17th Century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli is said to have once proclaimed, “There are lies, damned lies and statistics.” As a television producer and sports fan I would say he is on to something. Modern sports event telecasts are littered with graphs, charts, lists and other statistics these days. Some serve to help the viewer understand the game in general or the specific game situation, which adds to the experience of watching the event. Other informational nuggets only add confusion thereby making the viewing experience less enjoyable.
The origin of statistics in general is far from crystal clear, and when you talk sports statistics specifically, it gets even murkier. Most consider Sir Ronald Fisher (1890-1962), a British biologist, geneticist and statistician, the “father of modern statistics” but the concept predates him by centuries.
As far as sports stats are concerned, there doesn’t seem to be any “firm start date” but from accounts it appears the first sport to which statistics were universally applied is baseball. The firm STATS Inc. offers numbers and information about the sport starting in 1876. My friend, Bill Porter writes a blog (www.sportsbythenumbers.wordpress.com), in which he uses stats to support ideas. He isn’t 100% positive baseball was first but he does believe the sport lends itself to stats better than the other major sports. His reasoning is based on the fact that baseball “permits us to look specifically at an individual’s contributions”. He says it’s hard to quantify each offensive lineman’s contribution to an Adrian Peterson touchdown or the power forward’s screen on a LeBron James three point game winner. But even though baseball is also a team game it is “punctuated by individual confrontations” like Stephen Strasburg versus Buster Posey. Bill concedes that eight defensive teammates enter the equation if Buster puts the ball in play but, “in each at bat, the fundamental confrontation between batter and hitter gives us a much better sense of the individual athlete’s accomplishment”.
Even though equipment and stadiums have evolved over time, the ball is still basically a rubber or cork center wrapped in yarn and covered, according to The Official Baseball Rules, “with two strips of horsehide or cowhide tightly stitched together.” It is, and always has been, thrown from 60 feet 6 inches by a “pitcher” to a hitter, swinging a wooden bat. The bases around which the hitter runs are 90 feet apart. Baseball statistics are not only long lasting but easy to compare from generation to generation. For my money these facts also makes baseball the standard bearer of all sports when it comes to the determination and dissemination of statistics.
As a viewer and a fan it’s easy to see why a hitter’s individual performance against a pitcher is relevant. As a producer I know that information helps tell the story of the baseball game. The goal of every television sports producer should be to have statistics (in the form of graphics) that help SUPPORT the story of the event he or she is trying to tell.
As good as baseball seems to be at the stats game what it isn’t is immune to the inane. In fact a baseball statistic tops my list of “Most Annoying and Unnecessary Stats in Sports”. This lineup isn’t anywhere near comprehensive and doesn’t include, but maybe it should, things like passing numbers in football (why does a quarterback get credit for throwing a 75 yard pass when he actually only threw the ball one yard and the receiver ran for the other 74?) or cycling (why does everyone in the peloton during a Tour de France stage race get the same time when as many as a dozen minutes can separate the guy at the front from the guy at the end?). But I digress. My short list, in no particular order, of TMAUSS:
1) COUNTING BALLS AND STRIKES IN BASEBALL
This stat, while annoying and unnecessary, might have had some merit at its inception. It makes a certain amount of sense that a statistician, a manager, a pitching coach, a GM, an owner and a player would want to know how effective a pitcher is during each outing. But I call BS on this stat because it is rife with variables. Sometimes an umpire calls a ball a strike and vice versa. Consider this, a pitcher throws a ball that paints the corner of the plate and much to the consternation of the pitcher, and the relief of the hitter, the umpire calls it a ball. So is it actually a strike, a ball or both a strike and a ball? On the very next pitch a batter swings at and misses a ball thrown out of the strike zone. Again technically is that a ball, a strike or both? Hell, on several occasions during an at bat, an inning, or a game, a pitcher will throw a ball outside the strike zone on purpose hoping the batter will take the bait and swing at it. My friend Bill points out that websites including brooksbaseball.net and fangraphs are doing this exact exercise, tracking pitches more closely, to really understanding what the pitcher actually throws.
If producers and stats guys are that adamant about counting balls and strikes why not go ahead and break down the strikes column into “called strikes” and “swinging strikes” but that still doesn’t solve the problem of pitches thrown in the strike zone that are called balls. My solution, just get rid of the breakdown altogether. That “deep dive” breakdown mentioned above is probably just what the doctor ordered for pitching coaches and pitchers but, for this viewer, the only thing that really matters is the total number of pitches thrown.
2) ANYTHING IN GOLF THAT ISN’T FAIRWAYS HIT, GREENS IN REGULATION AND TOTAL PUTTS
As a live golf producer for more than three decades it was always a source of frustration that statistics in golf lagged behind other sports. That’s the case for a number of reasons including the technology didn’t exist and, once it did, it had to catch up. But the main reason golf was slow to the statistics game is because the sport has NO constants. It is ONLY variables.
No two courses are the same. The way each course is set up for the tournament changes, and, in fact, each hole on the course changes throughout the same day (the wind blows, or changes directions, it rains, the grass grows, etc.). In fact, you can’t even truly provide an historical perspective because courses, weather, set-ups and conditions change from year to year.
You also can’t compare Tiger Woods’s 9 foot birdie putt on the fourth hole to Jim Furyk’s 9 foot birdie putt on a different hole. Heck you can’t even compare those two putts if they are struck on the same green because they will never be from the exact same spot. An announcer telling me, and an on-screen statistic in the form of a graphic illustrating, Tiger’s “make percentage from inside 10 feet is 92%” basically tells me he can read greens pretty well. It does really give me an indication as to whether or not he’ll make or miss this one. And it certainly is no predictor that he’ll make the next one, or the one after that. That’s simply because each and every putt is struck on a different surface with a different break, under different weather and competitive conditions. The playing field is literally not level. Because every putt, even from the same length, is different there is technically no statistical baseline from which to start. So stop doing it. An even more “Unnecessary and Annoying Stat” is the “PGA TOUR average from 9 feet” statistic. Could there be anything less accurate or scientific? If every 9 foot putt was struck on the same green, under the same conditions, that statistic might mean something to me as a viewer. But it isn’t, so it doesn’t.
Simply tell me how many fairways Tiger hit, how many greens in regulation Tiger hit and how many total putts Tiger had. That will tell me how he shot his 64. His 64, and where it places him on the leaderboard, is the ONLY statistic I need to tell me how he played compared to the rest of the field.
3) THE UNFORCED ERROR IN TENNIS
This stat is BS because it is pure speculation. The funny thing about tennis, that seems to be lost on the person who came up with this statistic, and the ones who use it, is that it is a match between two or four people. That means someone is ALWAYS hitting a ball to, or receiving it from and hitting it back to, an opponent, forcing a response. Other than a serve, each and every shot in tennis is a response to a different shot hit by the person on the other side of the net.
I spoke with tennis enthusiasts (who happen to have played college tennis) about this and they said things like “I knew when I could have or should have gotten to a ball.” I get that but my point is that there is no “science” that can be applied to that statement. Why doesn’t tennis wise up and go the same route as baseball and just simply call those shots that sail wide, long or into the net, “errors”? When Derek Jeter boots a ground ball he could have or should have fielded the official scorer doesn’t ponder whether the bobble was forced or unforced, it simply is listed as an error.
Now that’s not to say there are NO unforced errors in tennis because players do double fault on their serves. For my money THAT is the ONLY unforced error in tennis. By the way I just created a new graphic for all of my producer and graphics friends who televise tennis. Now you can keep track of errors and unforced errors. You’re welcome.
So there are three of my “Most Annoying and Useless Statistics in Sports”. I am sure you have a few of your own and I’d love to hear about them. Let’s discuss.