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Statistics Have Their Place

February 25, 2003 Columns No Comments

Tai’d up in Stats

by Michael Ermitage

Every once in awhile some studious young lad will try and apply statistic to sport. It seems like a natural marriage, doesn’t it? Since we keep stats for nearly every action in almost every sport, why shouldn’t we be able to add those up and voila! There’s your best player. There are computer geeks like Jeff Sagarin that make special little formulas to predict the outcomes of games. There’s Purdue’s own Jerry Palm, tirelessly computing that RPI to tell us who ranks where. There’s the well-groomed Mel Kiper Jr. using 40 times and bench press results to compute the best football player. And now there’s Hoopville’s Jed Tai using his super fabulous extra double good percentage rating formula system to rate players by position. Oh the horror.

These statistical analyses of sport are about as pointless as bumper bowling. They presuppose that we can evaluate a player’s talent level without seeing them play, which is as absurd as blind judges for a beauty contest. Of course, since Tai has Marques Green ahead of T.J. Ford, his system would probably spit out Roseanne Arnold ahead of Ashley Judd in a swimsuit contest.

Sports are becoming much too automated much too fast. Nearly every sport has some sort of computer ranking system. The MLB Hall of Fame stubbornly sticks to statistical benchmarks for admission. Its arbitration proceedings are completely ruled “by the numbers.” Heck, college football determines its national championship game with a system that depends on computer rankings. And college basketball, as we all know, uses the RPI to determine seedings in the NCAA tournament. Fans have taken stats to a whole new level. Is there a sport played that does not have a complex Fantasy game?

Sports are about emotion. They are about immeasurable qualities that separate winners from losers. Reggie Miller isn’t the best basketball player ever to don an NBA uniform, but who wouldn’t want him with the ball in his hands with the game on the line? Barry Bonds out-stats Mark Grace in every career category, but who would you rather have batting in the bottom of the ninth in the World Series? I’m not sure if Wisconsin’s Mike Kelley scored a point in the Badgers 2000 Final Four run, but I guarantee every other team’s coach curses him to this day.

There’s something about Duke’s Chris Duhon slamming his hands to the ground to get his teammates to play defense. There’s something to Illinois’ Dee Brown’s constant chatter and high socks that improves his game. There’s something to Steve Blake’s gait as he crosses halfcourt with 30 seconds left in a tie game that says – this game’s over.

Tai’s ratings offer a deeper insight into college basketball. But they can’t replace the immeasurable intangible of seeing a player live. Personally, I don’t think Marcus Banks is the second best point guard in America. Point guards win games and his UNLV team will last in the NCAA tournament about as long as unpopped bubble wrap in a preschool.

Stats can tell us who has the highest batting average on the Cubs. And they can tell us that nine out of ten third graders prefer Lucky Charms to Frosted Flakes. But they’ll never take the sport out of basketball.


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