Bob Welch, who posted a 27-6 record for the Oakland Athletics, won the American League Cy Young Award, comfortably outdistancing Roger Clemens, who was 21-6 for the Boston Red Sox. But Clemens registered a league-best 10.4 in wins above replacement, or WAR, a more recent metric that evaluates a player’s value to the team based on more detailed data. Welch, who recorded far fewer strikeouts and allowed far more home runs, had a modest 2.9 WAR, the lowest among the top seven vote-getters that season.
Nowadays, wins have been so discounted in favor of other measures that Jacob deGrom won back-to-back Cy Young for the Mets despite compiling a pedestrian 21-17 record over the 2018 and 2019 seasons.
A more nuanced lens has also changed how baseball Hall of Fame voters have given new life to candidates like Tim Raines, Edgar Martinez and Larry Walker who were passed over because they fell short of milestones like 3,000 hits, 500 home runs or 300 victories.
“They’ve been on the ballot for a long time but they got put over the top by voters looking at the new metrics and giving them more weight,” said Ryan Thibodaux, who tracks Hall of Fame voting as writers have made their ballots public. “The younger voters rely on those metrics more than the old school voters do.”
Football has taken longer to catch up to other sports in using data to explain performance. Of course, numbers have been part of the fabric of baseball as long as the box score has existed, and tracking point totals has always been elemental to basketball. Metrics that might better explain offensive line performance or the playmaking ability of a linebacker or the context of a quarterback’s performance in today’s game are far from a common currency.
Anthony Treash, who analyzes college football players for Pro Football Focus, said the Heisman Trophy — along with other awards — has essentially become a team award. His message to voters: Go beyond the box score and what you see on the internet.
“I don’t want to question the voter’s credibility, but do we really have the best information to know who the best players are?” he said. “Keep your mind open to new ideas in player evaluation.”
Until that happens players like Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum, who was given the highest grade by a Power 5 conference center in eight years by Pro Football Focus, or Cincinnati cornerback Ahmad Gardner, who allowed 96 yards receiving in 12 games — almost all of it in press coverage — or Alabama’s Anderson will have to watch the Heisman ceremony from home.
And the rare defensive player, like Michigan’s Hutchinson, who does earn an invitation to New York, will have to be content with using his front-row seat to applaud the winner.