You may have heard that Bill Belichick, the head coach of the New England Patriots, made a controversial decision in Sunday’s night nationally televised game against the Colts. I’m not going to get into the details of the play here – there are tons of football blogs out there that can do a better job of discussing the context than I can. However, the reaction to the decision has some ties to baseball, and that’s what I want to talk about.
Belichick is a stats guy, sort of the NFL version of Billy Beane, only with championship rings to support his beliefs. He has built a dynasty in New England by eschewing traditional football truisms, and he has found great success with his methods. In general, he’s extremely well respected as a football guy, if not so much as a person to interact with.
So, I find the reaction to Belichick’s fourth down strategy interesting. Pretty much every member of the traditional media, including the announcers calling the game, immediately destroyed him for the call. There was no gray area. It was the wrong call because every other coach in America would have punted, and had punted, in that exact same situation. Belichick went out on a very thin limb, then watched it break when his team failed to convert and the Colts won the game on the final drive.
So, now, we get columns like this, decrying the statistical movement in sports as too rigid and not respectful enough of those with experience. The appeal to authority has been out in full force – Belichick was wrong because the majority say he was wrong, and the merits of his argument are generally ignored.
This is despite the fact that Belichick is part of the authority that should theoretically be appealed to. He’s been the head coach of three Super Bowl champions. He’s a football guy who appreciates numbers, not a numbers guy who appreciates football. Yet, for whatever reason, his credential cease to matter.
We see this in baseball all the time as well. Despite the fact that about half the teams in the sport are now run by people who could accurately be described as having a strong analytical background, the anti-statistical movement still paints people like us as a fringe movement on the outside looking in. Meanwhile, they’ve missed the fact that the inside is now a lot different, in large part due to the acceptance of the value of analytical methods of evaluation.
If the Patriots had made the two yards and won, would that have validated the entire statistical movement in sports? Of course not, because it was one play with an approximately 50-50 chance of success. Yet, when it doesn’t work, it becomes “proof” that the nerds have gone too far.
Let’s be better than that. Not every good move works out, and some bad moves end well. The end does not justify the means, however. Nobody can predict the future, so all we can evaluate is the ability for teams to give themselves a maximum probability of success. Sometimes, that means making choices that go against what everyone else is doing. Those choices aren’t wrong just because everyone else thinks they are.
Merit, not authority, should rule the discussion of the day. If the person in authority is right, he should be able to explain why using logic and reason. If he can’t, then perhaps he shouldn’t be considered an authority on the subject.
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