New book offers solid challenge to conventional sports wisdom

Derek Jeter was a Hall of Fame shortstop for the Yankees noted for being a good fielder who made spectacular plays and won five Golden Gloves.

But in the book “The Stats Game,” twin brothers Aidan and Maxwell Resnick say he wasn’t as good a fielder as his reputation.

They assert he didn’t have good range and was late getting to the ball and compensated by making what would be easy plays look difficult or spectacular.

This is in their book, the latest look at analytics in sports. It is a growing field as more and more analysts take a deeper dive into how we view the game.

For example, the authors say the eye test, especially watching on TV, doesn’t give a full look at Jeter fielding a grounder because we focus on the pitcher throwing the pitch and batter hitting it and by the time, we see Jeter he has already made a move to the ball.

The one drawback is that they don’t explain how they decided how Jeter ranks as a fielder and say that “multiple studies” reject the idea he was an elite defender, but don’t identify them except for a back of the book reference to an article about his “horrid” defense.

They also point out that Seattle throwing on second down from the one in the Super Bowl in the final minute when Russell Wilson was intercepted wasn’t as bad a call as it was reported at the time.

If they ran and were stopped on second down, they would have had to call their last timeout and then would have had to throw on third down.

But Bart Starr convinced Vince Lombardi to let him run a quarterback sneak on third down in the Ice Bowl and he scored, so you never know.

They don’t examine whether the problem was the kind of throw in the middle of the field in traffic when the receiver could be bumped instead of having Wilson throw to back of the end zone or sprinting out on a pass-run option. Or how many times the Seahawks had used that play from the one.

They give the stats on the chances of scoring from the one from 2010 to 2014 but don’t discuss what type of run or pass is best in that situation.

The Patriots mentioned after the game that Malcolm Butler, who made the interception, was beaten on that play in practice the week of the Super Bowl so Seattle may have used it one too many times.

Overall, though, sports fans will enjoy the book because of their insights on all the major sports.

Wilt Chamberlain is celebrated for averaging 50 points a game but he also tried more shots than most players.

Rafael Nadal dominated Roger Federer because of his advantage against him on clay.

They also discussed the dangers of making decisions on small sample size as the Red Sox did after they obtained pitcher Nathan Eovaldo from Tampa Bay and utility player Steve Pearce from Toronto in June of 2018 and they helped them win the World Series. They then overpaid them and wound up regretting it.

They also study the strategy of starting a game with a relief pitcher for an inning or two before bringing in the regular starter because pitchers often struggle the third time through the lineup.

Tampa Bay has used that strategy at times although some starters have objected to it and it is difficult to imagine not expecting great pitchers like Sandy Koufax or Bob Gibson to pitch all nine innings.

There is much more in the book and the authors discuss how computer science and machine learning is evolving and who knows what sports analytics will look like 50 years from now.

For now, they point out that when sports fans watch sports, they should question everything they encounter more so than ever before.

The days of doing things one way before they have always been done that way may be fading.

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