The Taijitu of Sabermetrics

I watched that movie Moneyball. One thing led to another and I don’t believe in God anymore.

Sorry, blame Brad Pitt.

There was a little more to it than that, but what the film (and really the book) teaches is a tale about being careful about what you think you know. Because you probably don’t know as much as you think.

Bill James, Eric Walker, Billy Beane, and Voros McCraken, to name a scant few, took something that everyone was familiar with—a game that everyone knew how to play properly—and explained that not only were we wrong, but we could use their findings to actually improve how we play baseball (on average).

Baseball was just the beginning. I ran full force into sabermetrics and started questioning everything (politics, religion, people who talk to the dead). Like the average American guy I watch sports six nights a week and play fantasy sports eight days a week. There is plenty of time to wonder what the coaches are thinking by calling that play… because clearly it is wrong. It used to be they were just stupid, but now they were stupid because the numbers said they were.

It is more challenging to apply non-traditional stat thinking to sports that are not baseball. Basketball has begun to catch up, but it can also tell us that same cautionary tale, only the stats are on the other side:

Mike Zarren: “Someone will get past your perimeter defense and into the lane, a guy will have to come in from the weak side to help, they throw the pass out, and he’s gotta close out… and the people who sit next to me will be like, ‘[Ahh] he’s not closing out again!’ But I’m upset about some guy on the other side of the court, but only because I’ve watched practice for the last three weeks and we’ve been working on this, and the guy still doesn’t get any better at it.

If you don’t understand the defensive system, you just can’t understand that if you’re just looking at one guy’s stats.”

Stan Van Gundy: “You may say, ‘That guy hits a lot of threes’ or ‘He got a steal,’ well that’s great, but what you don’t understand—and this is why I say it’s not a video game—is that when that guy doesn’t take the roll man, the next time Dwight Howard doesn’t want to leave Tim Duncan to play Tony Parker. It all starts to break down; there are human elements to this.”

It has only been a few years since this stuff has become popular and many of us are falling back into the mindset of acting like we know how to play the game, only now we have gone too far to the other side.

Numbers can improve your play, but there is a certain point when you go overboard. The toughest part to accept is that finding that line is absurdly difficult, and if you are Joe Everyfan sitting in the bleachers or on your couch, regardless of the sport or how many games you watch, you might as well forget even trying to find the line. This makes legitimate instant analysis, ala Twitter or during the half time show, or placing the blame on one player or coach, next to impossible.

Fans should get upset with some decisions his team makes. I don’t cry when the Penguins lose in the playoffs (anymore), but zero emotional investment in a team isn’t being a fan. Not that I’m not dragging any spreadsheets into my Recycle Bin just yet. Numbers can absolutely enhance the enjoyment that we get out of sports and help teams improve their play. But there needs to be a balance here by keeping in mind what we actually know about the situation.

So the next time a batter squares around to bunt—and contrary to what seems to be the current popular belief, there are situations when the numbers say it is correct to bunt—remember that the coach knows things that you never will. Not because he is smarter than you are, but because of his knowledge of how the team should ideally function within their system and how practice has been going. He should never get a blind pass only because he’s the coach, and these things should be analyzed, but in the moment try to keep your calculator in its holster and just hope he gets the bunt down.

You will learn more about sports from their hour-long discussion than you will from a year’s worth of SportsCenter. The aforementioned quotes come at 34:41.