ROTOWIRE.COM NFL MLB / Minors NBA NHL GOLF RACING    COMMUNITY FORUMS PODCASTS MYROTOWIRE ASK AN EXPERT GAMES

Do Analytics Take the Fun Out of Sports?

Apparently that was the topic of one of the presentations at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston last week. The presenter, Yale's Edward Tufte, opined:

Don't let people tell you analytics are reductionist and take the joy out of sports. They mostly just take the stupidity out of sports.

Is he right? It depends whose joy you're talking about.

For example, it's far from clear understanding sabermetrics helps players. Brian Bannister and Brandon McCarthy have been average-at-best pitchers that understand concepts like xFIP, while inner circle Hall-of-Famer Joe Morgan (who as a player did nearly everything well) has long been one of their more resistant mainstream commentators. Knowledge of how to measure one's performance isn't the same thing as having the skills to perform.

Is a fan more like a player or a professional analyst?

To the extent being a fan entails being absorbed in the moment, he is more like the player. Knowledge of Carlos Beltran's OPS against lefties as he faces David Price isn't the point when you're rooting for the Yankees to beat the Rays in the eighth inning of a close game with men on base. You want Beltran to make contact and hoping it drops in for a hit. If your knowledge of the players' advanced-stats splits relegates the unfolding human drama to a calibrated game of chance, it diminishes enjoyment. If a player's 50-HR season is just a 35-HR baseline with positive variance rather than a heroic effort, it has to temper some of one's enthusiasm for rare feats.

To the extent being a fan is about understanding what happened and predicting (rather than hoping for) future outcomes, he is more like the analyst. In which case, the sabermetrics hone one's predictive ability, provide valuable context and allow one to enjoy subtle aspects of the game one might otherwise have missed. While certain analysts might prefer to retain more of the naive joy one has before understanding more about the game, they're committing professional malpractice if they give in to that preference.

The question is a little like whether Christmas is less enjoyable once you discover Santa Claus isn't real. (Actually, when you discover what Santa Claus really is about, you might appreciate it even more). There's a certain joy in imagining a fat, old guy with a beard sliding down the chimney to get you all the toys you wanted, and that really does go away when it's replaced by the more banal reality of your parents driving to the store to buy you something. But as you get older, you might appreciate your parents dealing with this just to get you some random thing you once thought you wanted.

I don't mean to minimize the joy of being a naive fan. I think most of us still try to maintain that when we root for our local teams, something that's increasingly hard to do when we really consider the tax-payer subsidized stadiums, ever-higher ticket prices and frequent unwillingness to commit money to needed free agents. But I try to ignore those things when my team takes the field, and similarly it probably makes sense to shut off the analytic side of our brains for a bit to get the maximum enjoyment of being a fan. To the extent you're unable to do that, you're like the kid who caught his dad drinking the milk and cookies and putting the presents under the tree.

Comments

By: Run to Daylight
On: 3/6/2014 5:56:00 PM
Chris - good article. It's a great reminder of what all sports are all about. In fantasy, I can't get enough stats - I love the numbers but they also get me closer to the field and players. One hard rule I always use on draft day is to keep it fun by drafting at least one 'homer' pick. I still win my leagues in spite of this rule but it can't hurt when your homer teams have Braun or Aaron Rodgers on them :)
 
By: Howard Bender
On: 3/7/2014 2:07:00 PM
Nice piece, Chris. It's definitely something I've struggled with the further I delve into a writing career. I like to consider myself both an analyst and a fan and understanding that there are proper forums for each. I'm not sitting at the local watering hole during an exciting playoff game dazzling the frenzied crowd with my knowledge of metrics; I'm joining in with the excitement, the cheering and the "my turn to buy a round when we score." But if I'm sitting and quietly watching a game with a few friends and we're actually analyzing things, well then let the nerd-speak fly.

And thank you, by the way for finally explaining to me why my dad was always eating the milk and cookies. I had no idea it was because he ate Santa first.
 
By: Chris Liss
On: 3/7/2014 3:46:00 PM
RTD - thanks. I think it's a good tiebreaker for me to draft Yankees or Giants, or at least players who are fun to watch and root for.
 
By: Chris Liss
On: 3/7/2014 3:48:00 PM
Howard - sorry to be the messenger of that news. I do think it's worth turning off the analytic side of the brain when you can - though it's not always easy.
 

Leave a comment

Commenting is restricted to registered users only. Please register or login now to submit a comment.

Tell Someone

  • Digg it
  • submit to reddit reddit
  • Add to Mixx!

Recent Favorites

What I Think You Should Know About The USMNT
Needless to say, it's been a great World Cup thus far. The USMNT having some success would be awesome.
La-La-La-L.A. Gets Lord Stanley!
Just a few things that caught my eye:
  • Alec Martinez's Cup-winning goal celebration? # priceless. I wonder if he'll ever get his gloves back.
  • Henrik Lundqvist stopped the 50th shot of the game. He couldn't stop the 51st. #connsmythe if the Rangers had found a way to come back in this series.
Do Analytics Take the Fun Out of Sports?
Apparently that was the topic of one of the presentations at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston last week. The presenter, Yale's Edward Tufte, opined:

Don't let people tell you analytics are reductionist and take the joy out of sports. They mostly just take the stupidity out of sports.

Is he right?

RotoWire's AL LABR Squad
The 2014 AL LABR auction went down at the Arizona Republic offices in downtown Phoenix Saturday night. It's a 12-team, 5 x 5, AL-only league with 2 C, 1 1B, 1 2B. 1 3B, 1 SS, 1 CI, 1 MI, 5 OF, 1 U and 9 pitchers. Everyone has $260 to spend.
The Problem With Drafting Billy Hamilton
Billy Hamilton went for $28 in the NL LABR auction this past weekend. I discussed this with a fellow writer who participates in Tout Wars with me later this month and we discussed the problem with investing heavily into Hamilton.

RSS Feeds