How Analytics Makes Basketball More Interesting and Baseball Less
On Thursday the Golden State Warriors won their fourth National Basketball Association championship in the last eight years. A four-time championship team can be characterized as dynastic, and I despise overdogs. But I root for the Warriors. For one thing, this time around they were underdogs. For another, they’re the home team. And for yet another, they’re exciting and have revolutionized basketball in a wonderful way.
Which got me wondering why I find the Warriors more entertaining than the similarly successful (and local) San Francisco Giants, especially since I’ve always liked baseball more than basketball. The answer — to my chagrin — is analytics.
In sports, analytics is the study of data with the goal of making a player or team more successful. It began as a hobby among nerdy baseball fans in the 1970s and 1980s. (My conversion dates to 1983, when a friend gave me a copy of Bill James’s 1982 Baseball Abstract.) Ridiculed for years, analytics was adopted by Billy Beane, general manager of the penurious Oakland Athletics, in the early 2000s. It worked, allowing the Athletics to compete with the fat-cat Yankees and Red Sox. Michael Lewis wrote a book on the subject, Aaron Sorkin and others turned the book into a movie starring Brad Pitt, and soon the concept was embraced by virtually every franchise in every sport.
In 2010 Joe Lacob and Peter Guber bought the moribund Warriors for $450 million, considered a ridiculous sum for a team with only one potential long-term asset, a small, sharpshooting rookie named Stephen Curry. But the new Warrior front office applied analytics to basketball and realized something that should have been obvious as soon as the NBA introduced the three-point shot in 1979: if you take a hundred two-point shots and make 50% of them, you score 100 points, but if you take a hundred three-point shots and make just 35% of them, you score 105 points. And if you have a kid like Curry, who made almost 44% of his three-point shots his first season, you do even better.
So the Warriors embraced the three-point shot despite its extra misses. Eschewing the standard scrum under the basket where bruisers dominated by outmuscling everyone else, they spread their players around, giving flashy speedsters like Curry room to maneuver, and encouraged brisk passes back and forth to find the open man. In his rookie year, Curry averaged 4.8 three-point shots per game. When the Warriors won their first championship in 2015, he averaged 8.1 three-point shots per game — and his teammate Klay Thompson, drafted by the new front office in 2011, averaged 7.1. After the Warriors won again, then again, the rest of the league adopted their philosophy, and basketball became a game of speed, grace, and skill in addition to muscle.
Baseball once had room for both power and finesse. But the analytics people argued that it takes a series of positive events for the finesse guys to score a run, whereas for the power guys it takes just one: the home run. So why not go for the homer all the time? The result is that speedy, graceful, and skilled hitters in the tradition of Rod Carew, Tony Gwynn, and Ichiro Suzuki have been replaced by guys who strike out every three or four times up but smash twenty. thirty, or more homers. In 1992, perhaps the last year of balanced offense, major league hitters had a home run rate of 1.9, a stolen base attempt rate of 3.0, and a strikeout rate of 14.7 per 100 plate appearances. Last year the homer rate was up to 3.3, the stolen base rate down to 1.6 — and the strikeout rate soared to 23.2. But the analytics people proved correct: in 1992 the average team scored 4.12 runs per game, and in 2021 it scored 4.53, a ten percent increase.
I was an early and enthusiastic proponent of analytics in baseball. But it’s totally backfired on me: the game has lost so much dimension I can barely watch for more than a couple of innings. At the same time, analytics has given basketball more dimension. So go Dubs! You are the happy unintended consequence of my misplaced faith in analytics — and one of the few reasons I follow sports at all anymore.
Oh, and you know how Lacob and Guber were thought to have overpaid for the Warriors? Forbes recently valued the franchise at $5.6 billion.