March 7, 2008

Expect the Unexpected When Sports Is Involved

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When I came to Cornell almost two years ago, I expected that all the brilliant people here would trample over some of my previously-held beliefs with their superior arguments. Well, I don’t know if the arguments were superior, but at least a few academics have made me question ideas that I once held as truth.
One of these times came when ILR Statistics Prof. Paul Velleman lectured about a particular concept from a 1985 study by another Cornell professor.
Co-authored by the Cornell psychology department’s own source of all evil, Thomas Gilovich, the report in question was called “The Hot Hand in Basketball: On the Misperception of Random Sequences.” Based on data from the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics and Cornell basketball teams — the authors determined that there is no such thing as a “streak shooting” or a “hot hand.”
Though most players interviewed believed that they had “hot” or “cold” shooting days, the authors found no statistical “evidence” to support that the chances of hitting a shot increase after the last shot is made. Apparently, a concept that has contributed to one of the most exciting aspects of basketball simply does not exist.
Way to crush my dreams, Thomas Gilovich. Or at least, way to try. They want us to learn critical thinking here at Cornell, right?
I don’t believe it, and no one I’ve talked to about this does either. When I play basketball myself, I can tell from the start whether it’s going to be a “hot” or a “cold” shooting day. I have seen several Cornell basketball games when it seemed as if sophomore Ryan Wittman could not miss from behind the arc. At Saturday’s Harvard game alone, I could feel the good energy around sophomore Andre Wilkins all the way from the stands. That whole game, in fact, was a mass demonstration of the “hot hand” concept; Harvard had no chance (yeah March Madness!).
Does it really matter what academics can observe about the performance of athletes? It can’t really be explained; that’s part of its appeal to the less talented masses. What matters is that the athlete believes in the “hot hand.” They can make it happen if they believe it, and we spectators enjoy the results.
Now, as much as I love reminiscing about freshman year (yeah … sure), I didn’t just randomly start thinking about this semi-mathematical (and, therefore, repulsive to me) topic. I was inspired by a recent piece of news about (who else?) my beloved Yankees.
I first heard a few weeks ago about the project based out of Penn that rated infielders based on statistics. I was mildly annoyed at the time, but when I saw the results — which placed three-time Gold Glove winner Derek Jeter at the bottom of the list — I just got mad. I was mad not just as a Yankees fan, but as a fan of baseball and sports in general.
I admit that knowledge of statistics is an integral part of almost every sport. I grew up listening to my own father spout batting averages, whether overall or from each side of the plate, for players from every era of baseball as if he himself were the only person left in the world with that knowledge.
Consistency is important too, a career batting average over .300 indicating that the player’s success was by skill, not chance.
However, the fact that anyone would spend time, energy and resources in a futile attempt to quantify glove greatness seems like one of the silliest things I have ever heard. It is an oxymoron, I know, but the whole idea behind watching sports is that we expect, or at least hope for, something absolutely unexpected to happen. (Three words: Giants over Patriots.)
Statistics are not the end all, be all of a great player. The value of Derek Jeter is that he makes that one fantastic play, that one clutch hit that can turn around a game or series — he is the walking, talking, clean-shaven equivalent of the “hot hand” concept. He is team leadership in a bottle that inspires everyone else.
As much as I believe that a basketball player can make his or her own destiny with a “hot hand,” I believe that one of the most important concepts in baseball is that an athlete (or even a coach) can rise above any middling or mediocre statistics to create a truly spectacular play. (One word: Tyree.)
That’s the reason I watch sports. And so, this is what I have learned from a $40,000 per year education that paid for that statistics class last spring — statistics be damned! (Sorry Prof. Velleman, I was never very good at math.)