News & Analysis

Embrace meaningless sports stats

Feb 4, 2018; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Confetti falls as New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) walks off the field after Super Bowl LII against the Philadelphia Eagles at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

(Editor’s note: Every Sunday, we’ll wrap up the week on PFF Fantasy with some topic one of our writers has been thinking about of late, and recap the features, columns, and podcasts you could find on the site that week.)

Each of the last two years, Russell Westbrook has ended his season averaging a triple-double for the season. He won the MVP in the 2016-2017 season, but James Harden, LeBron James, and Kawhi Leonard all had a real claim for the award. Westbrook probably wasn’t the most valuable player in the league, but the cool statistical anomaly got it for him.

In 2012, Miguel Cabrera ended the season leading the league in batting average, home runs, and RBI. It was a Triple Crown, baseball’s first in 45 years. He won the MVP, despite the fact that by any objective measure Mike Trout wasn’t only better across the season, but significantly so. We know on-base percentage is superior to batting average, and virtually every stat is superior to RBI, but still, the cool statistical anomaly got it for Cabrera as well.

These things are both good and bad. Yes, the fact that random fun with numbers led voters to an incorrect conclusion is irksome, but at the same time … statistical anomalies are fun. It’s not meaningful that Cabrera won the Triple Crown, but it’s fun. Westbrook’s triple-double didn’t make him the best player in the league, but it did make things interesting. We shouldn’t get rid of RBI, or pitcher wins, or triple-doubles — we just need to realize them for what they are, and that’s accounting details that shouldn’t actually carry any weight.

(In baseball, saves are a different animal, as they’ve directly affected strategy, but that’s not really the point here.)

It’s getting increasingly difficult to be a sports fan who is simultaneously casual and informed. This isn’t a bad thing — learning more about a subject never is — but it’s true nonetheless. Prior to my employment at PFF, I wrote fantasy football and baseball for SB Nation, and as such did my best to stay east of all the statistical innovations in analysis of both sports. Since going football-only, though, baseball analysis has left me in the dust.

Spin rate, xwOBA, barrels, tunneling — I more or less understand each one, but at the same time I’m just not reading about them as I used to. But it takes a dedication to education to be able to speak on each new stat or analysis technique eloquently, and I don’t have the time to devote to it that I used to.

In football, I don’t think we currently have a statistical anomaly that relates. My best attempts at a quarterback Triple Crown — passing yards, touchdowns, and quarterback wins — has been won three times since 1980, by Peyton Manning in 2013, Tom Brady in 2007, and Kurt Warner in 2001. The thing is, all three guys also won the MVP, and frankly, if you lead your team to the best record in the league and lead in both those stats, I think the MVP is deserved.

I’m not sure the NFL has an analogue that would make sense here. QB wins are overrated, and passing yards can be a function of opportunity, but that combination is still going to point you in the right direction. Sacks are overrated, catch percentage can be overrated, interceptions depend on teams throwing in your direction, but I can’t think of a good combination that would give us a football Triple Crown or similar. (Pats Pulpit attempted the same three years ago, which I just discovered in searching for this.)

Don’t make decisions based on meaningless “accomplishments.” But don’t ignore them either. It’s very cool that Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown in 2012. It’s neat that Russell Westbrook averaged a triple-double in 2016-17 and 2017-18. But Mike Trout and James Harden were both better. Both can be true at the same time. Judge based on what matters, but don’t ignore the meaningless.

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