22 of 29 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
I had high hopes for this book but my expectations were not met. The authors are clearly eager to bear the Freakonomics mantle (they say as much in several places), but unfortunately they do not exhibit anything resembling the flair of Levitt and Dubner. Their cute comparison of quarterbacks and mutual funds just sounds like a cheap imitation of the comparison between teachers and sumo wrestlers (which, honestly, wasn't all that clever anyway). Much of the other writing also seems to imitate the conversational style of Bill James, but without as much wit. Overall the writing comes off as alternately condescending and self-congratulatory, and sometimes both.
Style aside, the book contains a number of substantive weaknesses. For example, the chapter on the effects of labor shortages on fan attendance shows clear signs of bias. The authors favorably cite plenty of evidence that supports their hypothesis; and when confronted with evidence to the contrary, they suddenly decide to pick it apart and explain it away. Sorry guys, it doesn't work that way. This clear example of "disconfirmation bias" causes the chapter to lose all credibility. It wouldn't hold up in a peer-reviwed journal.
Further, although the authors claim to be "taking measure of the many myths in modern sport" (the subtitle of the book), they actually devote a lot of effort to knocking down strawmen. Is there anyone alive who really thinks that "the best players in basketball score the most" or that "quarterbacks should be credited with wins and losses"? No one with more than a passing knowledge of sports actually believe these things, but the authors act awfully smug after debunking these nonexistent "myths." Yes, we're all aware that offense is at most half of football, and that the passing attack is only about half of that. Luckily no one attributes wins to quarterbacks, except maybe to point out that a team can win with a mediocre QB (e.g., pointing out Trent Dilfer's career winning percentage) -- which is a different issue altogether.
The book also spends a lot of time trying to analyze basketball using methods that are much better suited to baseball. Don't get me wrong, I admire their effort to subject basketball to some analytical rigor. But baseball is largely an amalgam of statistics and can be studied as such. Basketball simply cannot. There are too many events in basketball that clearly affect the game but are not quantified (a pick, a shot that is altered but not blocked, a team deciding not to drive against a particular player, a player drawing a double team and getting a teammate open, the second-to-last pass of a possession). One might conclude, based on the demonstrated strong correlation between wins and the conventional statistics employed in this book, that these events are all relatively unimportant. But this argument ultimately fails because the purpose of the analysis is to measure the contributions of individual players. A team might score two points but the model does not adequately break down individual contributions beyond who scores the points and, if applicable, who gets the assist. Similarly, most of what happens on defense isn't recorded, and the model only takes into account steals and blocked shots. The authors sweep these weaknesses under the rug and proceed to devote dozens of pages to comparing players based on their new, supposedly superior, measures of individual performance. This is an enormous flaw.
Further, I was also struck how a team of economists could write about the value of basketball players without paying attention to the supply curve. They do adjust some of their stats for league-average at the position, but not on a category-by-category basis. In the final chapter, where they purport to show that scorers are paid too much, they fail to examine the issue of scarcity. My wild guess is that the data would support their conclusion, but I was struck by the absence of real analysis here.
Of course, no book on sports statistics and/or economics is complete without the obligatory nod to the genius of Billy Beane and the claim that salary disparities do not lead to competitive imbalance. This version of the story is no more convincing than any of the others. They happily point to the 2003 Marlins as an example of a low-payroll team winning against the odds, but somehow ignore the fact that a number of those players (Derrek Lee, A.J. Burnett, Josh Beckett, Ivan Rodriguez, Alex Gonzalez, Mike Lowell) are now earning big salaries in big markets while the Marlins are under .500. Sure, a team can win with young players who haven't yet become eligible for free agency or arbitration, but is that any way to build a franchise for long-term success? Where is the analysis of that rather obvious question? And where is the point, made quite clear in Moneyball, that no inefficient market can last forever? What happens when the next Billy Beane is hired to run the Yankees?
I will grant that the book is thought-provoking. But ultimately there are many other books on sports statistics and economics that are much more readable and well-argued than this.
- Published on Amazon.com
For a while, "The Wages of Wins" was on a path to be one of the best sports economics books in years. It was making interesting points that were sure to be influential assuming the right people read it, and did it in a most readable way.
The book gets off the tracks about halfway through, particularly when it veers away from economics. So this is liable to be the most mixed review on the Web site.
The authors, all associate professors of economics at universities, set out to knock down some of the "myths" of pro sports. Some of those myths include: teams that pay the most win the most; labor problems can cause long-term impact to sports, the best basketball players score the most, and baseball has a competitive balance problem.
The trio of authors go about the business of shooting them down. Some of their conclusions are eye-opening. Whenever a pro sports is on the verge of having a labor stoppage, there are cries that the fans will be driven away for good. Yet, attendance always has quickly rebounded to pre-stoppage levels (sometimes, there isn't even a drop right away). The NHL in 2005-06 is the most recent example of that, although it did install some new rules to open up the game. That makes sense, actually; sports fans as a group (there may be individual exceptions) aren't going to deprive themselves of following games when they become available.
With all of the cries that baseball is a rich team's game, the authors come up with stats to show that baseball really isn't that uncompetitive. What's more, if the Yankees are thrown out of the equation, money isn't as nearly as important as good management when it comes to winning. (In other words, the Kansas City Royals aren't necessarily doomed to failure.)
In fact, baseball is far more competitive than the NBA, in which a relatively few teams keep winning championships, in spite of a salary cap designed to level the playing field. The authors attribute this to a very small number of talented big men, who have a disproportionate effect of the game. In other words, wins tended to follow Shaquille O'Neill around.
Once the book gets away from economics and competition, it isn't nearly as interesting. The authors come up with a formula for rating individual players. I've read other such attempts to do this, and I've never read one that is particularly handy or interesting. This part of the book bogs down pretty quickly.
However, the book does make a couple of very good points in the midst of player rating discussion. The authors found that NBA teams tend to pay the best scorers the most money, even if they aren't the best players. Allen Iverson of Philadelphia was the poster boy for this theory; Iverson misses too many shots and isn't contributing in other ways besides points, but still gets big checks.
The authors also argue that the best players, even Michael Jordan, aren't at their best in the playoffs. Their performance level drops off. This matches what might be thought but rarely articulated. After all, the best teams are in the playoffs, so it should be tougher to perform well. Not too many players can "elevate their games" in such situations.
This book has a fun writing tone, as the authors are quick to make fun of their backgrounds along the lines of, "Yes, we're just silly economists, but ..." I'd bet they'd be an interesting group for a television interview.
"The Wages of Wins" seems to be getting a little traction in the sports community, based on some good reviews. Berri, Schmidt and Brook seem to have advance some arguments nicely and changed the discussion for good in some cases. They even avoid complicated math, using endnotes and a Web site for that. It made me wish that they had stuck to economic issues all the way through, instead of veering into basketball player rankings halfway through.