- The Washington Times - Friday, February 18, 2011

By Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim
Crown Archetype, $26 255 pages

”Scorecasting” is a book that sports fans should take to their upcoming tailgates. In one fell swoop, it shatters many of the most cherished athletic cliches with hard data and headstrong argument. It’s a work that levels the physical activity playing field in ways that seem simultaneously shocking and sensible.

Such a game-changing effort is possible because of the book’s pedigree. The dynamic duo at work here is Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim, the former a finance professor at the University of Chicago and the latter a senior writer for Sports Illustrated. The two tackle athletic assumptions with vigorous objectivity, constantly searching for novel ways of navigating sports competition. The final product would perform well in the same league as other second-takes on conventional wisdom such as “Freakonomics” by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner or “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell.

Speaking of leagues, there are few Mr. Moskowitz and Mr. Wertheim leave alone in their detailed analysis. The pair picks apart traditions in soccer, hockey, football, basketball, baseball and beyond, finding new ways for fans to interpret the actions of their favorite players or teams.

The initial challenge flag thrown is arguably the most controversial. The authors assert that sports lovers should show referees sympathy more often than scorn. Why should fans make such a tough call? Statistically speaking, it turns out most referees are frequently accurate. When they aren’t, it’s because of a behavioral phenomenon known as “omission bias” - the subconscious tendency to view the absence of an act with less judgment than the committing of an act. In the case of sporting officials, they’ll subconsciously ignore an accurate call so as not to earn the ire of fans for a difficult decision. Ironically, fans and referees are equally at fault for any game’s outcome.

The writers propose this reciprocal relationship also rears its head on the issue of home-field advantage. They first trot out such long-standing explanations as away-team fatigue and the home team’s playing in a familiar setting, only to discard them as inadequate. They next take the most popular idea - home-crowd volume - and find it doesn’t affect either team differently if a referee isn’t involved (basketball free throws being the best example). What emerges next is a classic case of conformity - sporting officials unknowingly call more favorably toward the home team as the home crowd is the majority egging them on.

Another myth exposed is the idea of player momentum. Athlete hot streaks or slumps are shown as remarkably variable, dependent simply on the amount of plays the player takes in generating a particular statistic during his or her whole career. Players performing poorly or perfectly aren’t blessed or cursed - they’ve simply reached the part of probability where they’re more likely to succeed or fail on a particular repeated action. When fans thus see a player on some kind of performance pattern, they’re viewing the same rules of chance working in a series of coin flips.

If these sound like stark truths, it’s because they are. Nonetheless, the authors are unafraid of turning the spotlight on anyone or anything - even themselves. Critiquing the infamous Chicago Cubs curse at work in Mr. Moskowitz’s home team, the pair found that the Cubs aren’t any unluckier than other teams, but rather field a lesser average amount of talent. The result is a team that performs far below its peers, so much so that it seems like a cosmic force is behind its travails.

If this sounds insulting to the Cubs and their fans, Mr. Moskowitz and Mr. Wertheim uncovered another startling fact - attendance at the Cubs’ Wrigley Field remains one of the best in the league regardless of its home team’s record. It’s a bittersweet find for the authors, one that showcases not just a team’s (theoretically) preventable losing ways but its fans’ unwavering loyalty, too.

Such dedication is what will drive the authors’ arguments home to readers even more than the ample evidence they provide. Mr. Moskowitz and Mr. Wertheim love the games they’re re-examining, a fact that should make the drastic changes of perception they propose much more palatable. Changing the game is no easy feat, and the fact “Scorecasting” is so successful at making readers reconsider is proof it’s less a Hail Mary and more a touchdown.

Mark Hensch is an intern for The Washington Times. He writes a heavy metal music blog, Heavy Metal Hensch, for its Communities website. He also contributes to Out and About D.C. in the same section.

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