Well, you can feel the panic creeping in. What happened to our sports? People don't care about pitchers' wins anymore? When did that happen? A coach goes for it on fourth-and-two deep in his own territory? NBA players are now judged by their offensive, defensive and pass ratings? NASCAR success is the result of engineering—not driver—genius? Yes, there's a whole lotta shaking going on. The mathematicians are taking over our games.
This is an article from the Nov. 30, 2009 issue
This has been building for quite a while. The numbers game goes back to a time long before Michael Lewis's Moneyball ... before Dr. Frank Ryan, the mathematician who played quarterback and guided the Browns to the 1964 NFL championship, a year before he got his Ph.D . ... before Allan Roth, the first full-time statistician in sports, worked up formulas for Branch Rickey's Brooklyn Dodgers. The tango of sports and math goes back to the beginning, to the ancient Olympics, where Greek athletes would consult magicians and scholars to help them devise plans for winning.
The sports and math people mostly did their work in the dark, in quiet and hidden places usually summed up by the mainstream as their mother's basement. Bill James, who has spent a lifetime bringing logic into baseball, used to do his math work while working as a security guard in the Stokely Van Camp pork and beans factory. That's where many people no doubt wish he stayed.
But no. Math has come into the light. Once upon a time, wins—and winning percentage—always played a big role in Cy Young voting. But last week Kansas City's Zack Greinke won the Cy with 16 victories, the fewest ever for an American League starter in a full season. As it turned out, he was only the opening act. The next day San Francisco's Tim Lincecum won the National League Cy Young with only 15 victories. Minor mayhem ensued on the radio, in the papers, on the Internet.
"You start to worry about perennial low ERA, high strikeout guys like [the Braves' Javier] Vazquez being propelled to the highest level of respect ... when they shouldn't," Jack McDowell, the 1993 Cy Young winner (after, naturally, he led the AL in wins), wrote on his blog.
"The game is still about winning," grumbled Hall of Fame scribe Murray Chass, formerly of The New York Times and now a blogger. From the other coast, Orange County Register columnist Mark Whicker chimed in: "The disregard for a pitcher's win total is a little disquieting."
And so on. Yes, there will be some rebelling, but the truth is, The win is dead. Sure, pitcher victories made some sense back in the late 19th century, back when the Father of Baseball, Henry Chadwick, argued that pitchers should get credit when their teams won. In those days, pitchers finished what they started. In 1884, Old Hoss Radbourn started 73 games and completed every one of them.
But these days—with pitchers completing about 3% of their starts—the win has become a fatuous statistic. There are so many other numbers that do a better job of summing up a pitcher's value. ERA+ measures his earned run average against the league's (taking into account the quirks of his home ballpark). Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) measures the things we know a pitcher controls (home runs, walks, hit batsmen, strikeouts) without weighing them down with how well or poorly his defense plays. Win Probability Added (WPA) adds or subtracts a season's worth of plays—positive points for getting out of a bases-loaded jam, negative points for giving up that two-out, RBI single—to estimate how many wins a pitcher adds to his team.
There are dozens more useful metrics. With so many statistics measuring a pitcher's specific contribution, why would anyone count on something as vague and misleading as wins? And yet, many people don't want to let go. The beautiful thing about pitcher wins is, well, the word: wins. No abbreviation, no acronym, no math required. There's something visceral about sports, something people don't want to lose. Take New England coach Bill Belichick's decision to go for it on fourth-and-two against Indianapolis late in the fourth quarter. The Patriots led by six, they had the ball on their own 28. Well, it felt wrong. As ex--Colts coach Tony Dungy would say immediately afterward on NBC, "You have to punt there."
When the gamble did not work, people jumped. (Former Patriots star Tedy Bruschi, for example, viewed the decision as a slap at the New England defense.) But the math agrees with Belichick. No matter how you add it up, the percentage chance of Tom Brady and the offense picking up the fourth down and the percentage chance of the Patriots keeping the Colts out of the end zone if they failed work out to a better chance of winning than simply punting.
People will say they don't want to argue about math. They want to argue about sports, the emotion, the feelings, the human element. Jimmy Cannon once wrote, "Baseball isn't statistics. Baseball is DiMaggio rounding second." Maybe so. There's still room for poetry in sports. But the stats will tell you that in 51 World Series games, Joe DiMaggio did not hit even one triple. That's an interesting thing to know too.
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