Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim have written an outstanding book titled, Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won. The book does an excellent job of getting the reader to rethink some of the strategies employed by teams, the way the game is officiated and the role of the fans. A lot of these concepts will change the way that the reader views and analyzes basketball games. As fans of the game, we all believe that we do a good job of accurately assessing the game but the data and statistics makes us look like we’ve all got things backwards despite our astute observations.
Even though the book covers all sports, we’re all about hoops here at TNLP so we’ll take a look at it from a basketball standpoint (although I will add that the evidence presented to the reader that football teams would benefit from going for it on 4th down as long as they’re 11 yards or closer was mind-blowing)–
I won’t go over all of the things in the book (because I think everyone should read it), but a couple of topics covered in the book include:
- Home court advantage exists for all sports.
- Fans actually have a negligible effect on the game.
- ‘Icing the free-throw shooter’.
- There’s no such thing as a hot hand?
- Manipulating statistics to sound better.
Some of these topics may reinforce your beliefs while others will leave you scratching your head. But not only are these claims backed by thousands of cases/instances studied even some that were not sports related but to show tendencies that humans have.
For example, the authors cited a study where parents were posed with a hypothetical situation in which a flu epidemic will infect 10,000 children. 10 of which will die from this flu. Administering a vaccine can help cure the flu but 5/10,000 will actually be killed by the vaccine, half the number that will die from the flu itself. Surprisingly, most parents said that they would not use the vaccine.
The authors connected this with the idea of omission vs. commission where referees choose to swallow their whistles rather than make a call that essentially determines the outcome of a game in the same way that the parents would rather not be responsible for killing their children as a result of administering a vaccine. They are concerned with making the right call and feel some anxiety as a result of crowd reactions at certain junctures in the game.
One shocking assertion in the book is the idea that fans seemingly have no effect on a game’s outcome. For example, players shoot exactly the same percentage from the free throw line at home and on the road. Fans would like to believe that they have an impact on the game and of course there are some exceptions when fans get creative, but then again, some players are just too good and are completely unfazed.
Another interesting point made by the authors is the way that information is presented. For example, there was a stretch this season where the Clippers were on a roll and winning games. The headline here reads, “Clippers look for 6th win in 7 games as they host Utah“. That’s spun in a positive light but immediately when we read these headlines and statistics, we should immediately assume that they are looking for their 6th win in 8 games. The streak is counted from the start of the wins, rather than factoring in the losses prior. It’s kind of like the idea that we think $2.99 is still in the 2 dollar range when it’s pretty much 3 dollars especially when tax is included.
How about ‘icing’ a free throw shooter in the clutch where a coach will call a timeout after the 1st free throw. Commentators will usually point this out during a broadcast and it sounds like a pretty solid strategy, however, statistics show that players who are ‘iced’ make 76% of their free throws. Players without the ‘icing’ shoot the same percentage: 76%.
These are just a few of the things mentioned in this book. Some people may feel overwhelmed by the amount of data presented in this book but it just goes to show much research went in to back up the claims. Of course we should rely entirely on data and statistics, judgement calls and experience come into play as well including hundreds of other factors but the findings really make the reader reconsider some of these strategies and reasons behind why these decisions are made in sports. One thing is certain, things aren’t always as they seem.
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