sports metrics and the problem with unconventional wisdom
The more that I think about it, the more that I think the “metrics” school of sports analysis is the perfect example for understanding the limitations of insurgent intellectual movements. I have never known any ideology, group or position so likely to throw the baby out with the bathwater than the movement often (and unhelpfully) referred to as the “Moneyball” tendency.
That sucks, because I find the new metrics in sports, and particularly in baseball, to have an awful lot of useful, generative ideas about strategy, about talent evaluation, and about sports appreciation. But it’s sometimes so buried in such absurd, over-the-top “us-vs.-them”-ism that it becomes very difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. It is indeed true that OBP was for a long time a criminally underrated stat; it is not true that “a walk is as good as a hit”. (Just ask the coach with a man on third and two outs playing a team with a great double play combo.) It is true that Joe Morgan says a lot of stupid things about baseball; it is not true that the Fire Joe Morgan crew “knows more” about baseball than Joe Morgan. Who we should choose to listen to about effective baseball strategy is a different question. But who knows more? The guy who played and coached and lived baseball for decades. That’s who. Sorry.
One argument that I keep hearing about all this is that we can’t take into account the fact that the Patriots, you know, lost the game after Belichick went for it. Listen to Bill Barnwell from Football Outsiders— one of the best and most sober websites in the arena of new metrics, by the way, and one I respect a great deal:
The important factor that the cacophony of responses seems to be missing is that you can’t judge Belichick’s decision by the fact that it didn’t work. As we’ve mentioned more than once in these pages, you cannot judge decisions by their outcome. You have to consider the process that goes into them, and then decide whether they’re right or wrong at the moment they’re made.
Let’s be clear about this: this claim amounts to saying that we should abandon induction as a tool for evaluating choices. Now, we’ve know that induction has certain problems as an evaluative tool since, oh, the time of Plato. But I put it to you that you simply cannot exist as a functioning intelligence without recourse to inductive thinking. You will find it very, very hard to go through your life making decisions if you abandon evaluating the consequences of past decisions.
Plus, Barnwell is writing this from a site that engages in analyzing sports based on statistics. And what is aggregating statistics but evaluating choices by their outcomes over and over and over again? A coach chooses to run or throw or go naked bootleg or run hound right, hen right, fox right, max protect, ZIP 989 on 2, many times in a season. The FO guys evaluate what happens– they judge those decisions by their outcomes– and then treat the results of those decisions as though they have supreme predictive power. So which kind of induction is legitimate, and which is not? As is usually true, the power and wisdom of metrics depends entirely on which cherries you pick, which is absolutely true of the conventional wisdom in sports as well. People choose data based on the way it supports their suppositions. Film at eleven.
Ultimately, the problem with these new metrics is that their apostles are so consumed with the desire to buck the conventional wisdom that they cloud their own ability to reasonably evaluate sports. The tendency to reflexively contradict the conventional wisdom is just as distorting as the tendency to reflexively support it. More so, I would argue; the conventional wisdom is often conventional because it is banally true. Which is exactly why we should take the valid and valuable criticisms and minor revolutions that go on in insurgent intellectual movements to heart, and use them to our advantage, but to also approach them with a healthy amount of skepticism.
Update: Link fixed.