Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Universal Stupidity

Sabermetrics have taken baseball by storm. We've made it a habit to question the cliches that have been passed down for decades and examine what is really important. You really haven't seen that kind of push in basketball and football. Some of the same diseases that permeate baseball also have a strong hold in football. What prompts me to bring this up? The Colts game on sunday did.

Jacksonville head coach Jack Del Rio took the gutsy risk of going for it on 4th and 1 on the Indianapolis 24 on the first drive of the game. They didn't make it and they turned the ball over on downs. I don't think this happens enough in football. I'd like to see some studies on success rates on 4th and 1 or 4th and 2. I'd like to see scoring rates. I'd like to find out if my own contrarian instinct is right, and that teams are wasting drives by not going for it on 4th down more often.

Personally, I think there's a groupthink that has infects coaching in all sports that causes them to make decisions that could easily be defended in the court of public opinion, even though the conventional wisdom that surrounds the circumstance is counterproductive. In baseball, sports talk radio is never going to call for a manager's head if he sac bunts TOO often. They'll never rake him over the coals for only using his closer in save situation. They'll only criticize a manager for what is currently considered unconventional tactics. Use a 4 man rotation? Play Earl Weaver station-to-station offense? Use your closer in the 7th innings? These are all things that will cause beatwriters and talking heads to come unglued if it isn't a spectacular success. So managers rarely use these kinds of strategies, even if it is the better strategy. Bring on the scrappy "National League style" baseball. Bring on the Tony LaRussa bullpen management system.

In basketball, coaching groupthink has made offense an endangered species. Because several teams like the Bad Boy Pistons and the Pat Riley Knicks were successful using a slow-it-down offense and a bruising, brutish defense, it has become the defacto blueprint for NBA teams. Almost everybody slows it down. And it is backed up by the basic talk radio mantra of defense wins championships. So no coach will be criticized for playing too defensive. No coach will ever be criticized for subbing in a defensive specialist for a good shooter. We're stuck with awful, unwatchable games from a league where finesse has been ridiculed and eliminated. I have more on this as an aside, but I'll leave that for another day.

In football, you can easily see that going for it on 4th down is a risky thing for a coach to do. If it goes badly, it can cost a coach his job. If it is successful, it is just another decision. Del Rio was especially gutsy because he went for it on 4th and 1 again in the 4th quarter. This time it paid off with a touchdown pass over a surprised Colts defense. That really took guts. If they don't make it THERE, then the story of the game is that Jack Del Rio is an idiot who takes too many risks.

Stupid crap like this can probably be found everywhere. It makes me wonder about the other sports I watch and enjoy. What B.S. conventional wisdom have I been fed in soccer that should really be re-thought. What garbage have I been spoon-fed in Formula 1? I'd love at some point to see a sports world with a sabermetrics equivalent in every sport. Cricket, aussie rules football, hockey, rugby, lacrosse, everywhere you look, there's a contrarian with a calculator and play by play data telling you that the color analysts are full of it. That would be a beautiful sight to see.

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