In the beginning, Baseba’al gave us the hit, the home run, the walk, the strikeout, the run, the RBI, and the ERA. For a time, it was good. However, there came a time when the prophet (some may say heretic) Bill looked deeper into the game that Baseba’al gave us. What he found was a deeper, more thorough, and nuanced understanding of the Baseba’al’s gift. And since the prophet Bill (with apologies to King Herod) had access to mass communication he was able to share his findings with kindred spirits. Like most new beliefs, it started out with a small group of dedicated disciples eager to learn of Bill’s newfound understanding. But then there was DARPA and then the scribe Michael published the Book of Beane and the teachings of the prophet Bill spread like wildfire. Like all new belief systems Sabremetrics was welcomed by some, who devoured and expanded upon the core tenets of Bills teachings, whereas others viewed these new ideas as heresy, out to destroy what Baseba’al had given us.
However, Sabremetrics was here to stay, and to some it allowed not only a greater understanding of Baseba’al’s game, but the ability for the David’s to be more competitive with Goliaths, and Baseba’al saw that it was good, because competition is good.
The prophet Bill’s impact on our understanding of many of the games we love should not be understated or underestimated, his influence is everywhere, including these other games, but also in unexpected areas like the book I’m reviewing here.
Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won wants to be the Freakonomics of the sports world. (So much so that on the hardcover version has a quote from one of the authors of Freakonomics making a favorable comparison. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, I started, but never finished Freakonomics.
Firstly, let me tell you what this book isn’t. This book isn’t a primer on how to do your own sabremetric analysis, in any sport. Research is discussed, findings are presented, but detailed methodologies and analysis of resulting data are not presented. For some (like me) who haven’t yet fully grasped the concepts of advanced statistical analysis beyond averages and standard deviations, but get the concept of small sample size yet aren’t sure how to decide when the sample isn’t small, this is a good thing, There is a thorough bibliography in the back of the book (grouped chapter by chapter) for those readers who want (or in some cases need) to dig deeper into the information presented.
Sports fans often have a fervor similar to that of the very religious, and such fervor often leads to a strong faith; a belief in things unseen that you are sure exist. Scorecasting’s admirable goal is to take on some of the most widely held and believed sports ‘faiths’ and use statistical analysis to determine if they are actually true or not; to make seen that which was previously unseen.
There are a variety of topics covered in Scorecasting (including a cute anecdote about summer camp softball which will resonate with anyone who went to a ‘sports based’ summer camp as a child like I did – hint – right field isn’t the right place for that kid maybe) that should appeal to every sports fan, not matter which is your favorite. Some evidence (for instance, shrinking strike zones or why going for it on fourth down is a good idea) is more compelling than other evidence (the attempt to parse out the ‘home field advantage source’ for instance seems less strong to me). Some chapters are quite short and focus on one small thing (the coin toss in the NFL overtime or the value of a blocked shot in the NBA) while others don’t analyze game play at all (for instance the impact of the Rooney rule on the ability of black coaches to ‘lose’ or why the NFL ‘draft pick valuation’ (created by the cowboys by the way) might not be a good idea and why Eagles fans might want to give Andy Reid a break on draft day).
The best part of Scorecasting though is the psychology of things. Many of the chapters tackle topics that deal, one way or another, with human behavior. In those chapters, the writers (neither of whom are psychologists, but obviously talked to many and read many of their papers) try to explain why while the conclusion might be counterintuitive (or make you angry as a sports fan) makes perfect sense in terms of human psychology. What is loss aversion and how does it influence human behavior? How do positive incentives motivate people, positively and negatively? What is luck, and why we as sports fans better understand it? These topics and others are used to try and put what was proven (or disproven) into the context of human behavior. After all, we’re all human, but we expect our athletes, our coaches, and (especially it seems) our referees to be better than human, to be above the things that often influence the actions we make on a daily basis (and perhaps that’s not really fair is it?)
At my undergraduate university there was a course referred to fondly as Physics for Poets. It fulfilled a science requirement for non-science majors. Theories of physics were discussed, but no math was required to be done. You didn’t have to calculate force (mass time acceleration I still remember, in a vacuum of course), you just had to understand what force was (no young Skywalker, not that force). It was purely theory based, and not too deep. If a University statistics department wanted to teach a course on the impact of statistics on modern sports, Scorecasting would be the ideal text book, it gives a great overview on a variety of theories in a variety of sports without being too ‘math heavy’, which while making a book more appealing to the mainstream might make the book less appealing to you.
If you enjoy any sport, and you are a disciple, on any level, of modern sports statistics, Scoreasting is good book to have in you library. It might teach you something you didn’t know before. It might lend strength to a previously held belief you had, but the evidence was unseen. It might help you in that next bar debate or blog discussion you have about a given topic. I’m almost sure that no matter who you are, if you read this book, you will look at at least one thing in your sports life differently, and if you like to do your own research on things, it could stimulate you towards new avenues of research or expanding your hypothesis to more sports.