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The numbers game doesn't always add up

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  August 25, 2011 01:36 PM

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Sports discourse has become strictly a numbers game. The only acceptable way to make a point in a sports discussion these days it seems is with a decimal point.

Whatever happened to the good, old-fashioned eye test or context? Formulating an opinion has been replaced by formulas when it comes to dissecting and discussing the games we love. Statistics have overrun sports the same way weeds spread through a deserted parking lot.

If the 1950s-'60s-era debate about who was a better player Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays was happening today, fans would simply look at who had the higher OPS-plus (On base percentage-plus-slugging percentage adjusted for ballpark conditions). It was Mantle. Or they would calculate who possessed the higher average WAR (wins above replacement value). It was Mays.

Where’s the romance in that?

Sports have become a dictatorship of digits, the province of percentages, averages, probabilities and esoteric statistics. Fans and media (yours truly included) worship at the altar of the integer. If an observation or thesis doesn’t have a numerical value then it lacks value.

It’s reached a point where no one trusts their instincts anymore . What should be self-evident is disputed by numbers.

Last season, David Garrard (108.3) had a higher fourth-quarter quarterback rating than Tom Brady (106.7). Now, quarterback rating is a particularly nebulous and notorious statistic. But is there any coach or general manager in the NFL that wouldn’t take Brady over Garrard with the game on the line in a nanosecond?

Stats are great at dispelling myths, but they’re also great at creating them.

For example, when the Red Sox signed Mike Cameron before the 2010 season and shifted Jacoby Ellsbury to left field, an oft-cited reason was Ellsbury’s low UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) in center field.

Baseball has long been a stat-obsessed sport and the final frontier of sabermetrics, the mathematical and statistical study of baseball, is reliable metrics that measure defensive performance.

In 2009, Ellsbury’s UZR – the number of runs he saved versus an average center fielder -- was minus-9.7, one of the worst ratings among regular center fielders. Cameron’s was 11.4.

This was used as justification by some fans and media for the then-37-year-old Cameron supplanting the younger, faster Ellsbury in center.

It should be pointed out that the Red Sox do not use UZR. They have their own advanced statistical measure of defense that has some shared principles, but is not the same.

However, it’s worth noting that in the MVP-caliber season Ellsbury is having, restored in center field, he is suddenly among the game’s best defensive center fielders, according to the same statistical measure that once condemned him.

Ellsbury has an 11.2 UZR this season, second-best among regular center fielders.

Odds are that speaks less to Ellsbury spending his offseason addressing some sort of defensive deficiency and more to the capricious nature of the stat.

Another problem with numbers is that they’re only as good as their application. There is a baseball statistic called batting average on balls in play that applies to pitchers. Sabermetricians regard this stat as a measure of luck, positing that once a ball is put in play the outcome of the play is largely out of the pitcher’s control.

Based on that theory it’s simply good old-fashioned good fortune that Tigers ace and Cy Young-in-waiting Justin Verlander has a .234 BABIP and Red Sox righthander John Lackey, who earlier this season was getting hit harder than a pińata, sports a.335 BABIP.

Is there a stat to account for putting common sense in play?

This is not to pick on sabermetricians, who are far more intelligent than me. Bill James, a Red Sox senior adviser and the father of sabermetrics, is a pioneer who has changed the game forever and for the better. Statistics like WAR, OPS and runs created are enriching and enlightening, taking us beyond baseball card stats to explain the game in greater detail.

Football sites like Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders provide a valuable way to evaluate player performance on a play-to-play basis.

ESPN’s John Hollinger is the Bill James of hoops. His PER (player efficiency rating) statistic is a reliable tool for comparing the impact of the game’s best players, and true shooting percentage accounts for the obvious difference in making a 3-point shot versus a 2-point field goal.

Former Globie Chris Snow, now director of video and statistical analysis for the Calgary Flames, is on the vanguard of advanced metrics in hockey.

On Boston.com, we have an excellent blog, Stats Driven, which delves neck deep into the numbers.

Statistics will always have a place in the hierarchy of sports. It’s just cold, hard numbers can’t rule with an intractable iron fist. They’re part of the solution, not the solution itself.

A guy who knew a little bit about math, Albert Einstein, once said: “Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.”

The problem with relying solely on numbers as the only distiller for sports discussion is that numbers can’t provide context.

They can’t tell you that Patriots wide receiver Chad Ochocinco is struggling adjusting to a different system of route calling with the Patriots, so he might not put up “Madden ‘12’” numbers right away.

Or that Brady was a bit off his game in 2009 because he had to spend time maintaining his surgically-repaired knee and was also dealing with cracked ribs and a broken finger among other maladies.

Or that Rajon Rondo’s shooting percentage declined because he was embarrassed by an off-hand remark President Barack Obama made.

Integers will never be able to measure the intangibles – ambiguous factors that make some athletes able to perform better than others and some teams able to execute better than others.

What makes sports compelling is that it often defies order, predictability and symmetry. That puts it directly at odds with statistics, a discipline based on those tenets.

So, if the only way to have a sports argument in the 21st century is to rattle off a bunch of numbers as evidence, then count me out.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news


...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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