Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Julian Tavarez is a lucky man. On a day when I ought to be focusing most of my energy denouncing him for being a complete buffoon, I must waste some time attacking some bozo from Cornell and a possibly even bigger bozo from the University of Pennsylvania. A study has been released in the New York Times, on the front page of the "Paper of Record" claiming to prove that white referees call more fouls on black players than they call on white players in the NBA these days.

This is surprisingly irresponsible sensationalism on the part of the New York Times. Unfortunately, it is also the kind of sensationalism that will most likely assure tenure for all those involved in the "research." Looking at their methodology, as it is articulated in the Times, leaves me unimpressed. As the Times piece presents it, here is how the study was conducted:

"To investigate whether such bias has existed in sports, Mr. Wolfers and Mr. Price examined data from publicly available box scores. They accounted for factors like the players’ positions, playing time and All-Star status; each group’s time on the court (black players played 83 percent of minutes, while 68 percent of officials were white); calls at home games and on the road; and other relevant data."

As far as I can tell, the people who did this study read newspaper box scores and learned everything there was to learn about everything pertaining to officiating a professional basketball game. Leaving aside for a moment that no box score I've ever seen tells which official called what foul on which player for what offense, and in fact does little more than relate the number of fouls called on a given player in a given game, the real problem is that it massively simplifies a complicated, fluid event like a basketball game and tries to shoehorn it into an academic setting.

What exactly does comparing players' positions tell you, for instance? Look at a power forward like Elton Brand, who is one of the last guys at that position that plays with his back to the basket and doesn't prefer to be a perimeter guy. Shouldn't he then be more likely to be called for charges than Dirk Nowitzki who makes his living shooting more outside jumpers than make moves in the low post?

This study purports to detect a bias in NBA officiating, but what it reveals about its authors is more interesting than its specious results. There is a certain overly sensitive impulse to detect a bias that may not, in fact, exist. After all, the majority of white NBA players in this day and age seem to be perimeter guys, players looking to shoot jumpers rather than drive to the hole. They also seem to be shakier defenders, more likely to be concealed in a team's defensive scheme rather than given difficult assignments.

The study doesn't take into account the million subtle factors that have a ton of influence over how games are played over the course of an 82 game season and a marathon playoff run. For instance, how did long road trips impact the way teams played in these games? Were officiating patterns at all effected by teams showing fatigue in the second of back-to-back games? Were players playing hurt more likely to commit fouls than players who were fresh and healthy? Did particular teams or particular players have more fouls in games against particular rivals?

Then there is the fact that none of the three experts brought in by the Times to review the data and compare it to a package the league offered to defend itself was a basketball man. No officials, no players, just academics. With ten human beings battling for 48 minutes to put a round ball through a round hoop on a confined court watched over by three people who are supposed to be impartial, there is a hell of a lot going on on the court during any given NBA game.

Reviewing box scores compiled over a fourteen season span is not sufficient to get an accurate picture of what happened in each game. As Charles Barkley said on the Dan Patrick Show today, it's asinine. Even worse, it's academically irresponsible. They have a study on basketball written by a business professor and an economics grad student who never played the game, reviewed by economists and statisticians. Was there even a chaos theory expert among them?

Basketball is a complex and dynamic system, after all. It makes me a little sick to my stomach that this is treated as though it were legitimate scholarly research and not blind guesswork. But now it's time to get to the real point of tonight's post.

Julian Tavarez has a lot to say on the possible return of Roger Clemens to the Boston Red Sox. None of it is particularly pleasant, or insightful, but it is entertaining from my perspective. The first problem, as you might expect, is that Tavarez hasn't listened to the CHB reminding us that Clemens is tied at the top of the team's career wins list with the legendary Cy Young whenever he appears on TV or the radio. I am still surprised that that revelation did not inspire Clemens to offer to pay John Henry for the privilege of surpassing Cy Young. But that's neither here, nor there.

Julian Tavarez says that the Red Sox are set in the rotation, they have no need for Roger Clemens. None of this is motivated by the fact that Tavarez would be the odd man out in the Red Sox rotation. Instead, it is the product of one of the few keen and penetrating baseball minds of this generation. If the current rotation cannot shoulder the load this season, reinforcements are already available in Pawtucket in the form of Kaisson Gabbard and Jon Lester.

Of course any fan who would prefer Clemens over those two fora stretch run this season is crazy. Twenty years from now, Lester and Gabbard will both have won so many games that no one will speak of Clemens and his paltry 341 victories. I don't know who would dare question Tavarez's perception and ability to evaluate talent, so I accepted it without complaint when he predicted that Jon Lester will be the second coming of Sandy Koufax for all of about 13 seconds.

Sandy Koufax? Just because he's a lefty doesn't make him the next Koufax. It might be smart to set the bar a little lower than the best left handed pitcher of the last 50 years for a young pitcher who really hasn't been tested in the Major Leagues yet. At least that way if he fails, it might not be as hard to accept in the end.

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