Thankfully, any /number /of folks /have stepped forward to refute Michael Wilbon’s unfortunate column at the new TheUndefeated.com, “Mission Impossible: African Americans & Analytics.” (No. I’m not linking to it.) I’m not sure I have the time or energy to dig into everything that’s wrong with that column. So I’ll try to contain it to one sentence and a caveat. The column is reliant on worn-out, essentializng tropes about Black folk (at the barbershop, no less), about analytics, and oddly about the business of sports itself. (Is there anyone out there who honestly believes that these billion dollar franchises are going to refuse to use math and instead rely on some romanticized “eye test?” Or that they should? I mean…) The caveat here is that Wilbon’s take is in most crucial respects still the industry standard among columnists and broadcasters. Wilbon just happened to be focusing his lens on Black folk, so, let’s not put him out on curmudgeon island all by himself.
Let’s also note that people transform on this issue. I am a lifelong Mets fan. If you go back 4-5 seasons ago to any Mets broadcast on the SNY network with the award-winning (and mostly excellent) crew of Gary Thorn, Ron Darling, and Keith Hernandez, they basically just took turns screaming NNNNEEEERRRRDDDDSSS!!! into their mics. But they have actually softened over the years to where they include a number of rate/efficiency concepts directly into their broadcast. This should surprise no one. So much of the “anti-analytics” position is not a substantive critique so much as a dissociative rhetorical positioning strategy. It’s like a cowbell for the threatened and vulnerable. “We don’t wanna be like those guys, blogging from their mother’s basement.”
Having said all that, although I am disappointed with Wilbon’s take, I don’t feel a need to dog him out. The man is a pioneer who has long operated in the tradition of the late Ralph Wiley. And hey, when you make your living with words, if you do it long enough, you too will swing and miss. I’m just miffed that his, “Good God, Lemon!” moment came on this topic at this time. It’s an important moment for analytics. Much of the low-hanging fruit has already been picked. Many fans, even if not a full-on majority, now intuitively get that efficiency trumps volume, that pitchers don’t really “win” games, and that you must distinguish between context and performance. They may never talk about specific stats, but big whoop. But now, many of the latest techniques being imported from multivariate statistics are good at highlighting very subtle (but crucial) distinctions. It’s not easy to craft insights about subtleties though. This is an issue that the billion dollar businesses that make widest use of these techniques struggle with mightily. In other words, the new frontier for analytics is less about new techniques. It is about finding new stories and new storytellers; people skilled at taking the distilled observations these statistics provide and crafting stories out of them. Insights always reside in stories. So, this is a moment where analytics and storytelling approaches to crafting insight need each other.
In the words of Ye, “We sayin’ the same thing like a synonym.”