Friday, May 3, 2013

Why people love statistical outliers

Football is a sport.  Sports are played by athletes (unless it is bowling).  The NFL Combine puts people through different tests of athletic ability.  Then at the end of this testing, we gather together and say "Hey, you know that short slow guy?  He's the one I want.  The guy has moxie."   Then a year or two later, when our man of determination and heart has been run off to play in the CFL, we try again.  This time, we'll get it right.  That other guy?  Hell, he didn't have half the heart this new guy has.   This new guy really brings his lunch pail to work (really, why the fuck do we say this?).  Yup, it's going to be different this year.

Sure, being a hard worker or a guy with great character is a good thing.  Do you think you can identify this trait?  Was Randy Moss a hard worker?  Or what about Terrell Owen's character?  "Bah", you say,"They put up great stats, but I wouldn't want those cancerous guys on my team."  Sure, sure.  I get it.  It's a team sport.  It takes all 53 guys to win not just a couple guys who put up pretty stats.  Okay then, so how are we going to identify these guys with character, that everyone seems to like so much?  Do you have a Moxie-Meter hidden in your basement?  A Lunch-Pail-O-Graph device that we can attach to their skull with electrodes, to measure this essential gritty determination?  Even a Balboa-gauge would do in a pinch, if you have one on hand.

I suspect that no matter what team you root for, you have been in this position at least once.  Your team has selected a wide receiver with a fairly high draft pick, only to find out that the guy just really can't catch the ball very well (Troy Williamson, Travis Taylor, etc.).  So, somehow we are supposed to believe that NFL GMs can get an accurate read on a player's psyche, level of motivation, commitment, or whatever, when they can't even tell if a guy can catch. (which would seem like a fairly obvious trait to pay attention to, but perhaps gets overlooked while they are busy reading their DSM to analyze the player's psychological profile).  Sure, I'm certain that most of these team's scouts, who were generally just failed former football players themselves, have keen analytical minds, highly trained and attuned to detect the faintest whiff of moxie in the air.  Hell, that is probably why they stopped playing football in the first place.  You don't want to damage a mind like that, with blows to the head.

Now, lets say we were working at NASA, and were looking to hire a new guy.  We've got applications from all the best and brightest, from the finest universities in the land.  If I turned to you and said, "You know what Bob?  This guy here is the one we want.  Sure, on paper he doesn't look so great.  In fact he appears to be brain damaged.  But you see, Bob, he just doesn't test well.  I've talked to this guy and he's a real crackerjack.  Sharp as a tack, I tell ya'.  He's the guy we want to plan our mission to Mars."  Well, best case scenario you would be laughed at.  Worst case?  Well, I suppose that would involve having the space shuttle go off course, and instead of heading to Mars, crashing into the White House (maybe I can pitch this idea to Michael Bay).  

Yes, test results should matter to you.  I know, we all hate to feel as if we are confined or trapped by some measurement, whether it is I.Q., 40 yard dash time, or whatever.  We like to look in the mirror and see past that receding hairline, growing paunch, and strange rash in our armpit that just won't go away, to see the vigorous and brilliant man we know that we really are.  Women just can't resist us.  Oh, they play coy, but they notice us.  As for other men, they tremble before our intimidating masculinity.  No stupid number is going to tell us what we are, and it shouldn't do that to any man.  This is America for god's sake, and no commie numbers are going to change that.  USA! USA! USA!

So, basically, what I am trying to say is we tend to be morons.  We're not all beautiful little snowflakes.  Potatoes are all unique too, though nobody ever seems to compare themselves to one.  We're not all just a step away from having our greatness discovered.  We're not all going to be that outlier, who is going to defy expectations, but we still root for it to happen to someone.  Somewhere inside us, we know that some guys are just better, more talented, but we don't have to like it.

Then we see a receiver run a 4.7 second forty yard dash.  We pause.  We think about all the great things that his coaches said about him.  How his teammates would follow him through the gates of hell.  He was the star of the Rose Bowl for Christ's sake!  It's those damned commie numbers, coming to get us again!  Anquan, he'll save us!  Anquan Boldin ran a 4.72 forty yard dash, and things turned out great for him.  He was gritty and tough wasn't he?  That's all you need, man.  Just give me some gritty tough guy, and you can keep those commie numbers of yours.  Hell, look at Wes Welker.  That sumbitch was 5'8" and running a 4.65 forty.  Takes a lot of grit to be small and slow, doesn't it?

Sure those guys are great.  They are anomalies.  Outliers.  Basically, they are like a cancerous tumor spreading through an otherwise healthy statistical analysis.  They show up in your spreadsheet.  They scare you a bit.  You can't figure out what to do with them, or how to make them go away.  So you learn to just accept them for what they are, a pain in your statistical ass (yes, statistical ass cancer).  Though it is reasonable to find them oddly fascinating, it doesn't mean you should spend your life searching for them.  That would inevitably prove rather depressing, sort of like a daily colonoscopy.

People might say that Wes Welker was underrated, or that he should have been drafted higher (actually he wasn't drafted at all).  How highly should you draft a small slow wide receiver, with good but not exactly shocking college production (especially when they come from Texas Tech where everybody accumulates decent stats)?  Maybe good old Wes was just hungover at the combine?  Maybe Anquan didn't have his bran muffin that morning, allowing him to drop the ballast needed to increase his vertical jump?  Okay, fine.

If you want to go looking for the next Wes Welker or Anquan Boldin, that's cool.  I admire the quest that you are setting for yourself.  I do think there are probably some guys out there who have a good eye for drafting talent, and maybe they will spot the next big thing.  Still, at least with receivers (though this applies everywhere else too), most teams haven't shown that they are employing these savants in their scouting department.  So, you can try to find the next guy who is going to defy all the odds, and over the next ten years you might find one.  If you do manage to turn one up, I'd be the first to congratulate you.  But can you do it again?  If some scout out there can do that, say 60-70% of the time, then I would be very intrigued.  If a team can't do this, then that underdog draft pick starts to look like a fluke, just blind luck.  Or perhaps, they did have a brief moment of insight, where their internal Moxie-Meter went off, only to have it again go on the fritz for the following decade.  I certainly can't rule that out.

Or, you can embrace what seems to be the most sensible solution, that those other guys, the bigger faster stronger ones who statistically pummeled their opponents all through college, might just be a better bet.  It's just putting the odds in your favor.  Even if they seem like assholes.  Even if they seem unmotivated.  Even if they lack moxie.  Victor Cruz, Miles Austin, Marques Colston, now those are guys who you can rightfully justify searching for.  While people might treat them as if they were the same sort of underdogs as Wes Welker, they really aren't.  The numbers were there.  The measurables and statistics existed.  Teams just chose not to pay attention.  Maybe they lacked grit?

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