The Ship Be Sinking

Mouth Almighty

Michael Lewis Pon Playground Riddim

Moneyball was a fun read, wasn’t it? And influential no doubt in the way it provided mainstream attention and cover to the attempts to smuggle advanced statistical information into sports; and yet there are times when I think its greatest influence wasn’t its contents so much as its tone and the way it framed the advanced stats movement for all sports. Take, for instance, the pro-advanced-stats arguments for +/- stats in basketball which crops up again here and here and elsewhere. What stands out to me are the ways they mirror and repeat Lewis’s presentation in Moneyball of the debate as nerds vs. jocks, as though the only motivation present on (the other) side is some sort of repetition of ancient high school grievances, an endless attempt to compensate for the past. Observe:

“But of course, as Abbott said, it’s only natural that this anti-intellectual paranoia would so bravely defend its last sacred sphere. The nerds cannot be allowed free rein within the heavenly domain of sports. There would be nowhere left to hide.”

“In the high school jocks vs. geeks debate, the geeks won the dot-com money and the Wall Street jobs, but this here is sports, pure jock territory, so it’s not nice having all these geeks with spreadsheets hanging around talking smart.”

It always amuses me, in a fatalistic sort of way, that those who support this stat and the “movement” it represents (if it’s at all appropriate to apply that label to something this minor) have recourse to this argument. That it’s unneeded is evidenced quite clearly by the rest of Henry Abbott’s otherwise excellent post, which lays out what is to my mind the unassailable case in favor of using +/- as a part of a statistical evaluation (check the archives here, I cite it continually myself). And yet, somehow that’s not enough; there’s always the need to follow Lewis in getting in what is ultimately a personal jab, an attack on the perceived motives, intelligence, and worth of opponents rather than on anything in particular that they’re saying. I can appreciate the urge to do so since the anti-advanced-stats case is so often incoherent or dishonest, but it sets up a pair of ironies: the first in making the case for a method of removing personal biases in analysis by making a personal attack, and the second in all but justifying the charge in the reverse- it’s at least as often that you find “nerds” describing things in these terms as you do “jocks”. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t really either in high school, but to my mind continually taking it back rhetorically to those days in this debate just demeans both sides. I mean, really- grow up already the both of you.


January 7, 2010 - Posted by | Other NBA


  1. It’s funny, because, by all accounts, most (if not all) MLB teams do have advanced statistical departments these days, which not only make use of what’s already widely available as the known advanced stats, but their own internal stats as well, so, at least in the actual sport, it’s not even about “nerds vs. jocks” anymore. The disconnect between the use of the traditional stats (batting average, RBI, etc)/”gut feeling about a guy” and the advanced stats exists mostly in the media, where the difference is often sensationalized to a level where it’s similar to the “blogger living in his mom’s basement while typing on a computer in his pajamas” argument of many of the newspaper/book writers. At this point it’s more about “established and traditional vs. new and scary”, at least from what I can tell.

    Which of course, makes it all the funnier that these people are voting for the season-end awards such as Cy Young and MVP, as well as induction into the hall of fame!

    Comment by Wacy | January 8, 2010 | Reply

  2. It really does. Keith Law had a blog at ESPN the other day where you could almost hear his head exploding while he tried to discuss Andre Dawson being voted into the hall.

    It’s very much the same thing on the NBA side- many to most of the teams have dedicated stats guys who communicate regularly with the coaches (and in some cases select them as GMs), and yet even among some of the more prominent bloggers you can’t get people to add and average without howls of pain.

    Comment by theshipbesinking | January 8, 2010 | Reply

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