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?
This reminds me of the old joke: Two statisticians go to shooting range. The first fires. He misses 50 feet to the left. The second fires. He misses 50 feet to the right. They turn to each other, high five and say "We got it!"
When we talk about stats, we have to talk about Moneyball, the Michael Lewis book about Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane that, improbably, has been made into a movie starring Brad Pitt and is coming soon to a theater near you. Given that Beane's story has been Hollywood-ified, you've got to figure the film has the A's winning a World Series. Or two. They didn't. But the Red Sox did, with the help of Bill James, the founder of modern statistical analysis and a Royals' fan who was famously turned down for a job with his favorite team before Theo Epstein hired him in Boston. Ouch.
Baseball Hall of Famer/Former ESPN commentator Joe Morgan's angry dismissal of sabermetrics, online or on air, has always seemed like willful ignorance. That said, he's right. Stats only go so far. First, stats are much better at illustrating the past than predicting the future, and the future is all that counts when you are trying to win baseball games. More importantly, and the point Morgan has always flailed at, is that there's no stat capable of measuring team chemistry. There's no way to quantify how one player's work ethic or infectious optimism can almost magically make his teammates better. Think of David Eckstein, the 2006 World Series MVP for the St. Louis Cardinals. Numbers can't capture how much Eckstein's sheer presence and raw hustle inspired his teammates that year or with the Angels—not only on the field, but in the dugout, clubhouse, gym and batting cage.
Sure, statistical analysis has changed baseball's front offices for the better. A little. But most things haven't changed. The Red Sox version of Moneyball, after all, includes lots and lots of money, and there's nothing new there. Sabermetrics has had a dramatic impact for the worse, however, on how a large segment of baseball fans talk about the game. Like you say Jake, baseball talk has become filled with acronyms that make the head spin and eyes glaze, and that makes me mad—almost as mad as Joe Morgan.
Here's one thing I think we can all agree on: At least in our current understanding of what makes sportswriting great, sabermetrics doesn't fit into the picture. With that in mind, I think we're all a bit biased here. Moneyball is an incredible book, but it's the tension between the new school, who's obsessed with numbers, and the old order, who's still hung up on whether or not a young man really "looks like" a ballplayer, that makes the writing so great.
In the essay Jake references, Posnanski writes that it's the "stark argument about statistics" that interests him "as a writer." It's not the statistics or the complex theories and equations themselves that intrigue him, or us, but the delicate balance between the two sides. Posnanski goes on, of course, to explain the ways in which he thinks numbers can help us tell better stories, but the only reason he's making the argument in the first place is because Moneyball set up such a captivating dichotomy. We might not know yet how great sportswriting can be fused with sabermetrics over time, but the writing the very debate has inspired has been wonderful so far.
I'll admit to sharing one antiquated bias with our friend Joe Morgan. I played college basketball, and I still play pick-up games at least once a week. It can be hard for me to take seriously any writing or talking from people who have never played the game before. It's illogical and unfair and it's a boring critique to make, but my basic feeling is that someone who's never felt or contributed to the rhythm of the game isn't as capable of authentically communicating what it's like to shoot a turn-around jumper or to come off of a screen. I'm not proud to say it—but I recognize that the feeling probably has a lot to do with the fact that the numbers side of, say, baseball often leaves me feeling clueless and left out. My experience playing basketball all those years is my particular expertise; it's my version of sabermatrics. That's gotta be why Morgan clings to it.
What about you, Patrick? We're 0 for 3. Have you converted?
Have I converted to the church of Sabremetrics? Conversion isn't necessary. Numbers don't negate stories. Numbers are stories, a narrative way to process and describe reality. Two plus two equals four: beginning, middle, end. Telling stories is what we do, not only as writers, but also as humans; it's our shared way of understanding existence, our collective campfire in the deep, dark woods of an indifferent universe. In sports, the Redemption of Mike Vick—note: ending not yet written—is a story, almost an archetypal hero's journey. Then again, so is his fluctuating quarterback rating.
The danger, I think, comes when we forget that numbers are simply stories—when we convince ourselves that they're something more. Something akin to Gospel. Jake, you mentioned the stock market, that cresting, crashing, wave-like thing, Matthew Arnold's sea of faith as populated by Krakens. What is the Dow, really? A number. A number that tells the story of a bunch of other smaller numbers; each, in turn, telling stories of human confidence. Or lately, a quivering lack of it. Likewise, what is shooting percentage? A number that tells a story of makes and misses. A number that tells a story about Emma coming off a screen, catching, shooting, without thought, the ball seemingly though the net before it leaves her fingertips ... or bouncing off the rim, a byproduct of fatigue, doubt, a bad day at the office.
Hampton is right about statistics. And other stories, too. They are much better at dissecting the past then predicting the future. Scientifically speaking, economics and literature are both rather dismal. And yet, we can't help ourselves. We prod and poke, label and measure, rank and order. Our numeric and verbal storytelling does a pretty good job of capturing our physical surroundings—a bat hitting a ball, a ball hitting a glove, an apple falling from a tree. (Admittedly, quantum mechanics gets spooky). But when it comes to human behavior? To Tyree making his one-handed snag? To Tiger Woods, well, doing whatever the heck he thought he was doing in a Perkins parking lot?
Not so much.
Calculated or composed, stories give us control—or, more accurately, the illusion thereof. This bears remembering. Bill James' most recent book isn't about sports; it's about spectacular crime. Murder and mayhem. Humanity gone off the rails. "I'm not an expert in any of this," he reminds readers. Of course, that doesn't stop him Bard of OBP from trying. Who can blame him? We all do the same thing. To borrow from an author who, according to statistical analysis, is almost certainly Shakespeare: there are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your Baseball Abstract.