Sports, the Universe & a Healthy Dose of Cynicism in Portland

Sub-Atomic Stats

The Universe is complicated. So are sports

The 2008 NCAA Title Game could probably be summed up in three sentences: Memphis dominated. Memphis choked. Kansas won.

I lost $175 in my office pool and have had to watch Mario Chalmers make shots better players have set up for him ever since.

And yet, I was certain Memphis had been better. I had watched the game after all, and the results on that TV just didn’t match the feeling I had in my gut. It didn’t make sense.

I got to thinking — Is it entirely possible that sports operate on multidimensional position outcomes? What is winning, or losing for that matter, anyway? Are they true outcomes, or are they more like time — a sort of framework to put all this into perspective?

In an alternate universe — where quantitative outcomes don’t matter, only immeasurable qualitative statements — can someone say that Memphis was the better team even though they lost?

Does that universe even exist?


I hate math. I failed it in 9th grade. I stopped taking it immediately after high school. I like music, art, any kind of loft party and that show Girls. Not math.

But I sure do love sports statistics. Especially the advanced ones. I follow them blindly, because, well, you can follow statistics blindly. If they say Anthony Davis has a 29.75 PER and Derrick Rose has a 6.75 PER, you know Anthony Davis is playing better than Derrick Rose and that Derrick Rose didn’t deserve his MVP he won in 2011. Lebron did…

Statistics are kinda like evolution. It’s probably not wise to admit you don’t believe in them. They are the most valuable things we will ever have to help explain the ultimate truth of sports. They tell me why I want Chris Sale over Jake Peavy and why wins and losses in baseball are the most overrated stat in the history of sport.

You should probably believe in advanced stats

You should probably believe in advanced statistics

But I don’t think statistics explain everything. Because, when you apply them to certain situations, they tell me things that I just can’t believe. That the Miami Heat actually deserved to win the 2006 Finals. That Javale McGee actually knows how to play basketball.

Sometimes, stats just fail the gut test. That hunch we have as players and viewers, alike. It’s the thing we all draw upon without thinking. Whatever you want to call it, it’s that moment when Ray Allen pulls up from 27 feet out with 19 on the shot clock and hits and nobody thinks it’s crazy because before it even happened, everybody knew it was going in.

The stats say there’s not a worse shot in basketball. Something has to give, then, right?


The Kansas-Memphis game — the stats.

Whatever data you plug in, whatever values you assign to every single event that happened in that game – from steals to turnovers to refs calling charges instead of blocks and hip-gyrating their way into Kansas fans’ hearts – these things have to add up to one thing, right?

Kansas 75, Memphis 68.

After all, law is law, and in the realm of sports, law is outcome. And law is made up of underlying mathematical validities because that’s what math is — mankind’s most assured way of explaining things the way that they are.

Yet…

What if there are situations where the math breaks down? Where the stats don’t add up. Where they can’t explain to us the way things really are.

Can these guys knows how things really are?

Who knows how things really are? 10,000 year-old stone faces? Lena Dunham?

We’ve come a pretty long way in defining the universe we live in through physics. We know that there is a uniform temperature throughout space and that the sun will eat us in a few billion years. So, theoretically, can’t we figure out where everything came from?

Well, we can’t. When we try to get down to it – the ultimate question – everything falls apart. Physics, mathematics, logic. The fascinating thing is, the invisible matter (atoms) that makes up the visible matter (us) seems to be governed by a completely different set of rules.

Did you know that electrons theoretically bounce and jitter around and are nowhere and yet everywhere until they are suddenly in one very specific place? That doesn’t add up.

Eli Manning does not theoretically occupy every other position in the universe at different probabilities until he throws an interception and blames it on someone else. He is always somewhere, pouting.

But in fact, the sub-atomic particles that constitute him are everywhere and nowhere in a field of probability until they are suddenly in one place and nowhere else.

The laws of physics that we use to help explain our everyday life are incredibly valuable. And yet, they disintegrate in the realm of the particles that make up our very existence.

This is absolutely, 100% not what an atom looks like

This is absolutely, 100% not what an atom looks like

In the same way, stats are absolutely vital to sports. They get us closer to the truth. They help us understand why we should play Andre Drummond more and Kendrick Perkins never.

But there comes a point where the realm in which we use them disintegrates. Things happen and we cannot quantitatively describe them.

For example, how many times has someone told you, “I just knew that Nick Young was going to pass the ball?” Zero times. Yet, say it’s game 7 of the World Series and David Ortiz steps up to the plate. “I just knew he’d get a hit” doesn’t seem so crazy. In fact, it seems to be law.

How do you explain the way of the world when David Ortiz steps up to the plate? How can you describe the way the air changes? How are you so certain that there is no way he’ll do anything else but get a hit? Statistics tell us that this just isn’t true, yet, somehow, you would rather take your chances with a rabid dog.

There are underlying and mysterious currents that make up the world of sports. They are brought to life by statistics, sure, but why must everything end there? Sports are so wonderfully complicated and sometimes we tend to forget that it’s not all as simple as PER or WAR.

There are things in sports that seem to make no sense, and yet, they make all the sense in the world.

I know how silly that all sounds. Because it does. And I could be wrong. That those indescribable feelings are just an illusion. That we are guilty of being hopeful and hope violates present reality.

Because hope, depending on how you define it, is silly too.

But so are atoms. So are the rules that govern our universal governors. The whole shebang is pretty ridiculous.

And so, why can’t that be the way we define sports too?

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