While I am an avid reader and more than willing to share my thoughts about the books I read on the pages of Bookreporter, I am rarely willing to join book groups or literary discussions about what I read. This may be the result of many bad experiences in high school and college when I was unwilling to participate in discussions about books that held little interest for me. The years have passed, I now read what I want, and I have finally found a book that cries out for the creation of a discussion group. SCORECASTING by Tobias Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim may be the most thought-provoking sports book I have ever read. I want to purchase a dozen copies and pass them out to my sports-loving friends so we may meet over beer and wings to discuss and debate what the book tells us about what we think we know about sports and what the numbers actually tell us.
Moskowitz and Wertheim are an eclectic duo. Wertheim has a sports background as a writer for Sports Illustrated. Moskowitz is a professor of finance at the University of Chicago. They are not jocks writing from their on-field experience. Instead, they use concrete numerical studies and economic analysis to make a strong case for theories that at first blush seem unorthodox.
Forget all you have been taught about conventional sports strategy. Want to know how to improve your chances to win football games? Stop punting on fourth down and start going for a first down. Don't talk to me about field position, read what the authors have to say. They cite an economics paper by David Romer suggesting that the play-calling of NFL teams shows "systematic and clear-cut" departures from decisions that would maximize winning. Coaches should more aggressively go for first downs on fourth down but fail to do so almost 90% of the time. While the four-down game plan may not be popular in the NFL, the authors cite high school power Central Arkansas Christian and its multiple state championships in support of the "go for it" strategy.
Moskowitz and Wertheim identify how individual behavior is directly related to what happens on athletic fields in all sports and at all levels. Loss aversion is an economic principle that refers to people's tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. Loss aversion abounds in sports, explaining why a professional golfer facing a five-foot putt is more likely to make the putt for par than for birdie. It explains why pitchers throw strikes on a 3-0 count and balls on an 0-2 count. It is a pervasive principle in sports, often with a negative impact on winning.
Provocative insights can be found on page after page of SCORECASTING. Space prevents me from giving attention to many of the authors' findings except to briefly mention them. But here are a few to whet your appetite: The notion of the "hot hand'" is a myth as is the belief in the home field advantage; Does icing a kicker work?; Are NFL draft choices overrated? Chapter after chapter, page after page, the book's conclusions will astound you.
One small criticism must be mentioned. Moskowitz and Wertheim, long-suffering Chicago Cub fans, devote the final chapter of their book to seeking an answer as to whether their beloved Cubs are cursed. In this effort, they perpetuate the myth of Steve Bartman. The Bartman play came in the eighth inning of a playoff game when the Cubs were five outs from advancing to the World Series. SCORECASTING suggests that Bartman interfered with a catchable fly ball, and as a result the Cubs lost the game. Sorry gentlemen, it did not happen that way. It is a myth that grows with the passage of time, much like the notion that Al Gore claimed to invent the Internet.
As a longtime White Sox fan, I will cut the authors some slack because the rest of the book more than overcomes this one tiny blemish. It cannot and must not detract from the simple fact that this is a book every sports fan must read.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on January 24, 2011