The Wages of Wins: Taking Measure of the Many Myths in Modern Sport Hardcover – May 9 2006
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"In The Wages of Wins, the authors attempt to puncture some popular myths—saying that payroll and wins are not highly correlated, and that in baseball, football.attendance hasn't been significantly affected by players strikes or owner lockouts."—Sue Kirchhoff, USA Today
"It is one thing when an obnoxious fan or sports talk show blowhard spouts off about who is the best player or why a certain team doesn't win games. It is quite another thing when three economics professors, which the authors of this book are, who love sports give you proof to back up their arguments. Not many casual basketball fans would agree that Allen Iverson isn't a very productive player, but the authors have the data to show otherwise. It is hard to argue when the cold hard facts are in front of your face... The Wages of Wins is a very important book in the field of sports economics and a very enjoyable and thought provoking read. It leaves you wanting a sequel to it (which, luckily, the writers hint at)."—CollegeHoops.net
From the Inside Flap
In this updated version of their book, these authors explain why Allen Iverson leaving Philadelphia made the 76ers a better team, why the Yankees find it so hard to repeat their success from the late 1990s, and why even great quarterbacks like Brett Favre are consistently inconsistent. The book names names, and makes it abundantly clear that much of the decision making of coaches and general managers does not hold up to an analysis of the numbers. Whether you are a fantasy league fanatic or a casual weekend fan, much of what you believe about sports will change after reading this book.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
There are so many logical problems with the analysis in this book, it is difficult to know where to begin.
I will limit myself to just a handful, among countless possibilities.
1) The authors find a correlation between the stability of a basketball team's roster and its winning percentage, and conclude that roster stability is a factor in producing wins! Classic problem of mistaking effect for cause. Clearly, winning teams are disinclined to make major roster changes, and losing teams are eager to. I was so amazed at this I reread it to see if I missed where they pointed this out. They didn't.
2) The authors show a correlation between more assists and winning percentage and conclude that assists help produce wins. Again, very silly. A team with a higher shooting percentage and fewer turnovers will of course get more wins and produce more assists. But the assists are not producing the wins - the shooting percentage is. Were these factors discounted? Not according to the text.
3) Most problematic, the authors define a way of measuring the value of players to a team, and then "prove" their method by summing these values, per player, across each team, and show that they do indeed predict the number of wins each team will get. What they fail to realize is that their method of apportioning value to a player necessarily sums back to team totals such as points per possession that we know correlate to wins per team. But this in no way proves that the apportioning is wrong. We could just as easily base each player's value "team's points while players is on the floor - opposing team's points while player is in the floor". Sum for all players on team, and you will find the team's points-per-game and the opposition's points per game, and you have just "proven" that your method of measuring a player's value is accurate.
4. In looking at rebounds, there is not even the slightest caveat that a player's rebounds per game are affected by who he shares rebounding responsibilities with. If you are in the front court with Shaq, you will get fewer rebounds, not because the other team gets them, but because your teammate does, so comparing rebounding stats between players across teams is highly questionable.
5. Ridiculously, they conclude that adding great players to your roster makes the other players worse not better (this is written as a great revelation, demythifying the common presumption that great players make teammates better). Adding great players indeed will make other players statistically less productive. They will take fewer shots, get fewer rebounds, fewer assists if a new ball-handler is added, etc. And so, according their evaluation method, the other players become worse. This should clearly tell them there is something wrong with their system, based so heavily on specific metrics of productivity. Instead, they simply accept the merit of their method as fact, and conclude that adding great players really makes other players worse!!!
The most frustrating thing about this book, however, for an analytically minded reader, is its smugness. They understand statistics. They have the answers. They are bringing them down from the mountains and explaining them to us idiot peons. All while their reasoning is so problematic.
I in no way am a supporter of the intuitive and nonsensical drivel one hears from so many sports coaches, players and commentators. I would have enjoyed a good, statistical, analytical study of the game of basketball. Unfortunately, this is not it.
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.
The book is at once disheartening (money buys one hell of a lot of the points we see on the various league tables) but then also entirely heartening: individual sportspeople, and b-teams still rock the game and lift their performance way above the odds.
The difference is that many managers and coaches (and us fans for that matter focus on the wrong numbers. We count the goals that a player scores, but discount the fumbles, the turnovers and the other dynamics of team play. A star goal shooter may actually be bad for the team's chance of winning.
Sports these days is dominated by statistics. You listen to a commentary and you hear the win/lose ratios, the all-time earnings figures, the goals, the assists and what have you. Well here the authors put another set of very relevant numbers on the table - and show how they reached these conclusions. Their arguments are pretty convincing and as a result I think we'll be talking about this book for some time to come - and pondering the nature of sports today and whether Player X really is greater than Player Y. What a fresh piece of writing! Buy it - I'm sure you'll enjoy it as much as I did.
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.