"It profits me but little that a vigilant authority always protects the tranquillity of my pleasures and constantly averts all dangers from my path, without my care or concern, if this same authority is the absolute master of my liberty and my life."

--Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Monday, October 10, 2011

Why Statistics Don't Matter As Much As We Think

I am a stat geek, particularly in baseball.   But we forget that the point of a game is to win, and the point of playing a game professionally is to win championships.   Statistics can pile up, but statistics without wins don't mean anything.   By way of example, Kerry Collins, a completely average NFL quarterback over the last 15 years, has more career passing yards than Johnny Unitas and Joe Montana.   But most people would say "Kerry who?" if you mentioned that fact.   Unitas and Montana are all-time greats because they won championships.   Similarly, Deion Sanders has 53 interceptions, only three more than Terrell Buckley's 50.   But everyone would acknowledge that Sanders was by far the greater cornerback, probably the greatest ever.   The statistics don't measure everything.... Sanders won championships with the teams he was on, in part because people didn't throw at his side of the field.  

The same thing is true in basketball.   Adrian Dantley has more career points than Larry Bird.   Bird, of course, is one of the all-time greats, while Dantley isn't.    Bird won championships.

In baseball, the most statistics-obsessed of the sports, is a little harder to make this case, because, in my view, the measurements that statistics allow are closer to the measurements you would invent in order to measure greatness, and winning (as WAR has taught us) flows directly from the statistics.   There might be players who aren't considered great who have great statistics, but who have gone unfairly unnoticed; but there will never be a player who is considered great who doesn't have great statistics.   

But consider:  who is the greater player, Derek Jeter or Craig Biggio?   They both played middle-infield positions.   They both have over 3000 hits.   Biggio has more career HRs and runs scored; Jeter has slightly more RBIs and a slightly higher batting average.   Biggio stole more bases; Jeter has one more Gold Glove, five, to Biggio's four.   They have about the same lifetime OPS, and about the same lifetime cumulative WAR.   Biggio will make the Hall of Fame, and should.   But Jeter will be an almost unanimous selection, and most people who would be asked would say Jeter is obviously the greater player.   Why?   Because Jeter won five championships and Biggio won none.

Going to the Cardinals-Brewers game tonight in Milwaukee, so I guess I've got sports on the brain.  

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