Why Stats Are Ruining Sports

I write this despite being convinced of and appreciative of the usefulness of properly-applied statistics. I write this even though the first memory of my life is of walking to a Browns game with my father and older brother. I write this despite the last book I read (and thoroughly enjoyed) being Naked Statistics. I write this while wearing a Richmond Basketball t-shirt that I purchased before the Spiders’ miraculous Sweet 16 run from 2011, which I watched every game of with several fraternity brothers.

Spectator sports are becoming less enjoyable, and statistics are to blame.

Michael Lewis’ 2003 book, Moneyball, detailed how a jock-turned-luminary used advanced statistics to gain a competitive edge over his better-funded opponents. The book started a popular and professional revolution in sports. It made fans and front offices question why we settled for subpar statistics like batting average and points per game, when technology allowed us to do better. When evaluating any sports outcome, we should critically examine what we’re looking at, and go to great pains to separate junk from juice.

Moneyball took an old cliché that we already knew (“sports are businesses”) and prompted us to think of the logical next step: So how do we do things smarter?

Stat heads, as Lewis chronicles, used to have to fight with scouts to even get a seat at the table for personnel decision-making. No longer. Quants have implanted themselves in every MLB front office, a majority of those in the NBA, and a growing number in the NFL. Teams have hired extensively from Ivy League MBA programs; some of the most famous and successful personnel guys (Mark Shapiro, Theo Epstein, Mark Cuban) come from business backgrounds.

Despite the protestations of lazy, math-illiterate sportswriters, the Moneyball revolution hit home as well. It has fundamentally changed how even casual fans watch and think about sports. ESPN NBA box scores now include “plus/minus” calculations. Graphics on most local sports networks show a batter’s on-base and slugging percentages next to his batting average. (Side note: this is likely 75% of the reason that Clevelanders have not kicked Indians catcher Carlos Santana out of town.)

This was Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” at work. As fans learned about these stats, they demanded more of them, and major sports media has had no choice but to provide. Every piece of sports content we consume, be it a Web article or an episode of “Baseball Tonight”, is volumes more sophisticated than it was twenty years prior. The authors of the now-defunct Fire Joe Morgan blog captured one famous commentator’s struggle to adapt to this sea change. A Hall of Fame second baseman, Morgan simply couldn’t – or wouldn’t – converse in the new normal language. He quickly slid into irrelevancy.

On multiple occasions, I have lauded this change. It makes absolute sense. Professional and major college sports are billion-dollar industries. The folks in charge damn well better get it right, or people lose their jobs. There’s simply too much at stake for team owners to treat their rosters like fantasy teams. Additional insight and accountability is crucial. Back to that cliché: sports are businesses. You can’t run payroll like you work for the government and money doesn’t matter.

So I get it. It’s logical. It’s inevitable. But it kinda sucks.

For those who don’t work in sports, they serve as a distraction. You throw the game on when you’re home from work, or you check a box score when you need a break from that TPS report. Now, most decent articles require you to actually think. Reading a piece by some of ESPN’s writers feels more like work than a distraction. The other day I spent thirty minutes picking apart KC Joyner’s methodology and trying to figure out a better way to measure what he was trying to measure. For an article about the Percy Harvin trade. At my last job, a coworker gave me tutoring in advanced Excel using data about the 2009 Cleveland Indians from BaseballReference.com. I no longer play fantasy baseball because I don’t want to spend the hours necessary combing through B-ref.com preparing for the draft to compete in the league.

Advanced analytics have also eliminated much of the spontaneity of sports. We don’t even really need directional measures like on-base percentage anymore. We now have, in all three major sports, “wins above replacement” (or WAR) calculations. Major trades and roster transactions are literally described by how many wins a team can expect to have netted. PECOTA and other proprietary tools can tell you, with shocking accuracy, how many games a Major League team will win before the season even starts. As an Indians fan, this now means that after a surprisingly good start, I find myself saying “we’re going to regress to the norm, huh” rather than “I think we’re gonna tank.” And I have an insanely-complicated algorithm to back me up!

If you think this is bad, it’s only going to get worse. Much, much worse. The revolution just started. By the nature of statistics, as we get more people and more data sets, the predictions will become better. Right now, PECOTA gets a few things wrong every season. In five years, it will not. Cinderella stories will be rare outliers, not the semi-frequent surprises that we’re accustomed to. Florida Gulf Coast won’t be a 15 seed, and no one will be shocked when the first-ever NBA eight-seed beats a number one.

This lack of the unknown and lessening of surprises has already lessened my enjoyment of sports. Like most twenty-somethings, I derive much of my joy from sports by yelling at my friends and unabashedly claiming my correctness. The fun of these arguments, of course, was that there was never a way to impartially decide them. So I was always right. Now? An ESPN Insider subscription can solve most of our arguments.

I don’t expect everyone to agree with me. Some people genuinely enjoy applying themselves intellectually to sports. (When I want to think, I read Hayek or Heinlein.) And in no way can I come up with a valid reason for teams and media outlets to slow this trend. Most frustrating of all is its stunning logic.

But not being able to scream at your friends about sports? Not being able to play fantasy without devoting several hours a week? Being unable to participate in a conversation about the game without referencing a player’s adjusted plus/minus? That’s pretty weaksauce, bro.

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