Where Numbers Go Next
The man whose work with statistics transformed baseball - and helped the Sox win it all - says it's time to use mathematical research not just to improve teams, but to improve the games themselves.
(Illustration by Michelle Thompson)
In sports, mathematical analysis is old news as applied to baseball, basketball, and football. Statistical research of player performances has now been routinely applied to improve the results of individual teams. But it has not yet been applied to leagues. This unexplored area holds great promise for sports, and sports fans. Rather than beginning with the question "How does a team win?" - the query that has been the basis of all sports research to this point - what if we begin by asking "How does a league succeed?"
Take the problem of what we could call NBA "sluggishness." In the regular season, players simply don't seem to be playing hard all the time. Some people attribute this to high salaries, but the other major sports are choking on money and don't seem to have the problem to any comparable degree. Also, it's illogical to argue that money is a disincentive to playing hard. If you doubled the prize money for a car race, would the drivers slow down and start coasting?
The NBA's problem is that the underlying mathematics of the league are screwed up. In every sport, there is an element of predetermination and an element of randomness in the outcomes. Who will win the championship next year is not entirely a crapshoot. We know that Kentucky has a better chance of winning the NCAA basketball title than Nebraska does - next year, or in 2019. If we knew with certainty who was going to win the title next year, then we could say that the championship was 100 percent predetermined, 0 percent random.
In the NBA, the element of predetermination is simply too high. Simply stated, the best team wins too often. If the best team always wins, then the sequence of events leading to victory is meaningless. Who fights for the rebound, who sacrifices his body to keep the ball from rolling out of bounds doesn't matter. The greater team is going to come out on top anyway.
A fan can look at the standings in December, pick the teams that will make the playoffs, and might get them all. This has a horrific effect on the game. Everybody knows who's going to win. Why do the players seem to stand around on offense? Why is showboating tolerated? Because it doesn't matter. Why don't teams play as teams? Because they can win without doing so (although teams like these may crumble when they run up against the Pistons or Spurs).
So how should the NBA correct this? Lengthen the shot clock. Shorten the games. Move in the 3-point line. Shorten the playoffs.
If you reduce the number of possessions in a game by giving teams more time to hold the ball, you make it more likely that the underdog can win - for the same reason that Bubba Watson is a lot more likely to beat Tiger Woods at golf over three days than he is over four. It's simple math. The longer the contest lasts, the more certain the better team is to win. If the NBA went back to shorter playoff series - for example from best-of-seven games to best-of-three - an upset in that series would become a much more realistic possibility. A three-game series would make the homecourt advantage much more important, which, in turn, would make the regular season games much more important. The importance of each game is inversely related to the frequency with which the best team wins.
On the other foot, no league could thrive, either, if every team had the same chance to win. The NFL is a well-managed league, but it runs a risk of pushing too hard in the other direction. If every team has the same chance to win, whatever you do is just as meaningless. Of course, the NFL has not approached that point, but it needs to be careful about parity.
What is the "perfect balance" point, at which leagues tend most to thrive? I don't know, because it hasn't been studied.
Do leagues thrive when the best teams are in the biggest cities? Or is it actually better for the league if the best teams are in smaller cities, like a Green Bay, which can "adopt" the team and make it its own?
Do leagues grow rapidly in periods of innovation and development, or do leagues prosper more in periods of stability? Is it better for a league if the player provides his own equipment, or is it better for the league if the league controls the equipment?
Nobody really knows.
We've spent a long time studying what is good for the Red Sox, the Patriots, the Celtics. The issue of what is good for leagues is virgin territory. It's time to step back and look at the bigger picture. People ask me all the time: Where is baseball research going in the next generation? This is where it's going.
Bill James, senior baseball operations adviser for the Boston Red Sox, is the author of more than 20 books. His newest, The Bill James Handbook 2008, is out next month. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.