*With the emergence of moneyball, the philosophy at the core of the movie, there has been a growing tension between those who evaluate athletes qualitatively and those who see sports as quantitative.
Qualitative folks see sports in a more traditional manner. If a player has the right tools and has competed against the right competition, then the player will succeed. This is a more subjective approach of course because it is someone’s opinion what the right tools and competition are.
On the other hand the quantitative folks see sports as based in numbers. At the end of the day you have to score more than you opponent (in most sports) and there are numerous activities that go into whether or not you do. Those activities can be, and are being cataloged by a growing group of enthusiasts looking for discrete components of professional sports.
Qualitative folks probably rely on the feel they get from a player. Derek Jeter has an aura about him and it has been part of the reason he’s been praised so much throughout his career. Quantitative folks definitely rely on concrete numbers which is probably they’ve been riding on the anti-Jeter bandwagon for a while.
There is much common ground between these two perspectives. Most people qualitative people would give high marks to would also have excellent statistics to make the quantitative folks happy. But a major area of disconnect is the topic of momentum.
Momentum is an idea that things can get on a roll in a positive or negative direction. Qualitative evaluators see something distinct happening with momentum. Quantitative evaluators view a streak of positive or negative events as simply part of the larger picture which will average out over the course of a game, season, or career.
The key to momentum is understanding it as a derivative of confidence. When a basketball player makes two or three shots in a row, they gain confidence and get into a rhythm. This doesn’t make the next shot more likely to go in overall but it does mean that they are more comfortable and that their mechanics are likelier to be good. Likewise slumping baseball players are often suffering from a lack of confidence and they are also often employing bad mechanics. Eventually both individuals will have success percentages approximating what they’ve done for most of their career but in the short term confidence/momentum can be a factor.
I don’t believe momentum need not be a bone of contention between quantitative and qualitative observers. Each year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology there is an academic gathering called the Sloan Conference devoted to the quantitative perspective on sports. From this conference has come a greater acceptance of sports statistics, their use in professional sports, and even some new statistics that can be used to create the profile of a player.
Quantitative folks typically downplay a concept like momentum because it cannot be measured. But I like to think that it simply hasn’t been measured yet. I am willing to believe that the folks who are presenting papers at the Sloan Conference are smart enough to figure out a way to measure this phenomenon that we’re all observing but can’t quite grasp. Such information could help coaches decide who plays down the stretch of close games and potentially determine athletic seasons.
I know this sounds crazy. But that’s the point. WAR is a baseball statistic that evaluates a player’s “win’s above replacement.” Twenty years ago the idea of knowing who the likely replacement was and how many wins a team would get with the second guy probably seemed silly. But here we are.
Stats guys, we need MO ratings. Please make this a reality.
Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War. His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.