A review of Scorecasting: Sports cliches gone wild

As sports fans, we’ve all used clichés like “Defense wins championships,” “He’s got the hot hand” and “There’s no I in TEAM” without giving them a second thought.  They’re catch phrases uttered at every water cooler and in every locker room.  Well, two gentlemen thought it might be fun to challenge the legitimacy of those statements.  Their names are Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wetheim.  Their book is entitled Scorecasting.

In Scorecasting, Moskowitz and Wetheim boldly go where no men have gone before, by mathematically proving or disproving the legitimacy of these clichés.  Can it be proven that defense does, in fact, win championships?  What exactly explains home field advantage?  Does icing a field goal kicker or free throw shooter actually work?

Their book is, in essence, an attempt to understand why things are the way they are in sports.  It is (likely) the first work of its kind to do so and is a fascinating read for any number-crunching, sports nut.

Some of the more entertaining portions of the book include the case of Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, Arkansas, whose head coach never punts the football because he finds mathematical advantage in using all four downs.  They even cite a Berkeley study which claims “the play-calling of NFL teams shows systematic and clear-cut departures from the decisions that would maximize their chances of winning.”

Interesting philosophy for any of us who have ever complained when our team opts to punt on fourth and short, yet don’t expect NFL coaches to follow suit any time soon.  Or will they?

The authors also explain why home field advantage has been such a constant across all sports over time.  Any guesses before reading on?  The answer may surprise you.

They cite not the friendly confines and familiarity of one’s own stadium, the tens of thousands of screaming fans or weather advantages, but rather… the human element of officiating.  Statements like “contrary to conventional wisdom, weather gives a team no additional home advantage” are bitter pills to swallow for Buccaneers fans who saw their team go 0-for-forever when playing in freezing temperature.

While they admit scheduling plays a factor, according to Moskowitz and Wertheim, “official’s bias is the most significant contributor to home field advantage.”  Referees are not “immune to human psychology” with “social influence as a powerful force that affects human behavior and decisions without the subjects even being aware of it.”

Their claim is that, over a large enough sample size, the home team receives the benefit of more fringe strikes called balls, as well as fumbles lost and loose-ball fouls called in favor of the home team.

The authors credit this to loss aversion, that as human beings, we let the “fear of loss overpower rational decision-making,” opting to “avoid losses at the expense of acquiring gains.”

Sound sketchy?  It did to me too and probably does for anyone who’s ever attended a college football game with 100,000 of their closest friends.  At times, I read the book with a great deal of skepticism, yet they make convincing arguments to support their positions.  Again, they’re talking sample size over time.  They researched years of data to demonstrate that golfers putt more aggressively to avoid bogies rather than score birdies, umpires neglect to call fewer third strikes for the home team in close situations and NBA refs make calls less frequently when the game is on the line.

Suggesting umpires play the biggest role in determining home field advantage over time probably has Bud Selig rolling over in his crypt.  It’s also why Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks is quoted on the cover as saying “I love this book.  If I told you why, the NBA would fine me again.”

The authors also propose that there is no such thing as momentum.  As fans we tend to look at sporting events as single, isolated incidents without focusing on the bigger picture.  Scorecasting argues that over a large enough sample size, streaks have no bearing on future performance, just as we would expect to see ten straight heads or tails when flipping a coin 1,000 times.

They also measured whether icing a field goal kicker or free throw shooter by calling time out right before the moment of truth has any effect on performance.  Newsflash.  It doesn’t.  They even discuss whether the Chicago Cubs are cursed.  They’re not.  Oh yeah, and defense wins championships, but offense does too.

Scorecasting is ground-breaking and will likely be a mainstay on the book shelves of team owners and GMs nationwide.  Their studies are exhaustive and convincing.  The book is not overly numerical or heady for your average sports geek, although they did have me recalling concepts I learned back in college Logic.

For anyone who’s ever questioned the common assumptions in sports, or even if you haven’t, it’s an enlightening and informative read.  The best part of Scorecasting is that it makes you think.  It makes you question, just as they have, the truths we sports fans have accepted for so long.

25 thoughts on “A review of Scorecasting: Sports cliches gone wild

  1. In Minnesota $5 billion can get you a world of hurt simply ask their legislature and the fact on whether or not they pare the budget deficit but at the same time vote to fund the building of a $1.1 billion new facility for the Vikings . All public funding I might add because team owner Zygi Wilf isn’t putting up any of his own money towards this nor will the NFL because of the lockout and the fact that there’s no CBA to speak of that’s in existence . The league’s own 3 G Act as it is won’t even come into this whole scenario whereby the league in part puts up an initial sum to assist teams with the financing .

    tophatal ………………

  2. Not so sure I agree, Al.

    While it might not be Boston-L.A., the Finals will still feature plenty of star power. If Stern gets LeBron and Wade in the Finals, I’m sure he’ll be just fine with things.

  3. Al…

    I would imagine Vikings fans have to be fed up.

    First, they were held hostage to all the Brett Favre bullshit, then their stadium caves in, then there’s the potential of no season (probably a good thing for them) and now their owner is pulling that BS.

    Oh well, at least they have Christian Ponder as their future.

  4. If there is a 50-50 chance that something will go wrong, then 9 times out of 10 it will.

  5. He he, Aer.

    I think that’s their point.

    But you reminded me of that line from “Anchorman” where Brian Fantana says of his Sex Panther cologne, “60% of the time, it works alllll the time.”

  6. Without having read the book, and making a snap judgement based off this review, it seems similar to the Freakonomics series of books. The authors use only the data they need to prove ‘their’ theory.

    The only indisputable fact in sports is..”Tails never fails.”

  7. I’m calling “bullshit,” and I haven’t even read this book. How’s that for unconventional?

  8. Chap…

    I’m actually way behind on my reading assignments. Big surprise.

    One of their promoters asked me to read it and review it for the site.

    I’m sure they’ll appreciate J-Dub’s comment above.

  9. Chris

    It’s dependent upon which of the quartet of teams actually makes it to the Finals don’t you think ? I mean if it’s Bulls _ Thunder are you so sure that the nation will actually be tuned in ? Anything below an 8 rating on the Nielsen scale will be considered abysmal by NBA standards.

    I think that the MLB All Star Game is going to be rather contentious for all the wrong reasons as it is staged in Arizona . Bear in mind with Gov Jan Brewer having signed immigration bill ( SB 1070 ) into law even with part of it being contested by Justice Dept on behalf of the government I still think that MLB’s Latin players and the Hispanic community at large will be angry . The fallout from it is going to be considerable whichever way you look at it . La Raza and the ACLU have been closely monitoring the situation but meanwhile Selig and the hierarchy have remained extremely quiet as the whole scenario plays itself out .

    A number of Latin players have said that they’ll refuse to participate in the All Star Game as long as the event is staged within Arizona . . Shame that the game of baseball in spite of its legacy is still caught up in the midst of intolerance and in part racial strife .

    I’m going to throw up a piece in part about it but not devoting too much on the issue as I believe it to be a political thing that the government should have addressed long ago .

    tophatal …………..

  10. Chris

    Only in Minnesota could you have an ownership group acting all gleeful in spite of the fact that the legislature there isn’t guaranteed to vote in their favor. But that’s what you get with the Vikings and their idiotic ownership group. Zygi Wilf is a monumental a_shole !

    tophatal …………..

  11. Welll, let’s hope Muschamp doesn’t adopt the “never punt” strategy 🙂

    And, I think Bud would be surprised to know that he’s dead.

  12. Bulls-Thunder probably won’t draw ratings, Al, but that’s not going to be our Finals. You know it and I know it.

    Let me ask you this. With all that’s going on in Arizona these days, if Clemente were still around, what do you think he’d say about the issue?

  13. Chris

    Clemente , Willie Mays , Ernie Banks and Robinson and many of the ol’ timers who brought the game to where many appreciated it even more than the NFL would be angry . In light of the civil rights era and all that many of the players had to endure I think it utterly reprehensible that now we’ve got a legislature and an administration that simply can’t see eye to eye on an issue that should have been dealt with long ago .

    This All Star Game </b? will be an event that I believe will be remembered more for what will happen beyond the game rather than for the events on the field over that weekend !

    As for Armstrong if he's guilty of anything at this juncture it may well be his naivete ! I know that he had testicular cancer and many of the drugs prescribed to him may well have contravened WADA and and UCI rules .

    This whole episode will come back to bite him in the ass because now you have some of former teammates coming out and saying that they saw him taking illicit PED’s . And these guys having been subpoenad and given testimony to the Feds simply don’t want to perjure themselves not with the jail time that goes with it for lying to a federal agent .

    tophatal …………

  14. If it’s a Bulls / Thunder Finals I ain’t sad ! All I want to see is an exciting series no matter who the participants are ! As it is viewership has been steadily declining for the NBA Finals and they only tend to peak when it’s the Lakers who are one of the participants . So that tells us all we need to know to begin with .

    tophatal …………….

  15. And Al…

    When’s the last time the NBA has seen a superstar as soft-spoken as Durant?

    He’s unreal at this point.

    How do they match up against Miami?

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