Sports holds many truths to be self-evident: Defense wins championships. It's smart strategy to bench a player who is in foul trouble. Teams perform better at home than on the road. When a basketball player gets a hot hand, it's best to feed that shooter.
But how many of these axioms stand up to exhaustive statistical scrutiny? Two boyhood pals – Toby Moskowitz, a finance professor at the University of Chicago, and Jon Wertheim, a writer at Sports Illustrated – set out to separate myth from reality, poring over mountains of statistics for a book with an unfortunate title, "Scorecasting."
Their findings validate some widely held beliefs and refute others.
-- Is it smart strategy to "ice" a kicker in football or a free-throw shooter in basketball, calling time out to force the subject to stew over the pressure moment ahead? Nope. Stats show that players' success rates are the same in such instances, whether or not a timeout was called.
-- A basketball coach should always rest a star player who is one infraction away from fouling out of a game, right? Wrong. The commensurate loss of scoring is more likely to cost the team the win, so the numbers say.
-- Are the Chicago Cubs cursed? No, their management has just made abysmal personnel moves over the years. Also, because the ticket-buying public is so faithful, there is less incentive to do what it takes to assemble a championship cast.
"Scorecasting" is strictly a niche publication, its subject matter appealing not so much to the casual fan as to the immersed geek. Neither is the writing particularly sophisticated: The most overworked word in sports broadcasting — "huge" — is even italicized in these pages. Also flawed are some utterly perplexing charts and graphs that are meant to amplify the text; they might benefit from color rather than varying shades of gray.
The strongest objections to the book's conclusions are sure to come from the people who wear striped shirts and adjudicate the various contests. As the authors present data confirming that teams are much more successful on their home fields, courts and ice, they offer evidence that the refs and umps are favoring the home team, likely because these officials are subtly inclined to incur the crowd's favor.
How could statistics possibly corroborate that hypothesis?
Technological advances play a role. In 2007, MLB.com installed cameras in all of the major-league ballparks so that every pitch could be precisely tracked for the benefit of fans following games on their computers.
After evaluating heaps of this Pitch f/x data, Moskowitz and Wertheim conclude that "in crucial situations, the home teams [while batting] receive far fewer called strikes per called pitch than does the away team." It may not be as blatant as Leslie Nielsen's umpire in "The Naked Gun," who shamelessly basks in the crowd's cheers, but this and other evidence purports that bias does exist.
In other sports, the book asserts, soccer referees favor the home team by doling out or withholding "extra time" minutes at the end of matches, while basketball refs do the same in calling certain fouls and turnovers.
The statistics, alas, don't always cooperate in "Scorecasting." While challenging the conventional wisdom that defense wins championships, the authors contend that defensive or offensive prowess is equally meritorious, citing Super Bowl results. But, oops, look down the page for this pesky little footnote: "It turns out the top-ranked defense during the regular season has won 15 Super Bowls, whereas the top-ranked offense has won only eight."
It's no fun when a postulate gets crunched by its own numbers.
Noland was a sportswriter from 1977 to 1998, working at the Santa Monica Evening Outlook and the L.A. Daily News. He covered the NFL, major league baseball, major college football and basketball, golf, boxing and other sports.