Scorecasting

I’m a sports junkie – always have been. It’s a problem, I know. I’m a different kind of junkie though compared to my childhood. As a kid, I loved stats and analysis, but never made much sense of them. Sure, I could give up-to-date recitations of baseball’s hitting leaders and name the high school attended by most of the top college hoopsters, but I couldn’t explain how that affected any game results. Nor did I care to, the game just wasn’t of great import.

Now, sports are all about the game for me. It’s about consuming that live sporting experience in some form, be it TV, web, radio, or attending it live. I don’t record things for later viewing, I don’t watch much pre or post-game analysis, I’m not well-versed in player stats, and I rarely read the recap the next day in the paper. The problem is, I can’t do much ’splaining, which is why I grabbed this book.

I consume these live sporting events often in massive quantities, and sometimes to the detriment of loved ones, my job, and my health. My interest is twofold, I love the rush of excitement I get as the drama unfolds, and I embrace the intellectual experience of trying to figure out why things happen on the field of play. This book is very helpful in the latter.

The authors, Jon Wertheim and Tobias Moskowitz, are friends and sports junkies. One is a University of Chicago finance professor (Moskowitz) and the other a writer for Sports Illustrated (Wertheim). Here, in their words, is a telling statement of why they wrote this book:

Even though sports are treated as a diversion and ignored by highbrow types, they are imbued with tremendous power to explain human behavior more generally.

I can picture these guys wandering through the hallowed halls of academia or media (ie…highbrow types) wishing they could find someone to talk sports with. Well, they’ve found an outlet and I’m gobbling it up. In fact, I’ve heard mention of a sequel and I’m ready for it (they mentioned this in the credits if I recall correctly, their blog does not have anything on it).

To really understand what’s happening on the field of play, there are some key concepts they explore, and the book goes through them in detail. Here are the five main ones.

Key Concept 1: Omission Bias

… It conforms to a sort of default mode of human behavior. People view acts of omission—the absence of an act—as far less intrusive or harmful than acts of commission—the committing of an act—even if the outcomes are the same or worse. Psychologists call this omission bias, and it expresses itself in a broad range of contexts.

This explains why the refs “let them play” at the end of big games or why umpires blow more calls on a two-strike count.

Key Concept 2: Loss Aversion

There’s not just an aversion to risk and confrontation; coaches often make the wrong choice. In other words, they’re just like … the rest of us. Time and again, we let the fear of loss overpower rational decision-making and often make ourselves worse off just to avoid a potential loss.

This explains why golfers will miss more putts for birdie than they will for par or why football coaches will punt on fourth down even though it would make more sense to go for it.

Key Concept 3: Quantity Bias

We see this all the time in many facets of life and business. People count quantities (easy) rather than measure importance (hard) and as a result sometimes make faulty decisions.

This explains why people erroneously assume Dwight Howard is a better shot blocker than Tim Duncan simply because Howard blocked a whole lot more shots than Duncan or why a .299 hitter in baseball is usually a much better bargain than a .300 hitter.

Key Concept 4: Influence Conformity

Despite fans’ claims to the contrary, referees are, finally, human. Psychology finds that social influence is a powerful force that can affect human behavior and decisions without the subjects even being aware of it. Psychologists call this influence conformity because it causes the subject’s opinion to conform to a group’s opinion.

This is the big one. It is almost wholly responsible for the home field advantage. The writers beat the tar out of home field advantage. They tested the theory that home teams do better because they are more rested, and debunked it. They tested the theory that familiar surroundings help the home team win more often, and debunked it.

The home team advantage happens mostly because the home team gets favorable calls by the refs. Period. The refs, without knowing it, are influenced by the home crowd and because they are human, fall prey to influence conformity. Fascinating stuff.

In the end, I have new appreciation for judgment calls by umpires/referees. There was a period recently where I shunned the major sports and focused almost exclusively on golf and running because those two competitive endeavors are devoid of judgment calls. But judgment calls are part of the game and part of life. Bad calls are just as real as great plays and great chokes. It’s an unfair and biased world that we live in and sports prove this every day.

Key Concept 5: Pattern Attribution Tendency

Why do we attribute so much importance to “sports momentum” when it’s mostly fiction? Psychology offers an explanation. People tend to ascribe patterns to events. We don’t like mystery.

They explain in detail why momentum is bull. So many of those “nine out of last ten” stats or “five game winning streaks” are completely irrelevant to the outcome of the next at-bat, the next free throw, or the next game. Those stats are lazy fall-backs for uninformed sportscasters who should dig a little deeper to explain what’s going on.

Oh, there’s a lot more folks. About half the chapters are lengthy and filled with lots of data. The other half are shorter, which helps break up the intensity a little bit. Smart, very smart. It finishes strong with a detailed study of why the Cubs usually suck. It’s a chapter worth waiting for, especially if you’re a Sox fan. They dig deeply into the correlation between the annual change in attendance and the annual change in number of wins, comparing the Cubs to the Sox and the Yankees. It slaps you in the face.

I’ve only scratched the surface, this is an enlightening book. And I’ve heard Moskovitz and Wertheim have a lot more material for the sequel. I can’t wait.