A few weeks ago, I was watching Oregon State and Cal-State Fullerton square off in the College World Series on ESPN. In around the seventh inning, Cal-State Fullerton, trailing 3-1 at the time, finally got something going, putting two men on base.
I was thoroughly enjoying the game; I haven’t watched much college ball in the past, but the action was close and exciting. My enthusiasm, however, was interrupted by a graphic popping up in the top corner of the screen, as casually as the radar gun clocking a pitcher’s fastball. The graphic destroyed any chance of me focusing on or enjoying the rest of the game.
This fun little stat, created by some “genius” using a formula based on 1,000 previously played games (or something; it’s difficult to hear the announcers explaining things when you’re trying to suffocate yourself with a pillow), calculates a team’s chance of winning the game based on various factors, including the inning, score, outs and baserunners. Apparently, a couple of baserunners in the seventh inning meant Oregon State’s chances of winning had dipped to 79 per cent.
I only have one question: are we finally willing to admit that our obsession with sports statistics has gotten out of hand? Win probability? Seriously? For starters, the system doesn’t even account for individual players. It doesn’t care if David Eckstein or David Ortiz is batting. Shouldn’t that matter to everybody but Tony LaRussa? Isn’t that what makes sports fun, the human element?
Even if the system does take individual players into account, I don’t want to know. You know why it was kind of cool and disorienting to see A-Rod hit a couple walk off dingers earlier this season? Because nobody expected it. It was a surprise, a shock, and it was fun (well… it would have been if it wasn’t A-Rod).
Think about when Joe Carter hit The Homer. How cheesy would it have been if, just before he took that historic swing, a little graphic popped next to his head and said “Toronto win probability: 53 per cent”? Would you have turned off the Boise State-Oklahoma game if, before Boise’s magical hook and ladder play, the announcers informed you its chances of winning were just 12 per cent? Would you even want to know?
Statistics have always been an integral part of sports and sports debate, but the culture is becoming obsessed with it. We want something quantifiable, something tangible. It’s not good enough to watch and appreciate greatness before our eyes; we demand to measure greatness with a metre stick, not our minds.
Fantasy sports are largely to blame. Each year the industry grows larger, attracting long-time sports fans or enticing first-timers to start following. But fantasy sports are entirely based on statistical analysis and they’re having a ripple effect on the rest of the sporting landscape, to the point that statistics supersede the game.
Think about how many hardcore fantasy nerds have memorized the entire Baseball Prospectus to the page number. Those goobers can rhyme off any vital or irrelevant statistic like it’s their home address. Most frustratingly, some of these fans have never even seen half of the guys they rave about. They tell you that you don’t understand how underrated Chone Figgins is because of his multi-roster flexibility and post-All-Star break batting average. What they don’t understand is it’s pronounced “Shawn” Figgins because they’ve never watched him play in a game. Where is the fun in idolizing or admonishing a player if you’ve never even seen him in action? Can you even consider these people sports fans, or are they merely statistics fans?
Last year, I had the pleasure of attending Bills-Chargers at Ralph Wilson Stadium. LaDainian Tomlinson rushed for 178 yards and two touchdowns. And you know what? I just had to look the numbers up. I didn’t come away from the game gushing over LT’s yards-per-carry average or that I’d witnessed part of his touchdowns-in-consecutive-games record. All I could think about was LT’s astonishing ability to glide about the field, setting up defenders and changing gears so effortlessly you’d think he was playing touch in the backyard. It was something I’d never been able to appreciate before, not even on television. And it’s something the stat heads can’t quantify (“Nuh uh,” says the jerk in the back. “I could have told you that; LT has ‘99’ acceleration on Madden!”).
Tomlinson has had lots of big games before, many of which surpass the numbers he put up against the Bills that day. But I had a new appreciation for the running back, something a box score never could have shown me. Reading Tomlinson’s statline never would have given me a charge. Remembering him sashaying through the Bills defence like it was stuck in quicksand does.
I don’t hate statistics. I really don’t. They can add a lot of fun to a sports argument or make a case for why your favourite player should be in the Hall of Fame. But they can’t measure the best things about sports. They can’t measure Tom Brady lifting everyone around him with two minutes left in a game. They can’t measure Ryan Smyth digging deep late in the third period and beating somebody to the corner for the puck. They can’t measure the emotional roller coaster of Derek Fisher sitting by his sick daughter’s side before helping the Jazz win a playoff game. They can’t measure the probability that Ron Artest will snap and head for Aisle 12 at any moment. And although I can’t stand the douchebag, they can’t measure the amount of time the King of Stats himself, Peyton Manning, puts into studying to give himself even a fraction of an edge.
So I’m begging all you stat geeks: put down the fantasy football magazine. Forget about Ichiro’s OPS. And tell the proponents of “win probability” to go to hell. Your cold, sterile stats can suck the life out of sports. Instead, for once, just watch the game. I promise you’ll enjoy it; I’m right 86.9 per cent of the time on Thursdays in July in odd-numbered years.