Statistics Have Huge Effect On A Game’s Outcome, Studies Show

September 3, 2009

During today’s Mets-Rockies game, Mets play-by-play man Gary Cohen said something that I found both confusing and – because I’m thin-skinned about this stuff – obnoxious. To very closely paraphrase:

“Nowadays, there’s so much more of an emphasis being placed on statistics and statistical analysis when putting together a team. You see more and more front offices embracing that way of doing things. Which is fine; there’s a certain place in the game for that. But the more you actually watch the game, the more you realize that statistics don’t win games.”

(color commentators agree, discussion on the importance of intangibles ensues)

I’ll tackle the confusing part first. Namely, I’m not sure I understand what point Cohen is trying to make. I would guess that he’s trying to say that you cannot rely solely on statistical analysis when evaluating individual or team performance, that there’s more to constructing a winner than high batting averages and low ERAs. This is, of course, true. Exclusively statistical analysis would suggest that the New York Yankees have a real prospect on their hands in Shelley Duncan, but anyone who has seen Duncan play in the majors knows that he is – at best – a bench player on a second-tier team. It took me forever to be able to admit this, but it really and truly takes the careful combination of objective (statistical) and subjective (scouting) evaluation to identify major league talent and assemble it effectively.

I’m almost positive Cohen was trying to endorse this balance. The problem, however, is that he actually said nothing like that. He said that “statistics don’t win games,” which is about as wrong as you can get. Baseball teams win and lose games based on the number of runs they score and allow. Runs themselves are a statistic, which should automatically disprove Cohen’s theory, but I’ll continue. Teams like Cohen’s Mets score runs (well, not these Mets) by hitting singles, doubles, triples, and home runs. They prevent runs by accumulating strikeouts, avoiding walks, and inducing put-outs. These, too, are statistics. Statistics represent events that determine the outcome of a game. Sure, whether or not David Wright thinks Angel Pagan (great name or greatest name?) is a raging jerk might affect Wright’s performance, but it remains inevitable that his play – as documented by statistics – will affect the level of his team’s success. As I hope you can see, Cohen’s thesis statement is totally incorrect.

In addition to the content, I also found Cohen’s tone more than a little obnoxious. More specifically, his condescending “the more you actually watch the game” rubbed me the wrong way. As many of you may know, a common stereotype amongst the old-school baseball contingent is that those advocating statistical analysis don’t actually watch the games themselves. Instead, it is usually implied and often said that we watch games through the box score, or perhaps in some Matrix-like alternate reality. I’m very (overly?) sensitive to this implication, but I can’t help how I feel. So, to Mr. Cohen and anyone else who thumbs their nose at advocates of objective analysis, I say this: For every stat geek that evaluates players based on nothing but VORP and SNLVAR, there’s a baseball romantic that judges exclusively on a player’s hustle and the look he’s got in his eye. The ultimate goal is to meet in the middle. Until we get there, however, I’d appreciate it if the subtle derision of the statistically-inclined community for its entirely valid (and often accurate) approach to evaluating baseball came to an end.


Archimedes, Descartes, Pythagoras… Papelbon?

August 21, 2009
The face of genius

The face of genius

At the risk of generalizing about professional athletes (too late, already happened), this is why sports networks should employ them for their knowledge of a game’s mechanics, and not for their analytical skills:

“We’re 8-4 against them this season,” [Jonathan Papelbon] said about the Bombers, who begin a three-game set at Fenway Park tonight. “We beat them half the time.”


In Loving Memory Of “Intangible”: Fine Adjective & Acceptable Noun, 1640-2009

February 22, 2009

rip1The waning moments of tonight’s Wake Forest-Duke game featured a graphic that highlighted the continued massacre of the English language. The victim, as is often the case, was the word “intangible.” This perfectly innocent word was once again subjected to a coordinated effort to raze its satisfactory meaning.

As the clock wound down, play-by-play man Tim Brando said:

“Let’s take a look at the intangibles that may have had an effect on this game – turnovers, points off turnovers, fast break points, bench points, and points in the paint.”

Brando’s partners-in-crime then guiltlessly posted a graphic on the screen that compared the teams’ performances in each of these categories. Discussion ensued. Then, somewhere across the Atlantic, from the general direction of Stratford-upon-Avon, an anguished cry rang out into the wintry night.

Look, if something is intangible, it means it cannot be touched or quantified. It’s abstract. Things like “creativity,” “leadership,” and “the anger a reasonably intelligent 22 year old male feels when a word is mangled” are intangible. I understand that you cannot palpably touch a turnover or a point, but their clear occurrence before thousands of watchful eyes and their subsequent logging as data suggests that these are things we can measure with a great degree of certainty. These are outcomes, not concepts. 

Historically, broadcasters and analysts discuss a player’s value with respect to his numbers (i.e. points, rebounds, assists) and his “intangibles” (i.e. leadership, knowledge, attitude). If points have suddenly fallen into the latter category, what counts as “tangible” now?

The Slow Death of Literacy, Pt. MMMMMDCLXXVIII

January 8, 2009

I will be posting something more substantial this afternoon, but in the meantime, I must share with you an amazing quote that my father shared with me earlier.

The culprit is Boston College’s basketball coach, Al Skinner. As most of us know by now, Boston College was upset by Harvard last night. This was particularly shocking because it was days after Boston College defeated uberteam and then-#1 North Carolina. Skinner, in his endless wisdom, knew this Harvard game was going to be a struggle:

“I tried to pre-warn them . . . We were capable of being this team and capable of being another team.”

My father summed this up more succinctly than I ever could have: “Aren’t all warnings ‘pre’? It’s not much of  a warning if it’s a ‘post-warning,’ is it?”

I also enjoy that he “tried” to “pre-warn” them. Did he fail? What does a failed “pre-warning” look like? A successful one? I have so many questions. All I know is that this term has absolutely made it into the derisive section of my daily lexicon.

You’ve been pre-warned.

A Triumvirate Of Irritants

December 9, 2008

Before the Knicks game starts, I would like to briefly share with you three incredibly irritating statements that were unveiled in rapid success tonight on ESPN. The shows are “Around The Horn” and “Pardon The Interruption,” and the culprits are Jay Mariotti and Mike Wilbon.

Unfortunately, I caught the last two minutes of “Around The Horn” and was thus subjected (I know, I could have changed the channel) to one of the more astoundingly ignorant reactions I’ve seen in some time. Panelists J.A. Adande and Mariotti were debating some issue, when the former invoked the work of Adam Smith. Mariotti, at this point, and not without a flicker of pride in his eyes, incredulously yelps “Who? What are you talking about?”

I have no idea if Mariotti was kidding or not, but cognizant of his well-deserved reputation as a raging ignoramus, I suspect he was quite serious. Adam Smith, fair readers, is pretty much the father and pioneer of modern economics. He wrote An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. This book was really important. No, I did not have to look any of this up. I learned this in ninth grade, and have not forgotten it, because: it is really important. 

Jay Mariotti, as Wikipedia tells me, has a college degree from Ohio University. He should know this. I’m positive I’m overreacting to this, but the pride with which Mariotti professed ignorance of Smith’s work was more than a little irritating. Individuals with degrees from an accredited four-year academic institution should know who this guy is. Maybe I should target my irritation at Mariotti’s schooling, but I doubt that Mariotti went eight years (four high school, four college) without hearing this name. End rant.

Irritant number two will take significantly fewer words to describe than irritant number one. During “Pardon The Interruption,” Wilbon tangentially mentioned his viewing of “Boston Legal” last night. I furrowed my brow a little a little, knowing that “Monday Night Football” was on at 8:30pm, which I imagined competed with “Boston Legal.” Sure enough, “Boston Legal” airs at 10pm. While it is certainly possible that Wilbon capitalized on the wonders of modern technology and TiVoed football and watched “Boston Legal,” I wish he were a little less forthcoming about his viewing habits. I would just like to assume blissfully that Wilbon watched the only major televised sporting event last night instead of watching his favorite drama. Because, you know, the first two minutes of Wilbon’s 22 minute show were about the game broadcast on “Monday Night Football.”

The final irritant is by far the most quantifiable of the three, which in turn makes me extraordinarily happy. Later in “Pardon The Interruption,” Wilbon proclaimed that he would not have voted for Tim Tebow in the Heisman voting last year, but would do so this year. This makes no sense. Behold these numbers:

  • 2007: 234 CMP, 350 ATT, 3286 YDS, 66.9 CMP%, 9.39 YPA, 32 TD, 6 INT
  • 2008: 174 CMP, 268 ATT, 2515 YDS, 64.9 CMP%, 9.38 YPA, 28 TD, 2 INT

There is no question that Tim Tebow is an incredible college quarterback and one of the top ten players in the sport. This is clear to any reasonably observant person who watches a significant amount of college football. It is, however, ludicrous to say that Tebow is more deserving of the Heisman Trophy this year than last year. Florida and its insane stable of like 5’9, 190 lbs RBs/WRs/Athletic Gods are running the ball more, which has resulted in fewer passing opportunities for Tebow, which have resulted in diminished counting statistics for the quarterback. Even by measurements of efficiency (YPA, CMP%), his numbers are very slightly down. Tebow is an amazing quarterback. He is not more deserving of the Heisman Trophy this year than he was last year. 

And now, the New York Knicks. Hooray.

EDIT: Because I am a dork, I woke up in the middle of the night last night because I forgot to include Tim Tebow’s rushing statistics. Then I went back to sleep. But now I’m giving them to you. They too reveal Wilbon’s statement to be ridiculous:

  • 2007: 210 ATT, 895 YDS, 4.3 YPC, 23 TD
  • 2008: 154 ATT, 564 YDS, 3.7 YPC, 12 TD

I feel better now.