We have entered sports’ industrial revolution. Statistics are making sports homogenized, faster and efficient. For those standing in the hallway or blocking up the hall, it will only get worse. Sports consciousness is in for a sea change and ESPN plans to be at the forefront.
The WWL has hired engineer and former NBA consultant Dean Oliver as “director of production analytics.” Wielding ESPN’s power, he will infuse new stats into the marketplace to weed out the common, misplaced understanding. Soon, every young sports fan in America will be dropping acronyms and formulas like they are distilled rap terminology.
“We have to introduce new language. You can get lazy using convenient language. Like with common discussions of basketball players’ per-game points, rebounds and assists. That has to be replaced. How many team wins does he contribute? How often do his passes lead to buckets and free throws?” But he concedes it’s easier to find flaws in stats than invent ones: “RBI, in 10 years, will have gone away. What’s more of a battle is what it’s replaced with.”
I like statistics. I cringe when baseball analysts make sweeping claims based on “wins” and “RBI.” They should be used as a tool, to help us grasp sports more intelligently. Stats don’t worry me, but their ferocious inertia does. The refrain isn’t “we can” understand sports better, it is “we have to.” We’re on WAR footing and we never ask why.
Sports are an escape. It’s no coincidence organized, professional leagues developed alongside urbanization. Industrialism created an alien culture. Sports offered an outlet to reconnect with the pastoral world, to create a sense of community and to provide drama and purpose to an otherwise soulless world. Sports should be a departure from modern life, not a reflection of it.
A baseball GM could construct the ideal statistical team. Tremendous athletes would blanket the field. Dispassionate hitters top to bottom would work pitch counts and be excruciating outs. It would be successful and efficient. It would be awful to watch. Every game would take five hours with minimal scoring. The game needs to entertain.
Sports are beautiful. Seeing Lionel Messi dribble through three defenders or Larry Fitzgerald make a leaping catch in the end zone exhilarates us. We need to know the mechanisms behind those feats as much as we need to know the composition of Van Gogh’s paints or a diagram of Shakespeare’s sentence structure. We understand because we experience greatness organically. We don’t need to double check the spreadsheet.
Statistical progress is wonderful – I love my adjusted OPS just as I love my iPod – but if we progress for the sake of progress itself we risk ruining the things we love about sports.
[Photo via Getty]