When Henry Chadwick invented the boxscore for baseball, it was a way in which the story of the game could be told without taking up as much valuable newspaper space. It was a brilliant idea. By following the numbers, one could quickly get an idea about who played well and who did not. One could generally see who the heroes and goats were at a glance. While it wasn’t a replacement for actually watching the game, it did give enough information to carry a conversation around the water cooler, or whatever they would gather around before its invention in 1911.
A boxscore was meant to tell a story of what has happened. But being filled with numbers caught the eyes of mathematicians, whom I hear rather enjoy numbers. But for a long time, the game remained subjective. Batting averages were nice to know, but were never as useful as the eye test in the minds of most managers. Still, boxscores were kept, and mathematicians silently worked behind the scenes, treating baseball as a pass time, just like the rest of the country. Baseball was always something to be watched and enjoyed for what it was in that moment.
In 1951, one of those mathematicians made his pass time public. Hy Turner published The Complete Encyclopedia of Baseball. And the public got a taste of what the geeks had been playing with. In 1969 computers were first used to compile statistics, leading to the publishing of Big Mac: MacMillan Publishing’s Baseball Encyclopedia. No longer were statistics simply some lab-coat’s toy. Statistics were starting to have an impact on opinions about players. Objective measurements were proving to be far more reliable than subjective ideas.
Then came the advent of SABRMetrics. Where statistics were brought to a whole new level. No longer were statistics limited to what has previously occurred. Statistics were used to predict the future. David Grabiner, in his Sabermetrics Manifesto (1994) writes that one of the questions sabermetrics can answer is "How many home runs will Ken Griffey hit next year?" In 2003, Moneyball was released, which changed how everyone looked at baseball, especially because of the use of statistics. No longer was watching baseball about enjoying what it was in the moment, but every at-bat, every fly ball was new information with which one could use to predict the future.
And that mindset quickly infected the viewing of other sports, basketball included. But baseball has an advantage in statistics over basketball. In baseball, everything can be measured, down to millimeters and thousandths of a second. Jonathan Hale, for example, in 2007 accumulated enough information to determine which umpires had the smallest and largest strike zones. Baseball can be seen from a completely objective angle. Basketball simply cannot.
And this can be infuriating for some people. Especially when that subjectivity goes against the home team. What constitutes a foul? Depends on the situation. Depends if any of the referees saw the infraction. Depends on which players are involved. But we can usually chalk that up to part of the game over which little can be done. But statistics are still far behind.
Offensive statistics abound in basketball, but there are many arguments amongst the patrons of these statistic over which one is best, or for that matter, even useful. Defensive statistics are even worse. Even those who track defensive statistics agree that it is limited at best. No matter the statistic, predicting the future in basketball is like looking into pea soup in comparison to the general accuracy of baseball.
I think this has to do with the sheer number of variables that one would have to take into account in order to get an accurate picture. Variables that would include mental state of mind, level of effort on each particular play, things that are impossible to measure in detail, even though they may be able to be witnessed broadly. It’s generally accepted that the traditional boxscore in basketball is inadequate. But attempts to go beyond it have also proved inadequate. A coach or general manager with a solid subjective eye can hold his own against coaches and general managers who are tied closely to APBRMetrics (basketball’s version of baseball’s SABRMetrics). And a good eye is necessary for finding developing talent.
But simply talking about statistics is not my only point. It’s my contention that the use of advanced statistics has taken the enjoyment of the games away from many of the fans. Because all the advanced statistics are widely available on this tangle of wires and radio signals we call the internet. Everyone can look at them. Everyone can use their subjectivity to choose an imperfect, but objective measurement. How many aruguments have we seen on Blazers’ Edge over win shares, adjusted +/-, PER, SCHOENE, and everything else?
Now, some people have a good idea about how to use statistics properly. And some of the most level headed people on the subject of statistics are the statisticians themselves. Mostly because they are aware of where each statistic shines, and where it falls flat. Basketball statisticians, I believe, are more likely to trust their eyes more than ordinary fans are.
And the statisticians are still able to enjoy the games, because they are doing two things they love at the same time. But for those of us who aren’t that into math, advanced statistics are merely a club to use to beat up people into following our particular "objectivity."
Because of statistics, I have seen people despise players and coaches that are on our own team. I have seen serious posts about trading our best player based on a handful of preseason games. I have seen the tide turn on so many players that used to be able to do no wrong. I’ve seen players booed on their home court, because their advanced statistics weren’t as favorable as originally predicted.
Lies, damn lies and statistics indeed. Statistics leave 29 fan bases unsatisfied, and the thirtieth fan base can’t stay satisfied for long. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I can’t survive as a fan in that kind of environment.
And so, for fans who can’t explain the details involved in how to calculate True Shooting Percentage, I would ask you to do something completely radical. Trust your eyes. And you know what will happen? You’ll often be wrong. Glory in that. Because only when we find out we’re wrong are we ready to learn what is right. Statistics are never right or wrong. They just are. And as a result, they can never teach you anything about yourself. This is why, I suspect, that Hollinger, Pelton, and others still use their eyes. Maybe they don’t nail the prediction, but they grow in making it.
And in learning how to use one’s eyes, the games become fun again. They become stories again. The regular old boxscore has some meaning left in it. Brandon Roy can be our star player again, even with a few selfish thoughts swirling around. LaMarcus Aldridge can be that eccentric 6’ 11" outside shooter with out being crucified for not being the second coming of Karl Malone. Greg Oden can be himself without all the second guessing and wishful revisionist history. Jerryd Bayless can be a young kid who is still growing into his role. Rudy Fernandez can actually be homesick, and yet still be cheered for being here anyways. Since it’s a subjective game, I’m going to watch it subjectively as well.
Maybe this makes me naïve. Maybe this makes me a blind homer. But I’m okay with that. I can’t think of any other way I would want to be a fan. The season is starting. Let the GM be in charge of the future. I’m going to worry about right now. Because now is when the story of the Portland Trailblazers is being told. And in the spirit of Henry Chadwick, it’s a story I have got to hear in any way that it’s being told.