Comments on Books and Other Short Stories

Not only do I write books, I also like to read once in awhile.  What follows is a brief discussion of several books that I recommend (and yes, I am pretending that other people should be interested in my thoughts on books).

Beyond Batting Average

Lee Panas – of Tiger Tales (one of my favorite baseball blogs)– has just released his first book. Panas describes Beyond Batting Average (available for immediate download and in paperback) as follows:

… this book is designed to help knowledgeable baseball fans gain a better understanding of the multitude of new statistics that have been introduced on the Internet and elsewhere in recent years. It puts everything in one place and ties all the metrics together into an organized 15 chapter story.

This comprehensive sabermetrics primer will introduce fans to these new measures with easy to understand explanations and examples. It will also illustrate the evolution of baseball statistics from simple traditional measures to the more complex metrics used today. You will learn how all the statistics are connected to winning and losing games, how to interpret them and how to apply them to performance on the field. By the end of this book, you should be able to evaluate players and teams through statistics more thoroughly and accurately than you could before

My copy of this book arrived yesterday.  Looking through the book it is clear that Panas – despite writing a relatively brief book – manages to cover much that’s known about the measurement of the performances of the hitters, pitchers, and fielders.  So if you are interested in learning more about the wonderful world of baseball statistics, I highly recommend this book.

Mathletics

Beyond Batting Average focuses entirely on baseball.  Mathletics – by Wayne Winston –covers baseball, basketball, and football.  Much of what Winston discusses on his blog – waynewinston.com – is adjusted plus-minus (APM).  Only about 30 pages of Mathletics, though, are about APM.  The vast majority of the book presents a host of interesting examples of how the study of statistics can help us understand sports. 

There are few observations to make about this plethora of stories.

  • Mathletics is very much in the Moneyball tradition. In other words, one theme in Mathletics is that the traditional – non-statistical – approach to the study of sports will often lead people astray.
  • Not only does Winston tell his stories, he often shows the readers how Excel can be used to study sports.  So this book is a marvelous tool for students.
  • Of the box score methods used to analyze basketball, Winston has problems with the Player Efficiency Rating and says nice things about Wins Produced.  So I especially liked that section.

That being said, I am not a fan of APM (and we very briefly discuss some of the problems with APM in our next book).  Again, much of the Mathletics is not about APM, so even if you share my concerns with this method you will still really like this Winston’s book. 

How We Decide

Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide has just gone to paperback.   This book offers a wonderful discussion of how human beings process information and make decisions. 

One issue Lehrer emphasizes is the limitations of the human mind.  People often state that one should try and look at “everything” before making a decision.  With respect to basketball, that would imply a decision-maker should look at the box score statistics (via PER, Wins Produced, and other measures), APM, and scouting reports in evaluating a player.  However, the human mind – as Lehrer notes – is limited in how much information it can actually process.  So people who try and look at “everything” are not actually processing information as well as they would like.  A better approach is to systematically uncover which information is actually important and which information should be ignored. 

Again, this is just one story in Lehrer’s book.  There are of course many others.  So if you have not read this book I also recommend adding this paperback to your library.

By the way, for those interested in a discussion of how data analysis trumps the non-systematic approach taken by many decision-makers, I would recommend Super Crunchers by Ian Ayres.

More than a Game

Okay, this is a book I have not read (but hope to in the future).

Dennis Coates – the first president of the North American Association of Sports Economists – has read a recent book by Brian Billick and offered the following comment at the Sports Economist:

I am reading More than a Game, written by Brian Billick, former head coach of the Baltimore Ravens and current analyst for Fox and the NFL Network. It is an interesting book on several levels.

Two points I want to bring up here I found interesting. The first is that Billick is quite forceful in arguing that finding a quarterback is very difficult, saying that nobody knows anything. People who have been very successful at picking/finding quarterbacks have all indicated that they were high on some of the bigger quarterback busts in draft history (think Ryan Leaf). Billick mentions in passing that scouting and player evaluation uses regression models. I would love to see those equations. The implication is that evaluation of other players is more successful. I wonder if pro football evaluators feel they are doing a good job in picking wide receivers.

The second point I wanted to bring to people’s attention is that Billick mentions the research by David Romer on fourth down. He points out that after the appearance of that paper, the share of fourth downs on which the teams go for it rose each year until 2008. Economists may not get politicians to understand that subsidies are not the best use of public funds for job creation but at least one economist may have successfully convinced head football coaches to go for it a bit more often. Billick also points out that Romer’s model does not account for things like media criticism. That is an interesting perspective. Better to do the conventional, if wrong thing, to avoid media criticism, than to give your team a better chance to win the game.
Billick’s perspective is interesting and worth a read.

It appears that Billick’s book supports the argument that Rob Simmons and I have offered that drafting quarterbacks in the NFL is largely a guessing game.  This is an important point to remember as NFL decision-makers and observers evaluate the latest group of quarterbacks in the NFL draft.

A Few Non-Book Stories

Dennis Coates doesn’t just comment on books.  Here is a comment he offered on an article by Bill Simmons:

I found this interesting article about the state of the NBA from Bill Simmons at ESPN. The article is worth a read.
I especially like this bit:

They arrived at this specific point after salaries ballooned over the past 15 years — not for superstars, but for complementary players who don’t sell tickets, can’t carry a franchise, and, in a worst-case scenario, operate as a sunk cost. These players get overpaid for one reason: Most teams throw money around like drunken sailors at a strip joint. When David Stern says, “We’re losing $400 million this season,” he really means, “We stupidly kept overpaying guys who weren’t worth it, and then the economy turned, and now we’re screwed.”
This isn’t about improving the revenue split between players and owners. It’s about Andre Iguodala, Emeka Okafor, Elton Brand, Andrei Kirilenko, Tyson Chandler, Larry Hughes, Michael Redd, Corey Maggette and Luol Deng making eight figures a year but being unable to sell tickets, create local buzz or lead a team to anything better than 35 wins.

I wonder if it might be because the NBA over values scoring, as Dave, Marty Schmidt, and Stacey Brook contend in Wages of Wins and other places. And maybe some NBA executives are beginning to see that.

By the way, Dennis Coates titled this post: Dave Berri Must Love This 

I should add, though, that Okafor, Kirilenko, and Iguodala are probably worth what they are being paid.  Inefficient scorers like Allen Iverson (a Bill Simmons favorite) are generally overpaid.  That being said, I do agree that if NBA teams are losing money – and I think the word is “if” since I do not know that anyone outside the NBA has actually seen the books (and sports owners do have a history of being less than honest on this subject) – part of the reason is that teams overpay for skills that do not generate wins.  Perhaps this current labor dispute will highlight that specific point.

Let me close with two more short stories.  First, I wanted to note that Brian Burke – of Advanced NFL Statistics – is now posting his statistical analysis of every quarterback, running back, and receiver in the league.  Plus his data goes back to 2000.  So that should be enough numbers to keep any NFL fan happy during the off-season.

And finally, I wanted to point everyone’s attention to the recent work fo Darren Rovell.  As I am sure most people know, Rovell is perhaps the leading journalist on the subject of sports and business.  One can see his work on CNBC and also at his blog (Sports Biz with Darren Rovell).  When we were looking for people to review advanced copies of our next book, Darren was one of the first names to come to mind.

One of his most recent stories was on the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue.   Rovell tells this story in an hour-long special on CNBC.  Here is how this special is described:

CNBC’s Sports Business Reporter Darren Rovell takes an unprecedented look inside the most profitable single-issue magazine franchise in the world. Find out how business, beauty, fashion and sports come together to create this much-anticipated, multi-dimensional franchise that alone generated 7 percent of Sports Illustrated’s advertising revenue in 2009.

The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue means big business not only for parent company Time Inc., but also for the models, advertisers, fashion designers and locations that grace its pages. Rovell gives viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the scouting, set-up and inner-workings of the photo shoots as he travels to one of the exquisite undisclosed locations and interviews the models vying for the ultimate prize—being featured on the cover of this year’s issue and becoming a household name

Rovell’s report is still airing, or you can just watch it on-line.

And if you are interested , here is what Rovell says about our next book:

“‘Moneyball’ should have been called ‘MoneyBaseball.Stumbling on Wins covers everything else. Every general manager needs to buy this book to save his owner money. Every fan needs to buy this book to know when it makes sense to yell at the general manager.”

Stumbling on Wins is scheduled to be released in three weeks.  So it won’t be long until everyone has a chance to offer comments on our latest.

- DJ

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