The Advance of Stats

“If the advance of science questions what we regard as precious, what do we do about that?” Leon Cooper, famous for being my physics professor (and for winning a Nobel Prize), got me thinking with those words.

Science threatening our beliefs is nothing new. When Galileo supported the view that the Earth revolved around the Sun, the Church made him recant publicly. It’s easy to understand why. If you could choose between being the center of the universe, or being perched on a small rock circling around a ball of plasma floating in empty space, which would you pick?

Today, we’re okay with the fact that the Earth revolves around the Sun. But science causes other insecurities, and not just in a Religion vs. Science Deathmatch kind of way. One interesting example from class — if evolution explains our makeup, do the moral values we hold dear have any real value? Or are they, like everything else we’re composed of, just things that happened to help us survive long enough to reproduce?

If you take the time to think about it, it’s a disturbing idea. And I don’t think the anxiety caused by these types of questions is limited to the realm of philosophy and physics. I see it creep into articles on ESPN, arguments on First Take, and discussions between fans.

If you’ve followed sports even a little bit during the past decade or two, you’ve probably heard of something called advanced stats. Here’s a quick refresher: at some point, people good at math started analyzing sports, and their answers didn’t always align with conventional wisdom.

Unsurprisingly, this caused conflict. Professional athletes don’t always like being told by statistics majors whose uncontested layup percentage is 13% that they don’t understand sports. And a lot fans don’t like having beliefs formed over years lying on their couches in front of the television called myths.

For instance, a few years ago, articles started hitting the Internet basically proving that Kobe was not “clutch.” That bothered a lot of people. (Myself not included. That’s what you get for beating Iverson in the Finals, Kobe.) Everyone just knew Kobe was clutch. If the stats said he wasn’t, then there was something wrong with the stats.

A more recent example — Ron Washington’s response on Sunday to being questioned on his penchant for sacrifice bunts, a move the analytics community frowns upon:

“I think if they try to do that, they’re going to be telling me how to [bleep] manage … That’s the way I answer that [bleep] question. They can take the analytics on that and shove it up their [bleep][bleep].

Mike Scioscia dropped 56 sacrifice bunts on his club, the most in the league, and he’s a genius … But Ron Washington dropped 53 and he’s bunting too much? You can take that analytics and shove it.

I do it when I feel it’s necessary, not when the analytics feel it’s necessary, not when you guys feel it’s necessary, and not when somebody else feels it’s necessary. It’s when Ron Washington feels it’s necessary. Bottom line.”

Woah. Anyway, I think the “stats aren’t everything,” comments that often accompany any mention of advanced stats are usually the result of insecurity rather than conviction. Who wants stats to explain everything? What’s the fun in that? Why even bother watching the games?

It’s not hard to imagine a world sometime in the future when stats really will explain everything. A recent article by Kirk Goldsberry broke down a project he’s been working on for the past few years with a team of PhD students in statistics and computer science. Using data generated by SportsVU, cameras that track every on court movement, they were able to measure the probability of a team scoring for every second of a game.

This stuff is scary. And while it might seem a small step towards a world in which every movement on a court can be broken down into a system of equations, consider another idea raised in class: history is littered with people claiming things are impossible. People used to say we could never know what stars were made of. How could we reach out of the Earth and touch the material of the heavenly bodies? Then we invented spectroscopy, and now we know more about what stars are made of than we do about the interior of the Earth.

So is that it? Is this a simple case of right versus wrong, the new versus the old, Drake vs. Common? Are the people who push back against advanced stats no different than those who opposed the theory of the Earth revolving around the Sun? Is there nothing in sports that statistics will not one day be able to explain?

I’m going to steal one more thing from class. (You didn’t actually me expect me to come up with my own ideas, did you?) Imagine Mary is a scientist who lives hundreds of years in the future. She is an expert on color. She knows every detail of every physical process in the brain and how it reacts when we see color. She understands every aspect of the chemistry, physics, and biology involved. Anything scientific that relates to color and the brain – Mary knows it.

But Mary’s lived her whole life in a black and white room. One day, someone gives her an apple. Does she learn anything?

My gut reaction is yes. Of course she experiences something new. It doesn’t make any difference that she knew which neurons fired where when the brain processed color: actually seeing color is something else entirely.

No matter how good stats get at measuring every moment of every game, they won’t capture everything. You might be able to break down any sequence on a court into a series of numbers, but actually seeing humans play the game? That will always be unique.

I think this lies behind the resentment many people feel toward advanced stats. Sure, a lot of the complaints just come from people being lazy. It’s easier to throw out cliché story lines about a team wanting it more or a player being clutch/not clutch than it is to break down what actually happened.

But people don’t just love sports because of dry, detailed analysis. When Kobe’s dribbling the ball on the last possession with his team down two on the road, you sense so much more than his probability of scoring. You feel every fan in the arena tense up, you see the deer in the headlight’s look in his defender’s eyes, and you witness Kobe — calm, collected, confident, and ready to step into the moment.

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