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OT: Jake Reviews "Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and How Games Are Won"

 

The new book "Scorecasting," by University of Chicago Finance professor Tobias Moskowitz and Sports Illustrated journalist L. Jon Wertheim has received a fair bit of press (including in one of Timbo's columns) and its well deserved.  Adopting a similar model to "Freakonomics," not coincidentally also penned by a U. Chicago professor together wiith a journalist, the book focuses on demonstrating how economic and psychological influences affect virtually everything in sports, from the decisions made by coaches to subconscious influences on umpires.  The book is a fun read, doing a good job of combining storytelling with the numbers.  Ultimately, it was a little light on the numbers for my super nerdy tastes, and not totally convincing in every chapter.  The book also at times jumps around from topic to topic without going into enough depth on some of them.  Nevertheless a book I recommend to any sports fan, especially the type that enjoys books like "Freakonomics" or Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers," a category that I fall squarely into.

 

The two most overarching themes of the book are the influences of "omission bias" and "loss aversion."  The authors use these two themes to explain why football coaches are so conservative when it comes to 4th down decision making, why referees are more likely to make a bad non call than a bad call (and why that's what the fans and league officials WANT), why even the top golfers treat the same putt (as far as location on the course) differently when its for birdie rather than bogey, among other examples.   This part of the book is convincing, if a bit obvious in places, but the examples the authors use to bring out the point are interesting and the storytelling is good.  The chapters about these themes fit very well together, which isn't the case for some of the later chapters, which as I mentioned, seem to jump around somewhat.

 

The chapter that's received the most buzz, not surprisingly, is the one that contends that officiating bias accounts for most of the home field advantage (HFA) that's seen across the sporting landscape.  While the authors are able to bring the conventional explanations for HFA into question (e.g. the crowd is shown not to affect basketball players shooting free throws, the velocity or location of pitches thrown by road teams or the accuracy of NFL kickers and the distance punters are able to kick; also, the importance of travel is shown to be unimportant-- though the authors do show that back-to-back games in the NHL and NBA do account for some of the HFA seen in those sports), they do not convincingly show that HFA is all, or mostly, due to officials bias.  They do document clear examples of said bias existing in many sports, and are able to quantify it in some cases, but sometimes they get a bit hand-wavy in their quantifications and in a few places their work has been questioned (e.g. here and here).  I came away with the feeling that officials bias is certainly a factor in HFA, but that more work needs to be done to quantify just how much of a factor it is and what explains the rest of it (though that's certainly not an easy thing to do).  This is still the most interesting chapter of the book in my opinion, and the authors make some excellent points--- there's just more that needs to be done.

 

--side note:  as one of their illustrative examples, the authors choose a pair of Blazers-Spurs games in the 54 win season... one where the Blazers were blown out in SA on a back-2-back despite Duncan and Ginobili missing the game, and the other just a few days later where the Blazers dominated the Spurs at the RG despite Duncan's return to the lineup--

 

In summary, "Scorecasting" was an enjoyable read that will give you some new things to watch for when you tune into sports.  Its well worth reading.

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