Book Review: ScoreCasting

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Book Review: ScoreCasting

ScoreCasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won
by Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. John Wertheim

This is one of those books.

It's the kind of book you needed to read; you just didn't know it.

It's not just a baseball book, but there's no shortage of baseball in it.  It's not just a numbers book, but it's got plenty of numbers.  It's not just a psychology book, though it addresses several ways in which human psychology plays into sports (and life) decisions. 

In short, it's a fascinating summary of how money, psychology and statistics—and the misinterpretation of them—can drive the sports you enjoy far more than you might have suspected.

Granted, some of this stuff is not exactly groundbreaking. 

The chapter on why the Steelers are so good while the Pirates are so bad is an appropriately brief four pages.  Anyone with even a rudimentary comprehension of how television plays into the business ends of the NFL and Major League Baseball, and how differently these two sports benefit from that medium, could have written this chapter nearly as well, and almost as succinctly.

For that matter, even the more interesting stuff isn't groundbreaking in the strictest sense of the word, but that's a good thing. 

The authors frequently refer to studies and papers and books that have been out for years, sometimes decades, to help bolster their contentions. 

Their reliance on the work of others—not exactly standing on the shoulders of giants, as Newton once said in an uncharacteristically humble moment, but at least using peer-reviewed research—helps to lend credence to their claims in a way that doing their own work never could. 

You can still wonder whether they draw the appropriate conclusions from their study of the facts, but you really can't criticize the facts themselves when the study they use has been out since 1982, or whatever.

Among the more interesting topics addressed in the book are:

  • That the desire to avert a loss—rather than to gain a victory—has a much greater effect on the decisions that athletes and their coaches make than you would imagine.  It seems to characterize almost every sporting feat you've ever seen, and you never even knew it!
  • That the decision of one NFL team, 20 years ago, to think outside the box changed the face of the NFL draft, forcing the other 29 teams eventually to follow.  And that the smart teams now are taking advantage of that change in the present day, to the dismay of those teams who had only just figured out the last change, it seems.  
  • That the MLB drug testing system is inherently racist.  (OK, not really, but it sure looks that way!)
  • That selfishness in team sports can be a virtue.
  • That the best thing you can do when one of your teammates on the basketball court "gets hot" and makes four or five shots in a row...is to give the ball to someone else for a while. 
  • And most shockingly: Umpires are human.  No seriously, it turns out that the "home field advantage" in baseball and almost every other high-level sport is due almost entirely to the fact that the umps (or refs, or judges or whatever) don't want to get lynched. And they probably don't even know it!

The book, in short, is eye-opening, sometimes jaw-dropping but extremely informative, well written, fast paced and fun to read.

The two guys who wrote it are friends who grew up together—one an economist, one a sportswriter—and got back together just to write this book, and you can almost hear how much fun they had writing it.

It's got the kind of information in it that would be a lot of fun to bring up in a discussion at a bar or while watching the game in your living room, though it might also be the kind of stuff that gets you beat up, so make sure you have a large friend with you if you bring these issues up in public.

But regardless of how you use the info, make sure you read it.  If you're in intelligent sports fan, you need to read it. 

Now you know.

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