It’s not maths

Good profile on Bill James here.    James is a baseball writer – without him in the 70s there’d be no moneyball in the 00s, etc.   I have his self-published annuals from the late 70s, and his properly published annuals from the 80s, and cherish them greatly.

Anyway, the key quote:

“When I write something, I start with a question. … The answer tends to be in terms of math, which was just an accident. Take the most obscure question: Do different first base umpires have an impact on stolen base rates because of the way they call balks? I would print columns and columns of math, perhaps unwisely. So people perceive it as math, but it never was.”It was an answer.”

Without wishing to compare CCN to Bill James, which would be preposterous, that’s sort of what I’m on about here when we go off the beaten track a bit.   It’s not stats I love, but trying to find answers.   We never really find them but I keep trying because it feels like it ought to be possible, and anyway, sometimes you find something. Whether anyone’s reading at that point is another matter, but it makes me feel like some effort’s gone in.

8 thoughts on “It’s not maths

  1. I love Bill James. He is particularly good at questioning the long held truths, and then checking the data. Here are some Bill James like questions that statistics could examine in football:

    When goalkeepers punt the ball down field, how often do they result in a turnover to the opposition? If the keeper throws it to a wing man, how often does the ball advance beyond mid-field?

    For direct free kicks within 35 yards of goal, which is the best way to score goals; direct shots on goal or head balls?

    For a team that relies on the offsides trap as part of their defensive strategy, does the trap really work, or does it cost a team more goals over the entire season?

    On corner kicks, most teams put a defender at the goal post; but statically does this make a difference in defending?

    These are the sort of questions James asks, and statistics can provide some basis for an answer.

    1. ah you see, I think this about the goal kicks all the time.

      Equally, wouldn’t teams, from teh kickoff, do well to drive the ball towards the corner flag and pen the opposition into their own area?

      The offside trap is slightly different in that it is part of squeezing the play into the other team’s half of the pitch, not necessarily a defensive strategy in itself. You use a high line but have to press really hard to stop the other team from picking you off over the top. So it’s surely worth doing for territorial reasons alone.

      The guardian’s secret footballer talked about the man on the post:

      “What particularly riles me is when you hear a pundit or co-commentator say something like, “I can’t understand, Martin, why Drogba is not on the post here. That header would have fallen to him and if I’m Petr Cech I’m saying: ‘Go on son, clear that off the line for me!'”

      The fact is corners are routinely cleared by a man stationed on the six-yard line, exactly where Chelsea position Didier Drogba. If somebody scores inside that post it is for no other reason than a player having lost his man. That is the mistake. If there is a player on the post he will clear one, possibly two shots off the line a season. If that same player stands on the six-yard line he will probably clear 100 corners away over the course of the season.

      The worst thing, though, is when this dross gets into popular culture and my friends start saying stupid things to me like, “We should have a man on the post, our manager doesn’t know what he’s doing”, just because it sounds like the right thing to say. It’s such an easy way of analysing that it infuriates me. It’s lazy and it takes you, the viewer, for a fool. But, then again, Sky is an expert in creating a villain.”

      Ha ha.

          1. its gotta be someone around the block, played for a number of teams and managers.

            someone also that didnt grow up rich (talked about hand me downs).

            must be english

            has to be at least partially intelligent and willing to be outspoken at times

            it could be scott parker.

            did some googling and they ran a poll. it looks like murphy and scott parker were 2 of the 8 people they named, along with some terrible choices, and some other interesting ones (kevin davies)

            anyway, i am sticking to my guess of murphy

  2. Nice post, and great questions Ol G.

    For people who get prickly whenever numbers come up, I like to remind them that the numbers contain a human narrative. Machines aren’t creating them, players are.

  3. I find statistics useful, interesting and bewildering at the same time. Always enjoy reading statistical analysis of Fulham though!

    On a slight tangent, Rich can I point you to the lates Bill Simmons article on ( ). If you read the last section on the Celtics, Bill discusses players being traded and what that means for a club and player – essentially highlighting the hipocrisy of fans who are unhappy to see star players leave.

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