Statistics taking fun out of sports
Today Couch Slouch presents the first installment of our ground-breaking investigative series, “Statistics Are Non-Nutritional, and In Some Cases Will Kill You.” No sabermetricians were harmed in the preparation of this report, though several were offended.
Let me directly address the data visualization crowd before we go any further:
Do you have to suck all the pleasure out of watching sports?
Earlier this year at the annual Sloan Sports Analytics Conference – boy, there’s a hooker haven if there ever was one – Yale professor Edward Tufte lectured, “Don’t let people tell you analytics are reductionist and take the joy out of sports. They mostly just take the stupidity out of sports.”
No, Eddie baby, they’re taking the joie de vivre out of sports.
As far as stupidity goes, yes, I am stupid as charged. As my good friend Forrest Gump once said, “Stupid is as stupid does,” and in my home, stupid happily does a whole of nothing while scratching myself three hours at a time watching a game.
Besides, sometimes ignorance is bliss.
Going to the movies was more enjoyable when we knew less about the larger-than-life stars. They were screen gods; nothing is gained, as a moviegoer, by knowing that Joan Crawford was a cruel and capricious mother or that Clint Eastwood fathered two children with a flight attendant while living with actress Sondra Locke.
Similarly, when Kirk Gibson blasted his improbable home run to end Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, I didn’t care what his OPS was against relievers, I just cared that he limped out on one leg and flicked a one-armed miracle over the right-field wall, then pumped his arm repeatedly while rounding the bases.
WAR, VORP, BABIP and DIPS, my foot.
If the stat whizzes went to New Orleans in February, Mardi Gras would move to New Jersey.
(The only way I’m ever inviting Nate Silver to a dinner party is if there’s a drive-thru window.)
They say the truth is in the numbers. The truth is not in the numbers; the numbers are in the numbers.
Or, to quote the inestimable Vin Scully, “Statistics are used much like a drunk uses a lamppost. For support, not illumination.”
Still, the stat geeks argue that they, indeed, do illuminate the game and, if we want, we can ignore them.
But we can’t. They bleed into blogs and broadcasts and bleacher seats. Imagine sitting next to a fellow at the ballpark who spends a couple of hours blathering to his buddy about the Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm; by the seventh-inning stretch, you’re ready to empirically re-algorithimize his noggin.
These people could reduce a sunset to a pie chart – you’re marveling at the changing colors of the splendid sky and they’re plotting cyclic phenomena with a polar area diagram.
We say, “Man, Masahiro Tanaka is a beast – 24-0 last season in Japan and now 11-3 this season with the Yankees.”
And they say, “He struck out only 7.8 batters per nine innings last year – his lowest mark since 2010 – and averaged 110 pitches per start in 2013, which is too high to sustain a long MLB career.”
I mean, how can we enjoy Tanaka’s remarkable 35-3 two-year run with those killjoy stat vultures hovering?
It reminds me of when I was luxuriating in late-night “Kojak” reruns in the late 1980s until my first wife – a second-year law student at the time – would walk in mid-episode, take a gander at a single scene and remark, “They didn’t properly Mirandize that perp.”
“Geez, honey,” I would say to her, “I’m just watching to hear Telly Savalas go, ‘Who loves ya, baby?’”
We were divorced within 18 months, which statistically was inevitable considering that the United States has the sixth-highest divorce rate in the world and 41 percent of first marriages in America since 1950 end in dissolution.
Sometimes, I guess stats don’t lie.
Ask The Slouch
Q. Frequently in the World Cup, players crumple to the ground with apparent serious injuries only to be up and running the next minute. What is the origin of the incredible recuperative powers of these players? (Howard Walderman; Columbia, Maryland)
A. Fast Actin’ Tinactin.
Q. At the last two NBA drafts, the No. 1 overall pick – Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins – has been Canadian-born. That doesn’t sound right to me. (Mark Freed; Aurora, Illinois)
A. Gosh, that’s another long border fence we’re talking about.
Q. Why would a soccer player bite another soccer player’s shoulder? (Steve Weintraub; Piscataway, New Jersey)
A. Look at it this way – if he had a gun, he would’ve shot him. So a shoulder bite seems rather benign.
Q. Should the tens of millions of non-Native Americans with credit card debt find the San Diego Chargers’ nickname disparaging? (Steve DeShazo; Fredericksburg, Virginia)
A. Pay the man, Shirley.
You, too, can enter the $1.25 Ask The Slouch Cash Giveaway. Just e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and, if your question is used, you win $1.25 in cash!