The Crackle Wonders: L. Jon Wertheim

Justin January 20, 2011 0

If you read my review last weekend, you may have noticed that I sort of glossed over the last article in this past week’s issue of Sports Illustrated. There were two reasons for that. First of all, my magazine came two days late and I was pressed for time, so I didn’t actually read the last article. I just said it sounded like an interesting book and promised to have more on the topic soon. And that’s the second reason.

Today, we speak with L. Jon Wertheim about the new book, “Scorecasting”, which he co-wrote with University of Chicago Professor Tobias Moskowitz. We talk about journalistic orthodoxy, well worn cliches, summer camp and secret names.

SCP: You guys are taking on generations of sports orthodoxy here. What led to the decision to tackle such a large project? How did the two of you hook up to work together? How long did you work on the book?

JW: Toby and I are old friends from Indiana. We met at summer camp in the mid-80s and played doubles together in the summers. We were catching up a few years ago, talking sports and figured why not try to mimic Freakonomics-Toby is colleagues at U. of Chicago with Steve Levitt-and come up with a similar project with sports themes. Between the available data and the accepted conventional wisdom that begs for close examination, it was easy to come with topics. We basically scribbled down a list of questions to explore-“Is it really a blessing to have the top draft pick?” “Is there really no I in Team?”-and started digging. We probably spent 18 months on this project but it never felt like work. And there was plenty we never got to. Save it for a sequel, I guess.

SCP: Anyone who’s ever watched their team lose a close game on the road knows that all refs are clearly biased. You guys actually proved it. Can you explain?

JW: We devote about 15,000 words to this in the book-but long story short: It’s always hard to prove ref bias because you have to know what the right call SHOULD have been. But in baseball we can see exact pitch locations and we find that umpires routinely give the benefit of the doubt to home batters and home pitchers, especially in more crucial situations. We also found that when MLB instituted umpire monitoring technology in some stadiums, the bias toward the home team was less in those stadiums. In the NFL we find that close calls also go the home teams’ way, as evidenced by away teams being more successful on instant replay challenges—that is, visiting teams seem to get more than their fair share of bad calls.  (The introduction of instant replay challenge also lowered considerably the home field advantage in the NFL.) We also found the same effects in the NBA and NHL–close calls going the home teams’ way, especially at more important times.

And, in international soccer we see the same thing. More fouls, red and yellow cards, and penalties being distributed to the visiting teams. But, also the length of injury time—the extra time added to a soccer match to account for injuries and substitutions that is at the discretion of the head referee—seems to greatly favor the home team.  Specifically, when the home team is ahead, the length of extra time is shortened so that the home team has a better chance of winning the game, but if the home team is behind the extra time is lengthened to give the home team a better chance to score and tie the game.

The ref bias toward the home team is consistent with what psychologists call “social conformity”:  humans tend to conform to a group’s opinion for two reasons 1) to relieve stress by trying to “fit in” with the group and 2) because the group may be better informed than the individual. Consistent with this explanation we find that referees are more prone to err in the favor of the home team the more ambiguous or uncertain the call (e.g., where the crowd provides a cue to the ref as to what the right call is) and the larger and more vocal the crowd. A 95 mph fastball on the corner of the strike zone in a tight game with a swelling and loud crowd screaming for the home team is MUCH more likely to go the home team’s way than a pitch obviously down the center of the plate in a lopsided game with few yelling fans. We find the same effects in all sports:  football, basketball, hockey, soccer, where the more relevant the crowd and the more uncertain the call, the more favoritism shown the home team by the referees.

Finally, one of the more interesting studies of the effect of crowds on referees was done when the Italian government, following a major soccer riot, banned fans from the stands for 21 games in the premier Italian league Serie A. The study found that the referee bias toward the home team normally present was suddenly absent when the stands were empty!

SCP: Batters should swing 3-0, teams shouldn’t punt on 4th down, the Cubs aren’t cursed.  You guys make all these points in the book. Is it still ok if I give 110 percent or take the season one game at a time? If not, I may give up watching sports in order to spend more time with my family??

JW: Absolutely. Just overcome adversity and maintain your focus, keeping a tireless work ethic and killer instinct. And if at all possible, step up in crunch time.  Seriously, the goal/hope isn’t to douse anyone’s love of sports or-for the love of Jahweh-get you to spend more time with your family. If anything it’s the opposite. With any luck, readers will become more passionate, because they’ll look at games and athletes and officials and decision-making in a new way.

When Moneyball came out, Billy Beane was seen as something of a visionary. Can you identify anyone who stands out in reference to this new wave of statistical analysis.

JW: That’s a good question. (ed. note: Thanks!) Beane found an inefficiency, exploited it and soon there was a market correction. Now it’s at the point where just about every team has an analytics department. (Whether the owners and general managers act on the data is, of course, another matter.) I have to be careful here, but I know of a few analysts who are building models to try and quantify “choking” which could create some cool new metrics for analyzing performance in the clutch. Honestly, even in the time between when we started this project and now, I’ve sensed a continuing trend to “embrace the math,” as Jim Irsay once put it to me.

Baseball Hall of Famer Joe Morgan is famously opposed to anything which goes against the traditional unwritten rules. Are you guys worried that he’s going to come after you?

JW: I think the great Tommy Craggs is first on his dance card.  I get that traditionalists are wary/intimidated by data and models they may not understand. But given how competitive sports have become-to say nothing of the financial stakes-you’re crazy not to use everything in your power to tilt the odds in your favor. Name another industry in which an acceptable response to innovation would be, “Nah, I trust my gut!”

But framing this as an either/or proposition is wrong. Ignoring stats and trusting only your gut is dangerous. But so is the reverse. If your gut tells you to do “X” and the math supports that, wouldn’t you feel better about your decision? At the very least, we should strive to understand where intuition is at odds with math/stats and ask “why?” That’s much of what we try to do in the book.

SCP: This question is something that I’ve wanted to know for a really long time. What’s the “L” stand for?

JW: Lewis. But of course you’ll have the good form not to share that with anyone else.

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