Friday, February 11, 2011
There are a lot of reasons to sit down and read. Some read simply for the pleasure of a new story, others read to learn things about the world around them. Scorecasting by Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim pulls off an interesting trick by combining the these two axioms with a twist. The twist is debunking a lot of long-held sports myths.
I like I good story as much as anyone else, but one of the reasons that I read is because I like having a brain full of information nuggets to amaze my friends and astound my colleagues when we go out to have a few beers and watch a ballgame. A lot of times, these thoughts don’t amaze or astound anyone; its a lot of trivia that many people already know or it’s bits of information without any strong backing. However, after reading Scorecasting this is all going to change.
Moskowitz and Wertheim go into detail about how the “hot hand” argument is a complete myth. Or why the Chicago Cubs aren’t really “cursed” or “unlucky”--they’re just a poorly run franchise and their fans don’t care.
My favorite chapter was on how punting on fourth down isn’t always the best course of action. The writers back up this argument with interviews with Arkansas’ Pulaski Academy head coach Kevin Kelley about his strategy of never punting and going for it every first down (even if his team is deep in their own end), eschewing field goals for touchdown tries, throwing on just about every down (his quarterbacks usually have 500 yards of passing offense. PER GAME.), on-sides kicks and never attempting to run back any kick-offs or punts.
Kelley has been really successful at this: two state championships in three trips to the state championship game in about a decade. Armed with empirical data and tons of stats proving that his system is correct, Kelley is unsure why other coaches don’t do the same thing. Moskowitz and Wertheim do as well. One of the more interesting dichotomies that they hit on is that football is supposed to be a “man’s game” full of “risks” and “action”; but nearly all NFL coaches play so conservatively that the game is fairly predictable: run, run, throw, punt. They get to the reasons behind this mentality, but the trip there is the best part.
One of the myths that was debunked for me was the whole "defense wins championships" line of thinking. Last year when the Boston Red Sox decided to go with a run-prevention philosophy, I was on board whole-heartedly. After all, wasn't the October axiom: "Pitching and defense wins World Series" (despite the lack of success of the mid-90s Braves)? Here Boston GM Theo Epstein was taking that thought and stretching it out for six months, rather than one.
If only this book was released last year.Obviously, injuries played a huge part in the Red Sox' 2010 master plan, and the season's result was counter to what the original plan was (the defense was ok, the pitching stunk and the offense shined). It was a very strange year at the Fens.
There are a few parts of the book that tend to drag; I was never a big math guy and when they go on about advanced statistics and probability, my eyes tended to glaze over. But this isn’t an Intro to Statistics text book. Also I’m not much of a golfer, so I skipped the chapter on Tiger Woods.
However, other than those minor points, I would say that for any lover of sports or sports arguments, Scorecasting is a terrific book to have in your collection.