Why Stats Are Ruining Sports


Image via Sloan

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 what was available 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.

Yi! Interviews: Neil Ruddock on Education Reform


Image via PolitiFact
Image via PolitiFact

Editor’s note: Education reform has received a great deal of attention from politicians, business leaders, and celebrities. To learn more about the topic, Yi! News spoke with Neil Ruddock, a State Advocacy Director for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. (Full disclosure: Ruddock is Contributing Editor Brian’s brother.) Neil’s resume includes stints as a congressional staffer, consultant for Educational Testing Service, and Policy Advisor for the Indiana Department of Education. He holds a Master’s Degree in Government from Johns Hopkins University and a BA in Government from the University of Notre Dame.

Yi! News: We’re seeing the topic of education come up a lot. Fortune 500 executives are talking about it. The president dedicated several lines of his State of the Union Address to it. Why now?

Neil Ruddock: First of all, you have a realization that the notion of a good-paying, low-skill job that you can support a family on is largely a thing of the past. Increased education is crucial. That doesn’t mean everyone coming out of our system has to get a degree from a Yale or a Harvard, or even have a four year degree necessarily. But for most of the jobs providing a livable wage, a 12-year education won’t do it. There needs to be some sort of formal, post-high school education.

A lot of folks will start post-secondary and not be prepared for it. So not only will they not finish, but they’ll wind up with a lot of debt on top of it. That’s not sustainable for the economy in the long term.

Yi!: So for those of our readers who don’t actively follow education policy, can you provide a quick definition of charter schools and vouchers?

Ruddock:  A charter school is public school that walks, talks, acts like, and is recognized as, a public school. The key difference between a charter and traditional public school is that charters, by and large, aren’t subject to collective bargaining. For the most part, charter schools are run by folks who don’t want to be tied down by the regulations that come with collective bargaining.

Vouchers provide public funding that allows a student to attend a public or private school they may otherwise not be able to afford. In practice, they’re generally used at private schools, but state laws usually allow them to be used at public schools. The number of regulations that a private school has to implement to accept vouchers varies state by state.

Yi!: Both Republicans and Democrats agree that there has to be reform, and they seem to have some common ground. Yet nothing of significance has been passed. What are the main sources of disagreement?

Ruddock: No Child Left Behind has not been renewed, to be sure, but I don’t think it’s accurate to say that nothing of significance has passed. Race to the Top pushed states to start taking meaningful steps towards reform, but implementing those reforms is hard work.

Efforts to pay the best teachers more; to make layoff decisions based on merit, or lack thereof, rather than seniority, are going to be controversial because they get at the current power structure, where unions have built in protection for members as a justification for membership. This isn’t to say they’re the source of all issues. We still have school boards and superintendents that allow a lot of these harmful provisions in there. It takes two to tango. So there are some serious structural issues that get in the way of progress.

Yi!: You mentioned some unwise policies like seniority-based firing. What are some of the most ill-advised rules or laws you’ve come across?

Ruddock: Before we worked on reform, the collective bargaining agreement for one of the largest districts in Indiana had a rule that when two teachers being considered for a layoff had the same seniority, they’d add up the last four digits of each teacher’s Social Security number. The one with the lowest sum was let go. You’d have other places where maybe one teacher’s last name started with an “R”, and the other started with a “B”, and the teacher with the “R” name was let go. So you had all kinds of things that were really harmful to students. Several Teacher of the Year candidates were laid off, because there was no evaluation system, no baseline, in place.

Yi!: It seems that there’s a lot of opposition around metrics for teachers. Do you think the main problem critics have is with quantification overall, or with specific methodologies and how the numbers are calculated?

Ruddock: What you’ve highlighted is the difference between teachers and teachers unions. I think you have a lot of teachers one hundred percent comfortable being evaluated with some objective measures. When the rubber meets the road of implementation, the unions are not as comfortable including test-score data as many of their members are.

Evaluation is still in its early stages. I don’t think anyone thinks one metric, one test score should determine things. Any class can have a bad test on a particular day. But in guarding against that, you can’t say “Does the teacher try hard?,”  “Do they have good relationship with the students?,”  etc…some of those soft variables that take focus away from whether or not the students are actually learning. But there’s a lot of work still to be done.

Yi!: President Obama mentioned in his State of the Union address the need for increased federal education funding, specifically for lowering student loan interest rates and providing more tuition subsidies. Critics point out that such policies have contributed to increasing tuition costs. Do you agree with this critique?

Ruddock: There’s a fair argument to be made there, that you’re feeding the beast. The reality is that both student financial aid spending and tuition rates have gone up by a significant amount.

Yi!: Some of the calls for reform, particularly from pundits on the right, have revolved around using education to reduce the deficit. Do you think it’s more important to cut the waste from education, or to just “get it right” with existing funds?

Ruddock: State budgets are written by legislators, and they have many priorities to balance when they write those budgets. Dollars have just been poured at the same system rather than using the extra money for structural reform. My position, and the position of my organization, is if a state wants to spend more money on education, where is it being put? To help truly good teachers be paid well? To help kids improve their reading skills? Or is it simply going into the existing system that pays based on tenure and how many degrees a teacher has? If it’s the latter, we’re missing a huge opportunity.

As far as how it plays into deficit reduction, entitlements are the main drivers of the deficit. It’s confusing as to why the same folks who want more money in the same system, ala teachers unions, why aren’t they more in favor of entitlement reform? The tragedy is that Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, etc. will swallow programs like education.

I struggle to understand why those who advocate for more education funding are so hesitant to challenge the seniors lobby and join the effort to reform entitlements. They have nothing to lose, because the dirty secret is that senior citizens vote even in low-turnout elections., i.e. elections where many school levies fail.

At day’s end, education spending is something that is threatened by the deficit–not something that drives it.

Yi!: You deal with politicians on a daily basis. Who are some Republicans and Democrats that are getting education reform “right”?

Ruddock: On the GOP side, [Louisiana Governor] Bobby Jindal has been very emphatic about doing what’s right for students. [Former Indiana Governor] Mitch Daniels took a very aggressive stance and didn’t apologize for it. He really provided cover to people that were doing the tough but necessary work. As far as Democrats go, a lot of interesting things are coming out of Colorado. Governor Hickenlooper is willing to have the hard conversations. [Chicago Mayor] Rahm Emmanuel, who has a steeper hill to climb because of how powerful unions are there, has worked very hard to push for reform.

Yi!: We tend to think of reform as just happening through public or government channels, but we’ve seen the private sector come up with the concept of MOOC’s, or massive open online courses. Do you think MOOC’s are a real game-changer, or more just something that can help out on the margins?

Ruddock: It remains to be seen, but I think it will fundamentally alter the higher-ed market. It won’t eviscerate the brick-and-mortar model necessarily, but you have a system where the cost increases have been outpacing ability of customer base to pay for some time now. Whether it will happen in two, five, or ten years is open for debate. What is clear is that the current higher-ed model is unsustainable. So I think MOOC’s will have a significant impact.

Yi!: Any closing thoughts?

Ruddock: What I would point out is that at a broad level, there’s a lot of money, there’s a lot of turf, and the folks that want to protect that turf have been better informed and active than the regular citizens. Somehow, someway, those numbers have got to start shifting in order to make reform sustainable.

Say what you will about legislators, but they know how to count votes. It’s one thing to make a difficult vote. It’s another thing to make a suicidal vote. The more your average citizen follows these things, the better. Policy change doesn’t happen in a vacuum.