Play Ball! Thoughts on Sports and Skepticism
A lot of what we do as capital “S” Skeptical Activists, such as combating creationism in schools or debunking homeopaths or defending vaccines, whilst being important work can nonetheless be, shall we say… boring to our kids. And a little dark, and sometimes not age appropriate etc. Still, we want to keep them exercising their little critical thinking muscles as often as possible. Where can we do that? Well there is an area of life that is all around us, yet is neither earth shatteringly important yet at the same time a lot of folks find inexplicably compelling. Extra bonus, it’s a field full of myths and misconceptions and superstitions, Sports. Since today (March 31, 2014) is Opening Day for Major League Baseball and my beloved Reds I felt it appropriate to update and repost this old Raising Hellions piece. Also it’s spring break and I’m feeling lazy.
“Clutch is a myth. Sequencing, however, matters. Players don’t have the ability to time their hits to high-leverage spots, and baseball would look a lot different if they did.”
Joe Sheehan, from the Joe Sheehan Newsletter– Vol III, No. 111. October 4th 2011.
That line “baseball would look differently if they did.” is the most scientific approach to sports coverage I have ever read. Joe has been one of my go to baseball analysts for a long time now, part of a revolution in our understanding of the game begun in the late 70’s by Bill James and finally brought to the mainstream by Micheal Lewis’ “Moneyball”, the genre of baseball study dubbed “Sabermetrics” has produced a generation of baseball fans and analysts and executives who have a higher standard of evidence than ever before in the game.
Myth’s persist because they are allowed to go unchallenged. The myth of “Clutch hitting” has been around as long as men have laced up cleats. And it’s a great myth, that certain players had a consistent ability to “man up” and come up with the big hits that won the big games. And that this mysterious ability was somehow more important than all of the other little things that happen over the course of a baseball game/series/season. It’s a narrative that’s familiar, it produces heroes and goats, winners and losers, and wonderful stories. Sabermetricians upset that apple cart. They actually looked at the game closely. They applied the science of statistical analysis to look at the wonderful numbers that baseball produces. And they saw through the comfortable story we had been raised with didn’t sync up with the evidence. Turns out that players don’t show any particular ability to hit better in the “clutch”.
That’s not the only type of myth we can bust if we look at sports, there are more traditional myths that we can take on without access to advanced math. The Boston Red Sox famously broke their 86 year World Series drought in 2004, thereby overcoming one of the most famous baseball superstitions, the “Curse of the Bambino”. The myth holds that the team would eternally suffer after the 1920 sale of Babe Ruth from the Sox the New York Yankees so that cash strapped owner Harold Frazee could back a Broadway production of “No No Nanette”. Babe went on to completely change the game by bypassing all that running around folks used to do and just blasting the ball over the fences. Those Yankees teams went on to dominate baseball, whilst the Red Sox spent 80 years in the baseball wilderness.
Once again it’s a compelling narrative with ready made heroes and villains. Unfortunately next to none of that is true. “No No Nanette” didn’t debut on Broadway until 1925, two years after Frazee had sold the team. And whilst the Sox did suffer the drought, a better explanation for their plight is ineptitude. In “Mind Game: How the Red Sox got smart, won a World Series, and Created a new bueprint for winning.” by Steven Goldman and the Baseball Prospectus gang, the authors point out the many flawed approaches the Red Sox took over the years, from succumbing to cronyism in the front office to blatant racism leading them to be the last team to break the color line. (Baseball and racism is probably fodder for a whole other post, and this one has gone on long enough…;)
So there you go, sloppy thinking is all around us, sometimes in the most innocuous places. Rooting it out can be a fun project. I know my kids are going to grow up knowing sports as a spectator if not a participant and I see no reason for them to turn off their brains whilst still being fans.
Featured Image Credit: Blotz Photo Arts (at the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)
A great question for a child to do some research on would be something along the lines of “what is something which is accepted in its sport which evidence says is bad?” There are tons of examples, from sitting your star in basketball early due to “foul trouble”, to not fouling when your team is up by 3 points late in basketball, etc etc. Or something which is “common wisdom” which is wrong, such as hot streaks as symbolic of anything other than random chance, or as you mention “clutch”.
Thinking more about this, these are also situations which would help you introduce your child to the idea of conflicting goals. One example is going for it on fourth down in a football game. It is the option which has the greatest chance of winning a team the game far more often than it is the option which is chosen, because there are two goals for the coach. The first is to win the game, but the unstated goal is to keep hir job. There are a bunch of situations where doing the thing which is said to give a team the greatest chance of winning by empirical analysis has a far greater chance of losing the coach hir job, and that risk is more important to the coach than the risk of losing.
Now I’m in danger of writing a dissertation in the comments here, but the point is, I love this post, am a huge nerd, and love sports. The opportunity to nerd out ABOUT sports is delightful. Thanks Louis!