Friday, April 1, 2011


I don’t know about you but I can’t remember getting much out of school. I had a good-enough time, I guess, and escaped more or less unscathed, but can’t recall any teacher doing or saying much that struck a chord. That led to my belief that school mostly is a place where kids get together with other kids, from whom they learn. The continuing national hysteria over education goes down easier with that in mind.

However (you knew there’d be one), one line from my years at Roosevelt High on Chicago’s great Northwest Side has stayed with me. It was uttered by Captain Seabury, the school’s band director, whose military title, which everyone used, stemmed from his WWI service.

I was thoroughly unmusical but encountered the droll captain in a freshman study hall he monitored. Sometimes apropos and sometimes not, he’d ask us kids “Do you know what you know?”

Now as then, it’s an excellent question. Much of what rattles around in our brains is garbage, the residue of stereotypes, wishful thinking and downright misinformation. Along with the few actual facts we’ve managed to absorb, it’s all mixed together into the goo that makes us the lovable creatures we are.

The sub-world of sports, my usual focus of discourse, is not immune to conceptual distortion; in fact, a case can be made that its conventional wisdom contains more nonsense than that of most subjects. Now come Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim to make that case with the book “Scorecasting; the Hidden Influences Behind How Sports are Played and Games are Won” (Crown Books, New York, 278 pages).

Using statistics from many sources—not the least of which were the major sports leagues themselves-- boyhood chums Moskowitz, a professor of finance at the University of Chicago, and Wertheim, a writer for Sports Illustrated magazine, put to the test many things that sports fans and participants think they know for sure. They concluded that, often, they really don’t.

In a way I found the book satisfying, and in a way not. The satisfying stuff, naturally, came when the duo’s data confirmed examples of sports’ home truths that I’ve long suspected were wrong. For instance:

-- Batters always should “take” a 3-0 pitch. Not so, the authors concluded from voluminous data; umpires increase the strike zone enormously in such instances, so the “taking” batter probably just concedes a strike. (Conversely, the zone narrows on 0-2 pitches.)

--- A punt usually is the best fourth-down call. Nope; risk-reward analysis (you can read the book for details) usually dictates that it’s best to go for it on fourth down, even in a team’s own territory. I liked this chapter particularly because it cited approvingly the example of the Tennessee high school coach Kevin Kelley, whose teams never punt and have compiled an overwhelmingly winning record and won several state titles. The remarkable Kelley was the subject of my blog on Jan. 1, 2009. You can find it by scrolling down.

-- When a basketball player gets within a foul of fouling out in the final quarter, it’s a good idea to bench him so he’ll be available during a game’s final minutes. No again. The average NBA player with five fouls picks up a sixth just 21% of the time, and a “star” (defined as one who has been among the top 10 in any year’s Most Valuable Player voting) just 16%. Either way, taking him out deprives his team of his services for as long as he sits and lessens its chance of winning

--In football and basketball a good offense is nice but (as Michael Jordan always declared) defense wins championships. Actually, offense-- as determined by statistical rankings-- turns out to be an equally good a title predictor in both those sports.

--It’s smart for a coach to call a timeout to “ice” a shooter or kicker just before a key free-throw or field-goal attempt. Actually, “iced” and “uniced” competitors succeed at almost exactly the same rate.

But harder for me to swallow was the book’s showiest thesis: that the home-field advantage-- sports’ unquestioned central verity—is caused not by such things as home cooking, familiar routines and playing conditions, and the encouragement of friendly crowds, but by game-official bias. The last, the authors assert, accounts for almost everything that measurably favors home clubs.

Moscowitz and Wertheim have stats aplenty to back up that contention, including home-visitor differences in foul calls in basketball and football, ball-strike calls in baseball and the awarding of injury time in soccer. Moreover, they say their data shows that the more crucial the game situation, the more umps, refs, etc., help the home team.

It’s not that officials are instructed to be ‘homers” or that the phenomenon is part of any conscious intent, the authors say. It’s because of a psychological concept called “influence conformity.” This holds that in pressurized situations decision makers will lessen the pressure on themselves by siding with what feels like the majority view of any issue. In other words, in sports they get along by going along with the home crowd. It’s human nature, the authors aver.

Maybe so, but I have my doubts. It’s been my observation that a certain personality type— let’s call it a “screw you” guy or gal—tends to gravitate toward certain occupations. Policing is one, also news reporting. Sports officiating is a third. These are people who enjoy going against the grain, who’d just as soon say “f---, er, screw you,” as make nice. In the ninth inning of game seven of a World Series, with the home team down by a run, two outs, the bases loaded and a 3-2 count on the batter, my money would be on the ump calling a borderline pitch “Strike three!” instead of “Ball four!”.

I have no data, of course, just a gut feeling.

If you don’t agree, screw you.

1 comment:

Alan said...

Could be that it attracts these types; but maybe the pressure of the job could create some home field bias? Interesting area for more research; maybe I'll pass it around while I'm at Loyola and see if there's interest for somebody's thesis....