Why We Care About Statistics (Daryll)

Right now, baseball is undergoing some serious soul searching about ways to change the fundamental nature of the game itself to make it more appealing. We are asking questions about speeding things up between innings, after pitches, during at-bats, even hallowed distances in the sport; what if the pitchers mound wasn’t 60’6″ from home plate?

These questions aren’t new – not to baseball or basketball or football. While the NFL looks to make it’s game safer a competitive league has emerged touting that it still allows bone-crunching hits of the quarterback. Nice. The NBA is seeing more three pointing than ever which is nice – but many argue is taking away from the physicality of the game as well.

Baseball of course was the first major sport to see statistics as a key way to find more between the lines led by Bill James in the 1980’s and popularized in the early 2000’s by Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s. Analyzing certain statistics helped those teams with lesser resources compete in a different way with the teams where money was not a finite constraint. Many other sports resisted the “nerd takeover”, with the NFL being unsurprisingly the last the saber-metric revolution and in fact only in the infancy stage even now. Hint: GO FOR IT on 4th and short!

The NBA was awakened to the statistical revolution just about 10 years ago this week, thanks to an article by none other than Michael Lewis himself. Lewis of course brought this revolution to baseball with his book Moneyball about the 2003 Oakland Athletics. Lewis wrote an article about former Duke standout and Houston Rocket (at the time) Shane Battier in the New York Times on February 13th, 2009, when most fans didn’t think much of Battier as an NBA Player or at best thought he was slightly over-rated. His own GM Daryl Morey said this about what other players thought of Battier “They all think his reputation exceeds his ability.”.

Lewis has a knack for these things. He takes what is both common sense and what is exactly un-common sense and finds a way to marry the two ideas seamlessly. Sports is often a perfect space to see this ideas in the open – as sports can be the closest we get to extreme human experiments that present people with extraordinary circumstances that can’t be drawn up in a laboratory.

In their book The Art of Possibility, Rosamund and Ben Zander’s description of problem solving translates nicely into what Lewis did to baseball with Moneyball and basketball with his article about Shane Battier:

Every problem, every dilemma, every dead end we find ourselves facing in life, only appears unsolvable inside a particular frame or point of view. Enlarge the box, or create another frame around the data, and problems vanish, while new opportunities appear.

Enlarge the box.

Michael Lewis went looking for his story in Battier, because he knew that wherever Battier went and played – his teams got better. The traditional statistics that might have shown points, rebounds, assists, etc., didn’t tell the whole story. They were dead ends in understanding just how good this player really was. So Rockets GM Daryl Morey went out to enlarge the box. Shane Battier appeared.

Lewis writes that “Like professional card counters, the modern thinkers want to play the odds as efficiently as they can; but of course to play the odds efficiently they must first
know the odds.” So the Rockets did just that. They would notice – track – and repeat in analyzing how Shane would fake defenders. How he would get open when no one would, and how he would study. He would study players and notice for example, how they might be better when going left to shoot, but who preferred to go right to shoot. If he could get them to go right, and actually play into their preference he could make them make a shot with a 20% less chance of going in.

Sports like basketball, hockey and football are tougher to glean clean statistics from. Baseball is essentially a sport of linear, one at a time events. This is also called stationarity in statistics, because most often events happen independent of others. Pitch. Catch. Repeat until hit. Repeat until 3 outs per inning. Football is not like that. A wide receiver may only get fame from catching balls near him, but only if those balls give him a good chance to catch them before a defender covers him and they really only get paid when they happen to catch those passes standing in the end zone. What if that isn’t all there is.

Michael Lewis points out that Shane Battier was brilliant at doing the little things to disrupt the other players. He writes that in a famed match-up where Battier neutralized Kobe Bryant Battier “On defense, it was as if Battier had set out to maximize the misery Bryant experiences shooting a basketball, without having his presence recorded in any box score.”

What do all of these minute ways that Battier influence how Kobe Bryant, who at the time of this article was the top player in the NBA, plays? It is measurable in the box score but it goes beyond that to the players around him: : “The effect of doing this is
astonishing: Bryant doesn’t merely help his team less when Battier guards him than
when someone else does. When Bryant is in the game and Battier is on him, the
Lakers’ offense is worse than if the N.B.A.’s best player had taken the night off.”

Statistics takes what a small group of people see and give it the attention it deserves. Moneyball didn’t invent on-base percentage, but it elevated the statistic to another realm. Baseball was happy with measuring home runs, batting average, and runs batted in. For crying out loud “Game Winning RBI” was an official statistic in Major League Baseball from 1980-1986.  It helped make defense measurement and pitch framing into a monetary metric.

For as much as statistics can tell us after the fact, the key to them is helping them help us in the present and in the future. So caring more about what ought to have happened than what did happen. In other words – at some point sports is about chance – but there IS a right decision that reduces the probability more than another choice.

Vladimir Guerrero might be able to hit a ball that bounces off the ground – but throwing Vladimir Guerrero a pitch out of the strike zone low has a lower probability of being hit out than grooving him a fastball down the middle. He is a Hall of Famer after all.

We learn from statistics looking backward – and the best teams are learning how to use the knowledge to make better decisions moving forward. Great athletes find the exceptions, and we know that as humans we tend to focus on the exceptions than the rule(the availability heuristic). If teams in baseball, basketball, football and beyond can use statistics and escape our own behavioral biases – that is when statistics matter. When we are able to peak outside the current operating framework and realize there is much more happening than we realized. A new frame appears. The old understanding is gone, and a new opportunity appears.

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