There's no such thing as a "hot hand" or a "clutch player." And home field advantage exists only in the mind of referees.
These are a few of the insights gleaned from Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won. A collaboration between L. John Wertheim, a veteran Sports Illustrated correspondent and author of several books, and Tobias Moskowitz, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, Scorecasting is what would happen if Moneyball met Freakonomics and spawned a child. The authors of the book, now out in paperback, apply data and insights into behavior to a range of sports-related issues.
One of their most powerful insights is the observation and description of "omission bias" — the notion that people avoid taking action that could be controversial rather than go out on a limb. Omission bias can be seen in officiating in virtually every sport, as umpires and referees generally avoid injecting themselves into the proceedings, especially in ways that hurt the home team. Omission bias is why traveling isn't called late in NBA games, and why tennis officials rarely call foot faults at crucial moments in a match. Wertheim and Moskowitz show that in baseball, the strike zone literally contracts when the count is 0-2 and expands when the count is 3-0. "What you have to do to get a called strike on an 0-2 count is throw a perfect strike," Wertheim says in the accompanying interview. Umpires are reluctant to punch out batters on three straight strikes, or to see them walk on four straight pitches.
In many areas, time-honored practice has given rise to hoary myths. Some of the same concepts that cause investors to act in an irrational manner can be seen on the athletic field. Take "loss aversion," the notion that people fear and give greater emotional weight to the prospect of losses than they do for equivalent gains. NBA coaches routinely pull star players who have been whistled for their fifth foul late in the fourth quarter -- they're worried they'll foul out. But the data shows that's self-defeating. "The average player with five fouls will pick up his sixth and foul out of the game only 21 percent of the time," the authors write.
Or consider this. Studies shows that football teams facing fourth and goal on the one-yard line are more likely to go for it when the most recent series of downs started on the two-yard line than when the drive started at the nine-yard line. In theory, of course, where the series started should make no difference. In every instance, the team needs a single yard for a touchdown or must turn the ball over.
There's plenty more of great material in the book. Golfers, feeling loss aversion, are more likely to be aggressive on putts when they're facing par than when they have a shot at a birdie. Golfers and basketball teams that are leading their rivals by significant margins tend to become very conservative. General managers should be suspicious of baseball players that bat precisely .300. Why? Since that marker is so meaningful, players often pad their performances as the season comes to a close by drawing walks or becoming less aggressive hitters. And there's no such thing as a hot hand, or a cold one. Just because a coin comes up heads five times in a row, it doesn't have any higher chance of coming up tails on the sixth. Just so, basketball players that miss four shots in a row aren't particularly "due" to make their next jumper. And finally, calling a time out to try to "ice" an opposing team's kicker as the clock winds down is an exercise in futility. "NFL kickers being iced are successful from the same distance at exactly the same rate as kickers who are not iced," Wertheim and Moskowitz write.
Essentially, Scorecasting is an argument for taking emotion out of the decision-making process of coaches, players, officials, and even fans. "I think we should go for total technology" in officiating, said Wertheim. "Tennis has done this very effectively."
Of course, removing emotion from the game — the elation of winning and the bathos of losing — would mean removing a lot of the joy (and joy at other people's suffering) from sports. Every spring, writers pen long articles wondering if this will be the year the Chicago Cubs, who haven't won a World Series since 1908, finally break the curse. But the authors argue, Cubs fans shouldn't wallow in self-pity because their team is cursed. The Cubs haven't won a World Series in more than a century, they argue, because the Cubs have generally fielded rather poor teams — including 17 last place finishes. You don't have to be a University of Chicago economic to understand that it's really difficult to win the World Series when you rarely make it to the post-season.
Daniel Gross is economics editor at Yahoo! Finance
Follow him on Twitter @grossdm; email him at firstname.lastname@example.org