Book Review: The Stats Game by Aidan & Maxwell Resnick

The Stats Game, written by Aidan & Maxwell Resnick, begins as if written by two angry old men, which is ironic considering the authors are far from it.  In fact, the whiz kids are still teenagers.  It doesn’t take long, however, for them to flip the script, for it is the old man’s thinking whose habits they warn against.

Within their first few pages, they harken back to baseball’s steroid era when players like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and others were knocking the ball out of the park with exhilarating, yet juiced and later punitive, regularity. 

What are we to make of these records, they propose?  Their point is not to complain about a time where baseball’s record book went askew but rather to bring up an overarching theme that sports is contextual, that the numbers we’ve come to associate with sports might not always be what they seem.  It might, they argue, be time to look at things a little differently.

As one would expect, analytics play an important part of The Stats Game. “The purpose of a team’s analytics department is to provide players and coaches with data and information that has the potential to improve their production.”  For if not, they may be doomed to fail and pay a healthy price in doing so.

The Stats Game, at times basic and overly explanatory and at others quite forward-thinking, will undoubtedly rub some old school sports fans the wrong way.  For example, imagine someone telling a manager like Jim Leyland to trust a spreadsheet over his hunches.  One gets the feeling the Resnick brothers are perfectly okay with ruffling a few feathers.  In fact, that’s their intent.  They push analytics but not preachingly so.  They allow you to form your own opinions while letting you know where they stand and how they see the future of sports analytics.

We’re not reinventing the wheel when it comes to using statistics to look at sports but the Resnick brothers suggest that might not be such a bad idea.  They definitely represent the new generation that might at worst rattle old school thinkers and at best get us looking at sports in a different light.

They spend chapters questioning the usefulness of statistics in different sports, i.e., assists in both basketball and hockey, ERA and batting average in baseball and of course, WAR (Wins Above Replacement), a stat that still makes my head hurt.  They proceed to either validate or invalidate these statistics, especially those they label binary statistics (wins and losses, hits and outs, etc.) proposing all the while that if it’s broke, perhaps it’s time we fix it.  After all, “sports analytics is all about drawing conclusions.”  Misinformation leads to wrong ones.

They warn of the dangers of taking this changing of the guard too lightly.  They warn of putting too much emphasis on small sample sizes, rewarding and overpaying players after successful post-seasons and how a team’s long-term success could be jeopardized when the wrong contracts are signed.  Are players overvalued for coming through in the clutch?  You’re damn right some are, they propose.

The Resnick brothers remind us that sports are ever-changing.  Those who adapt will demonstrate greater success.  “Basketball has seen a decrease in mid-range jump shots and an increase in three-pointers.  Football has become far more pass-heavy in recent years. Hockey teams have become more strategic when selecting the optimal skaters for specific scenarios. And last but certainly not least, baseball has experienced by far the biggest revolution in the way the game is played amid the Moneyball era.”  In fact, there are enough references to the Billy Beane revolution to make Brad Pitt’s hair stand on end.  It’s entirely up to the reader to believe the Resnick brothers but they’re convinced of their own argument, so much so that they suggest Pete Carroll made the right decision by passing the ball in the final seconds of Super Bowl XLIX instead of handing it to Marshawn Lynch.  Good luck taking that book tour on the road to Seattle.

My favorite part of the book comes towards the end where they bash the media for spreading misinformation and then ridicule sports fans for falling for it hook, line and sinker.  While understanding that “journalists” have a job to do, the authors remind us they far too often create a misleading dialogue.  “While intelligent and entertaining these analysts do not always convey the most accurate narratives, and their narratives spread throughout the sports community like wildfire.  Just because a narrative is popular does not mean it’s accurate.”  Let’s be honest, if you’re not watching SportsCenter, or any news program these days with a hefty grain of salt, you should probably turn off your television for fear of further, sheepish behavior.

The Resnick brothers laud the efficient James Harden, bash the stat-stuffing Russell Westbrook (yes, you read that correctly) and explain why some hockey players you’ve probably never heard of are better for their teams than the ones you have. 

“Trust logic and probability” they warn over instincts and eye tests.  While old school coaches, managers (and yes, readers) may scoff at this new school stance, there is no denying Resnick’s thinking marks a continued trend in that direction.  They want to quantify sports as efficiently as possible so that they tell the proper story.

While I didn’t necessarily agree with everything the brothers wrote in The Stats Game, it did remind me of the changing nature of sports in the 21st century.  We’ll see if GMs of the future continue to heed that advice.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Stats Game by Aidan & Maxwell Resnick

  1. Not feed the Beast on second and goal? Pull Snell after he hand given up just one hit and struck out nine? Analytics my ass. It may be a good way to build a team, but sometimes you just need to trust your gut.

  2. Deac…

    Their defense of Carroll’s call was that with one time out left on that possession, they were going to have to pass it anyway. But Lynch was running roughshod at that point. Like I said in the review, good luck taking that show on the road to Seattle.

    The Snell pulling is definitely the most recent example of analytics over hunch gone bad. I imagine the authors would counter the argument with, well, it doesn’t work ALL the time.

    Well, neither do hunches.

    Either way, a solid piece of work that at least points to the changing nature of sports analytics. For better or for worse.

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