Statistical analysis is all the rage in football, baseball, and basketball. Has it ruined the game?
Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), Emma Carmichael (writer, Deadspin), and Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic) talk about how statistical analysis has changed sports.
Feel like the sports world is taking a collective deep breath before football, college football, MLB playoff races, and the second week of the US Open? Well, it is the week before Labor Day after all. Even your fearless roundtable-ers had some disagreement on our topic for this week. But then I saw the latest "Curiously Long Post" from Sports Illustrated's Joe Posnanski, in which he discusses the place of statistics in sports, or as he called it "[the argument of] the human record versus the human heart."
The piece itself ended up digressing into a slightly different topic, but I think Posnanski's premise resonates with any sports fan. In the last decade, statistical analysis has gained increasing prominence in America's three biggest sports—football, baseball and basketball. Baseball statheads even have a specific term for it: sabermetrics, which officially means "the mathematical and statistical analysis of baseball records" but sounds like a technique Luke Skywalker used in Return of the Jedi. A plethora of precise, forward-thinking, alphabet-soup metrics—VORP, FIP, ERA+, Win Probability—can turn America's most popular sports into a real numbers game that can be dissected and predicted in much the same way as the stock market.
The revolution has in turn sparked a counter-revolution of baseball "purists" who believe adavanced stats undermine the human analysis of The Game. For my part, I think sabermetrics is a wonderful thing if you're a general manager, a scout, or a fantasy sports owner. But no stat could have predicted that the greatest offensive performance in baseball history would come from a journeyman outfielder who largely came off the bench or encapsulate the wonder that was David Tyree's helmet catch in Super Bowl XLII. The randomness and unpredictably of sports is one of the biggest reasons I watch, and the more you throw yourself into advanced metrics, the more that goes away.
What say you, Hampton? Have you become a card-carrying stathead?