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Why stats matter

I confess that I’m a sucker for quantitative analysis of sports. Heck, I’m a sucker for quantitative analysis of just about anything. One argument people who are interested in statistics often hear is that the numbers suck the joy out of the game. Breaking down the stats is somehow a less noble way to follow sports than to just watch the games. David Berri, one of the authors of The Wages of Wins, asks the following:

Of course, if you are not engaged in such research (or even interested), then maybe you shouldn’t care how performance is measured. Then again, maybe the discussion of sports statistics is just part of the fun people get out of sports. I would be interested in hearing how people respond to the question “why should we care about measures of performance in basketball?”

Here’s my answer: everyone who cares about sports talks about why players and teams perform at the level that they do. Why did Houston Rockets lose most of their games last season? How did the Detroit Tigers go from being a bad team in 2005 to being a World Series team in 2006? How have the Oakland A’s been able to win so many games with one of the lowest payrolls in baseball? How were the New York Knicks so terrible last year given that they had a legendary coach and one of the highest payrolls in basketball?

Quantitative analysis (also known as stats) can help answer these kinds of questions. Indeed, I believe that statistical analysis often does a better job of revealing truths than the “analysis” of most sports fans and sports journalists. Outside the world of statistics, you read all about “choking” and lack of character and lack of chemistry and all sorts of other amateur psychology. Breaking down the numbers provides a falsifiable alternative to this kind of sports talk radio babble, enhancing my enjoyment of sports.

If I’m going to spend time arguing about sports, I’d prefer to have more evidence on my side than, “It sure seems like so and so strikes out every time he comes up to the plate with runners on base.” I know plenty of sports fans disagree, but I don’t have to respect them. And I certainly refuse to acknowledge their willful ignorance as a purer form of appreciation than my own.

1 Comment

  1. Which reminds me of this webcast at TED I just watched: “Statistician Peter Donnelly explores the common mistakes humans make in interpreting statistics, and the devastating impact these errors can have on the outcome of criminal trials.”

    http://tedblog.typepad.com/tedblog/2006/11/statistician_pe.html

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