Sunday, January 29, 2006

New Years Resolution Book #2 & #3: Mind Game & Basketball on Paper

How does the old saw go, "lies, damn lies & statistics"? Well, it's inevitable to bring that saying up when disucssing two books about sports statistics.

The first, Mind Game, is billed as a SABREmetric look at why the Red Sox finally won the 2004 World Series. Being a sucker, I bought two copies, one for myself one for the quasi-seam head SlatRat as a Christmas gift. (Though I did get the free 'holiday wrapping' done at Barnes & Noble. I need to pick a side in that war before Halloween.)

Basically the book is about using arcane statistics to make counter-intuitive points, e.g. Keith Foulke was better than Mariano Rivera from 1999-2003. Of course, the raw 'numbers' have been massaged several times. There doesn't seem to be any consistent approach to which analytical tool is the best method and a lot of "using this method, which is different from the one used in the previous chapter, we see that Derek Jeter is the worst player ever to date Mariah Carey..."

Really the best part of the book is the opening chapter, which is devoted to debunking of much of the pernicious "Curse of the Bambino" myth. It's unclear whether anyone has ever profited more from misery than Dan Shaughnessy, so it's nice to (finally) have a rebuttal to his tales of ghosts and goblins.

Pooh's View: Read Moneyball And then read it again. Then move onto Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. If you still need more stathead lovin, try this book.

The second book is far superior. "Basketball on Paper" is far more useful to me. Partially because I'm less familiar with the performance metrics of basketball, partially because the author, Dean Oliver (no, not the point guard who played for Iowa for about 8 years in the 90's), writes in a slightly more conversational style.

He's honest about the difficulties in applying Jamesian methods to basketball. Some are intuitive, such as the problems in giving appropriate 'credit' for assisted baskets, and the effects of teamwork. Some are less so, such as the problem of treating the first minute of a game the same as the 48th. Unlike baseball, where no discernable 'clutch' effect has been demonstrated, there are clear differences in perfomance (just as there are obvious differences in intensity) towards the end of games (with intensity rising in close games, and becoming non-existant in blowouts.)

Since the book was published a few years ago, there isn't much in the way of ratings of current players, though there are some interesting future insights. First, Oliver uses J.R. Rider as his knucklehead posterchild. Not exactly a long shot bet, but still, "Heh."

Second, he discusses an early "absolute player value method" which was rejected, in large part because a little known Russian rookie named Andrei Kirilenko showed up as one of the most efficient all-around players in the league. As they say, either you're on something or you're onto something.

Pooh's View: If you like the Baseball Prospectus approach, but prefer hoops to hardball, this one is for you. I also, of course, reccomend 82 games.

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