Wednesday, May 2, 2012


Post-"Freakonomics", there've only been about six dozen books that take the exact same "everything you thought you knew was wrong!" approach to solving conundrums by using economic theory to explain social behavior. Me, I truly enjoyed "Freakonomics", and I really don't mind all the knock-offs, either. We can all use a little more rationality in our lives as a means to temper our human frailty and our willingness to believe what the herd believes. Sports, of course, has had a mini-revolution in rational thinking the past decade or two involving advanced statistics and a general questioning of the  traditional "gut feel". It still feels decades behind economics itself, however, with some sports like baseball ahead of other sports like, say, hockey. Into this abyss steps a terrific book called "SCORECASTING" that attempts to right many wrongs and pick apart some shibboleths that have wormed their way into the sporting world over many years.

Moscowitz and Wertheim make for a great team here; one a professor of finance and economics, the other a longtime Sports Illustrated writer. Both are big sports fans and questioners of the status quo. Their book has multiple chapters designed to answer questions like, "Why is there a home field advantage in every sport?", "Is basketball defense truly more important than offense?", and, though the question doesn't come up directly as its own chapter but is part of almost every chapter, "How much impact does the referee/umpire/official have on a game?" (the answer is a LOT, enough to explain virtually all of the home field advantage in every major sport).

The impact of the official is truly the big eye-opener in this book. These guys have studied data from numerous angle, and in those areas in which an official has direct control (adding extra "stoppage time" in soccer; calling subjective fouls in basketball; balls and strikes in baseball etc.), the human element is in play. By this I/they mean: the official is a mere human like the rest of us. The data proves it: when a call is likely to result in a home crowd being angry (the larger the crowd, the better), the official is far less likely to make the call against the home team, and far more likely to make it against the visiting team. I guess we all know that in our hearts - in baseball it certainly appears to be the case - but the degree to which is explains the vaunted home-field advantage is revelatory. The degree to which this is true actually increases the closer the fans are to mauling distance to the official - for instance, a stadium with seats tight in on home plate or to the base paths. Amazing.

There are a number of superb football examples as well. The early chapter "Go For It" reviews an Arkansas high school football coach who never kicks or punts on 4th down, who always onsides a post-touchdown kickoff, and who never positions a kickoff returner when it's his team's turn to receive, preferring to let the ball always die on the turf instead. This guy's the ultimate football sabermatician, a guy who's run the numbers and has had a ton of success with his highly unorthodox coaching methods. Nothing's quite so hide-bound as football, and another chapter talks about the Dallas Cowboys NFL draft method, in which picks in the draft are assigned a point value, independent of player. The NFL powers-that-be are so set in their ways that this ingenious system, which worked exceptionally well for the Cowboys in the 1990s, was first ignored by everyone, then adopted en masse by all teams to the point in which its ubiquity ensured its demise.

So it's a pretty fun read from top to bottom. "Scorecasting" gets at a couple of new eternal truths in the course of trying to abolish some old ones, and it has, like "Freakonomics", apparently been so well-received that a sequel is in the works. I don't buy every argument they throw out in this one, but the fact that I don't quite have counter-arguments ready & prepared is testimony to their data-driven analysis and ability convey it in a fun, provocative manner.