Sunday, October 13, 2013

Underrated

If you have any interest in sport then you're probably familiar with Moneyball, a book/movie about the use of sabermetrics to identify and recruit underrated players in baseball. When the movie came out in Australia it prompted a wave of fans amongst the commentary fraternity of the AFL. The irony that a group of various ex-players and lifelong experts so fervently embraced a work that, at its core, debunks their profession seems to be lost on them.

The commentariat of the AFL has been particularly enamoured of the moneyball phenomenon. In many ways professionalism is new to the sport; it has only been a decade or so since serious team tactics common in most other professional sports rose to prominence in preference to simply letting the players go at it. A part of this process has been the even more recent rise of the analyst. Compared to normal commentators, analysts focus on backing up their observations with exhaustive statistics. The unsuitability of the AFL to statistical analysis compared to sports such as baseball is an interesting discussion, but I want to talk about the resultant fetishization of the unnoticed.

The almost inevitable result of the rise of statistical analysis of sport is the emergence of the ability (or at least perceived ability) to spot and prove the existence of underrated players. Nothing adds more to the credibility of a commentator than being able to explain why a player you never even notice is exerting far more influence on the game than is apparent to the layman.

While this is basically a good thing, the problem that comes about is a sort of brinkmanship in elevating the unnoticed. First the stars are dismissed, not that they're not important but that they're far less important than generally assumed. This results in a new tier of stars being brought into existence, the first level of underrated players. With time the celebration of these players becomes more widely accepted until it becomes necessary for the experts to claim that those players are not the unsung heroes of the game, but that in fact their accomplishments are only possible on the back of a newly discovered level of statistically elite players. And so it continues until those players whose skill or attitude mean they barely get to play a game are somehow being lauded as the real reasons for a team's success.

The most bizarre extension of this behaviour is the recent trend among commentators in the AFL to start talking about the underrating of the biggest stars in the game. It is weird to hear the same expert refer to the same player in the space of a week as likely to be remembered as one of the best fullback to ever play the game, but then claim that everybody underestimates the importance of his role in the team.

It's not that I'm against the idea of people using statistics to analyse sports, I am after all a numbers nerd and sports fan. I just find it annoying to watch people try to find some obscure combination of statistics to show some player is a secret superhero, just to be the first to do so.

Next week's word is ubiquitous.

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