The Dissent of Man

It was Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday or whatever last Thursday. Today, Darwin is, of course, known primarily as the namesake of the underwater data-retrieval dolphin from SeaQuest DSV. But he also made a significant contribution to science.

This contribution was what Darwin called, in On the Origin of Species, natural selection. In retrospect, the correctness of natural selection seems so indisputably obvious–more or less–that it’s difficult to believe it was once considered so earth-shaking. After all, as Darwin pointed out at the time, your average pig farmer had a pretty strong intuitive understanding of the process by which favorable hereditary traits grow more common in successive generations.

That natural selection was earth-shaking was due not only to what Darwin proposed, but how he arrived at the proposition. Naturalists before Darwin held a certain ideal in their minds, and then scoured the globe to find examples of that ideal. Flora and fauna was sorted and sifted according to how closely they resembled the preconceived ideal. The more naturalists focused on cataloging similarities, the more orderly the world seemed, and the more orderly the world seemed, the stronger they believed their initial ideal to be true.

Darwin’s singular insight was that variations are much more important than similarities. In fact, Darwin realized, what others considered the most basic taxonomical unit of nature–the species–didn’t really exist at all. There was no firm, constant category called “finch,” there was only a fluid, variable “finchness.”

Point being that Darwin was paying attention to something everyone else–again, more or less–disregarded. While others focused on the purpose behind an adaptation, Darwin was interested in its function. It was this shift of conceptual focus that enabled him to eventually deduce the biological mechanism at the heart of evolution.

All this came to mind–really, it did!–while reading The No-Stats All-Star, Michael Lewis’s profile of Shane Battier. Lewis has built a career investigating those people who, like Darwin, achieved some unlikely success by valuing what others ignore and ignoring what others value. It’s come to be known as the Moneyball approach, but it’s apparent in The New New Thing, The Blind Side, and his recent articles uncovering the origins of the financial crisis. Lewis typically writes really, really engrossing narratives that do a good job making you, the reader, interested in the nerds featured therein while still remaining faithful to the essential nerdiness that motivates their pursuits.

I say typically because, in the case of Battier’s profile, Lewis kinda misses his mark. For a story about the hidden truth of overlooked stats, Lewis seems to play it a bit loosey goosey with the facts. Lewis suggests that Battier, an unsung role player, confers on whatever team he plays for “some magical ability to win”, and cited as evidence the improvement of the Grizzlies over Battier’s first to third season with the team, and the 18-win gain the Rockets experienced the year they acquired Battier in exchange for the draft rights to Rudy Gay. Lewis totally omits the fact that Battier’s playing-time steadily declined over his first three years in Memphis, and that the “improvement” in Houston was more likely just a return to form after a disappointing year in which the team’s two best players, Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, combined to miss nearly 40% of the season due to injury.

Lewis did something similar in Moneyball. In extolling Billy Beane’s sabremetric-influenced scouting and drafting philosophy, Lewis downplayed the effect that Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, and Tim Hudson–all hitting their peak at the same time–had on the A’s overall success. The omission wasn’t that damaging to the book, though–in a way, it actually ended up further underscoring the constraints Beane operated under, and the brilliance of his response. Even with three Cy Young-caliber pitchers, he still needed to maximize the usage of his scant resources to even compete. It suggested that any apparent advantage is so temporary and ephemeral–so random–that adopting a strategy that merely maintains that advantage is no better than squandering it.

The No-Stats All-Star doesn’t overcome Lewis’s oversights or manipulations or whatever. It seems like, for once, Lewis has fallen into the trap of the pre-Darwin naturalists: He first constructed a story, and then found facts to support it. In making the argument that the traditional box score hides a player’s true value, Lewis ends up doing the same to Battier.

This isn’t to say that Battier isn’t a good player. He is pretty clearly useful, and a fuller understanding of his usefulness could be of great value to the league. One of the most interesting aspects of the article is the examination of Battier’s extreme unselfishness. Professional team sports are plagued by what I’m told economists call the Principal-Agent Problem. The problem arises whenever a principal–let’s just say, the Knicks–contracts an agent–call him Zack Randolph–to execute the principal’s agenda. The Knicks (presumably) want to win, so naturally they pay for the best players they can. But Zebo knows he is judged by individual stats, not wins, so he has no incentive to help the team unless it also helps himself. The principal and the agent’s interests are incompatible.  Developing a more robust statistical vocabulary for a player’s usefulness may go a long way to bridging this gap.

Another thing of note from the article was the brief mention of the Rockets’ scrutiny of other teams’ strategies. If the Rockets notice that another team’s tendencies mirror the ones the Rocket’s have identified as valuable–like three-point shooting from the corner–then the Rockets are given a clue that that team shares their approach. This solves one of the shortcomings of the statistical analysis of sports–small sample size. By recognizing and paying attention to likeminded teams, the Rockets are increasing the data points with which to test their theories. It also gives them a sort of distributed research tool–the Spurs, for instance, might not share their data with the Rockets, but they can’t hide their on-court tendencies. A smart team should be able to discern the Spurs’ philosophy, and in essence reverse-engineer it.

So yeah, the Rockets–or at least the Rockets as portrayed by Lewis–don’t seem to have the keys to the kingdom just yet. But the real lesson to be learned, the one that Lewis when at his best explains better than anyone, is that those who think they have the key to the kingdom usually use it to lock themselves inside. The secret to competitive advantages is that they are in a way subject to a kind of uncertainty principle–as soon as they are identified, they disappear.  By the time Moneyball was published, OBP was more properly valued in the baseball community, and Beane had to move on to some new undervalued asset–defense, youth, moustaches. There is no end to the search.