Monday, December 15, 2008

Don't Believe the Fantasy Hype: Stats Are Meaningless If You Don't Win

I keep running across a debate with increasing frequency that seems (in my opinion) to be directly traceable to the recent boom in popularity of fantasy sports. The debate pops up with especially disturbing regularity whenever a Most Valuable Player or approximate such award gets handed out.

It popped up it in Major League Baseball this year, in both the National and American Leagues. It's reared its ugly head in the ongoing debate about the National Football League's 2008 MVP. It blossomed in the arguments claiming Graham Harrell was snubbed by this year's Heisman Memorial Trophy committee. Now, it's working its way back through history - trying to redefine who the greatest players of all-time were based on modern standards.

The argument is that pure statistical achievement is the best way to differentiate and measure levels of greatness.

That is totally and absolutely ridiculous.

Not only that, it's counterproductive and suicidal. It's the kind of ethos shared by such luminaries as Terrell Owens, Chad Ocho Sinko, Manny Ramirez, Scott Boras and the rest of the me-me-me-me coprophagous clowns populating the sports' landscape. Individuals who seem to be working towards the demise of pro sports.

The only appropriate measure of a truly great athlete has always been, is, and will always be the ability to win the most important games if such ability is thought to lie in his/her hands.

That is why Joe Montana, Bart Starr, Otto Graham, John Elway, and Terry Bradshaw have legitimate claims to the crown of NFL's all-time best quarterback. Why the NFL MVP usually comes from a winner.

That is why Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, and Kareem Abdul-Jabaar are considered by most reasonable basketball fans to be the entirety of the discussion for the best National Basketball Association player of all-time. Why its MVP also usually comes from a winner.

In baseball, a single great individual has less control over the final outcome so MLB doesn't require its greatest players to win the World Series. But it's a huge help and most of the all-timers manage to at least get their teams to the championship series. Like the other sports though, the MVP in MLB almost always comes from a team that remains in contention deep into the season i.e. a winner.

I don't know hockey, but I'd bet the principle doesn't change on ice.

This one constant runs through all the great athletes because winning is what it's all about. A special athlete plays to win, not to put up pretty individual numbers and accolades.

Such an athlete is more valuable because producing under the pressure of contention for your sport's most hallowed prize is more difficult for the vast majority of athletes. It includes the performance-crushing scrutiny of national exposure and media pressure.

He/she is greater than the competition because that athlete's production moves his/her team closer to the ultimate goal of a championship or secures it under the most adverse circumstances.

Producing for a loser is virtually meaningless because that team has already failed in its attainment of the ultimate goal. All the stats in the world won't bring you a championship if you can't will your team to win.

It's different in fantasy though.

In fantasy, a meaningless touchdown in a game between two cellar-dwellers in week 15 might decide the entire season for one person's team. A throw-away extra-base hit and run scored in the waning innings of a blow-out could be the most critical moment in a fantasy baseball player's season.

Statistical relevance is completely divorced from the outcome of the real-world game.

That's fine. I enjoy fantasy sports as much as most average fans. They're entertaining and a great way to trick yourself into following teams other than your favorite. But you've got to keep the worlds separate.

Statistics in the fantasy vacuum are virtually meaningless to real-world value.

To argue otherwise would be to grossly misunderstand the nature of sports.

Every game evolves with our society. Everything changes drastically - the rules of the game, the size/speed of the athletes, the number of teams, the playoff formats, player movement, player compensation, the sophistication of equipment, complexity of schemes, means of preparation, etc.

A statistical achievement just 15 years ago is almost meaningless in comparison with one generated today.

The NBA has increased its attention to hand-checking, reduced the shot-clock, moved the three-point line back, instituted an age-restriction, etc.

The NFL introduced draconian pass interference penalties, fines for late hits, restrictions on methods of bringing the ball-carrier down, amped up QB protection, etc.

There's almost no need to go into it with baseball - steroids, maple bats, pitch counts, clamping down on brushbacks, body armor, etc.

And what about the supporting casts surrounding these players?

Take Joe Montana for instance.

He is widely regarded as the greatest QB of all-time despite his rather pedestrian (by all-timers' standards) numbers. Sure, he had Jerry Rice for two of his championships and the genius of Bill Walsh the entire time. Those two fellow all-time greats absolutely helped Montana to his prodigious heights.

But he also had Steve Young on the bench.

The Stormin' Mormon would routinely take snaps late in blow-outs or during late, meaningless regular season games. In other words, Joe Cool lost some easy stats against the weakest competition to his back-up.

Now look at the stat monsters.

How often does Brett Favre come out? What about Dandy Dan Marino? That longevity and durability count in their favor as well. But they do a good deal to explain how guys who didn't put up the championships of the others were able to blow those same multiple Super Bowl winners out of the water, statistically.

More importantly though, winning is constant while stats are not.

Every player has a different level of talent on his side and on the one facing him. Every player from a different era played under different circumstances and rules. Not every great player cares about statistics, but every great player cares about winning.

You might think that Montana would have been worse in a less favorable situation. You might think Favre would have been even better had he played behind Joe Cool's Niners.

Some of the numbers certainly imply so.

But, the truth is, there's absolutely no way to know.

What if Favre put up the majority of those dazzling numbers against the weakest competition? What if Montana won all those championships because of the talent surrounding him? What if, what if, what if.

The only thing we know for sure is what team won and what team lost.

Is that fair? Of course not.

Does it mean that great Player A, who suited up for a juggernaut, would have been better than great Player B, who did so for a doormat, had all things been equal? Of course not.

But to say that Player B would have been the same player on A's juggernaut is equally insane.

Just because logic and reason imply that a good player on a bad team would be an even better player on a winner doesn't make it so. Logic and reason have never been the sportsworld's greatest strengths.

The fact is, we can only interpret what has happened during a player's career.

What could've happened if this great player had that great player's team or league or schedule or whatever is a legitimate question and a very amusing one to consider.

But it's irrelevant to who the best players are since this is a question based in reality.

Reality is what did happen, not what might have happened based on statistical achievement and extrapolation.

That is fantasy.

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