Can you cut open a frog to see how it jumps? Jonah Lehrer, a contributing editor at Wired, argues on Grantland.com that you can’t. Hardcore statistical analysis of sports – sabermetrics, a baseball term, is used as a catch-all – is leading to grievous errors on teams’ and fans’ parts by ignoring what can’t be measured by obsessing on what can. Stat-heads, he argues, believe statistical accomplishments trump the rest, turning human competition into a series of fantasy leagues where everything is on paper and nothing is appreciated. There is no real insight, only leader boards. Sabermetrics is missing the point of the team.
Lehrer’s piece, posted this morning, has caused a bit of a stir, and rightly so. Broadly criticizing statistical analysis is a time-honored editorial decision, and as good a foot to start off on for a non-sports writer as any. Lehrer’s piece is succinct but bubbly and cleverly written. Fans can tire of sabermetrics if they’re not following the discussion in real-time. At first take, much of sabermetric discussion is dismissive: “Scoring baskets is overrated, let’s move on to efficiency.” It can suck the fun out of a game. But while Lehrer does well at focusing his attention on sabermetrics, he’s not altogether honest and he might be entirely wrong.
Lehrer is off on many levels – no specific stats or metrics are mentioned, all evidence is anecdotal – but is most transparently incorrect lumping coaches in with statistically-obsessed general managers and fans. It’s simply not the case.
He argues that “coaches and executives” use sabermetrics to neglect important values that can’t be qualified in players, like “not being an asshole, playoff experience … and listening to the coach.” His argument that “coaches and fans use the numbers as an excuse to ignore everything else,” sticks out: Most coaches recuse themselves from outright statistical analysis. “It’s not a fantasy team,” is a common refrain among MLB managers; NBA coaches play the best guys they have as much as they can.
Lehrer doesn’t name a single GM or coach who forms rosters or runs lineups this way. The putative inattentive asshole with no playoff experience isn’t named; neither are the scores of willfully ignorant general managers and coaches.
(It might be true these qualities are important to team success, but the extent to which is unknown. Chris Paul did no favors for his then-coach Byron Scott; Kevin Durant and Dwight Howard may be too friendly to capitalize on their skills. All three are most likely the best players at their position.)
To Lehrer’s credit, some organizations are indeed statistically obsessed. One team hired a man named Roland Beech, formerly the webmaster of the statistics site 82games.com. Beech sat on the bench and helped the head coach set optimum lineups. The team’s assistant coach in charge of defense went on record proclaiming his statistical bent. The owner called out the statistician as a “key part” of how the season finished. If Lehrer had bothered cutting open the frog, he’d have seen it was Dallas.
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