The Weekly Tail ‘Gater – The Emergence of the Sportscenter Scientist The Emergence of the Sportscenter Scientist

Mike Nanna

“Sports and the Scientific Method”, a class taught here by Professor Ken Segall, is one of the few absolute gems at Colgate that reminds us all why that 40 grand in tuition is more than worth it. While taking the class my sophomore year, my entire perspective on how to judge pro sports was altered as I learned how to look at problems objectively through the clear lens of statistics. Some have made the argument that statistics are useless because they are imperfect and don’t tell the whole story. Others have asserted that turning sports into data takes meaning away from our pastimes. What I learned was that numbers didn’t tell the whole story, nor take meaning away. In fact, numbers only help us to paint a clearer picture of sports, giving us all a resource for judging our favorite players on merit rather than reputation.

What good is an opinion if it holds no weight once it’s examined more closely? Gaining a clearer understanding while eliminating ambiguity is essential to mastering any subject and sports analysis should not be any different.

There is no point in saying that Derek Jeter is a Gold Glove caliber shortstop, when every accepted tool for measuring defensive performance suggests otherwise. Just because the numbers tell us that Jeter isn’t all he’s cracked up to be on D, doesn’t mean we have to abandon our love for our captain in pinstripes. Cutting edge statistics such as Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) and Win Shares (WS) still support Jeter’s candidacy as a future Hall of Famer, while simply giving a clearer picture of what he is and isn’t as a player. Let’s look at another example of how statistics allow us to make clearer and more accurate judgments on players.

Larry Walker is a borderline Hall of Fame caliber player who played the majority of his prime in the thin air at Coors Field in Colorado. When his Hall of Fame candidacy comes up, the typical answer from many journalists is that the majority of his production came from the fact that he played at Coors and therefore his candidacy should be dismissed. Rarely are there any attempts made to normalize his performance to account for ballpark effect (these statistics are readily available and, if you were wondering, Walker is a borderline Hall of Fame caliber player, with or without Coors Field). Nonetheless generalizations are made because, quite simply, it’s much easier to make statements that aren’t falsifiable and assert them as fact than to examine questions, without bias, and find proof for one side or the other. Lucky for the aspiring sports statistician, the number of non-falsifiable statements in sports are dwindling as statistics begin to encompass every aspect of the games. While in years past, a writer might have felt safe asserting that Walker was only good because he played at Coors, now statistics are available to falsify that particular statement. This is certainly not good news for lazy sports writers and an obvious reason for animosity towards the entire movement in general.

Science and the scientific method in particular, is a fabulous tool for understanding sports better, a way to organize the wealth of information contained within the endless statistical data available. Data holds invaluable insights into the intricacies of sports, revealing beauty in the games that the human eye simply cannot appreciate. Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane showed the world that the “walk”, in baseball, correlated with high performance more than anyone had ever given it credit before and revolutionized how major league players are judged today. Fresh theories and opinions had become a rarity in sports commentary and analysis, but with innovators like Bill James and John Hollinger leading with way, player evaluation based purely on ground-breaking statistics has led to new angles on old subjects. Over the past two decades or so, these “stat-geeks” have slowly been given the opportunity to show that their way of looking at sports has more value than anyone could have imagined. The integration of heavy statistical analysis into sports doesn’t have to take away the luster we love so much. To the contrary, the application of the scientific method is the perfect polish for our golden games to make them clearer, crisper, and brighter than ever before.