On “Talent Dilution” – re-assessing one of history’s greatest foregone conclusions – PART 5 (Intuition, and what is “talent”?)

PREVIOUS: Part 4 (Discrepancies in aging, or “Who is Johnny Bower?”)

Data cannot tell us anything, and it cannot reveal anything, if the parameters and the analysis of it are flawed.  It could be something simple like inverting an axis on collected data, revealing the opposite conclusion of what is being assessed.  It could be something complex, like a single formula error causing a cascade effect which jumbles up data sets.  It could be something sinister, like outright fabricating numbers or quashing ones that may be inconvenient to one’s position.

Possessing some level of common sense and intuition is vital for anything related to data collection and analysis.

When I was a kid, there was a bookshelf that had my parents’ books on it – most of which were my dad’s assorted oddities and historical tomes.  One of them was an old football book titled More Than A Game, edited by John WiebuschIt’s a fascinating collection of writings, interviews, artwork, and other things related to pro football.  I was a football nut starting when I was old enough to watch TV, and I still am today.  My wife hates watching games with me to this day, because of that long-ingrained tendency to yell “BALL!” if someone fumbles.  On the other hand, she’s learned a great deal by proxy about the importance of maintaining outside contain, mostly because I bemoan the lack of discipline when it comes to (loss of) outside contain several times a game.

Anyway, the reason that I know about this book is because I started reading it when I was young.  That, and my dad’s annual copy of the World Almanac.  More Than A Game is sitting under my right wrist as I type this, because the part I’m about to quote comes from it.

There are two stories in the book which primarily focus on officiating.  One is a look at what goes into a weekend’s work for an NFL officiating crew, with the referee in that case being Ben Dreith.  (“The Invisible Men in the Striped Shirts”, by Tom Bennett, is the story in question.)  Dreith is best remembered for his legendary “he was givin’ him the business!” call against Marty Lyons of the New York Jets.

The other story, “Even His Best Friends Will Tell Him” by Charles Maher, focuses on referee Norm Schachter and some of the various occurrences from his career as an official.  One thing that always stuck out to me is this story.

Then there was a game in New York.  The Cowboys against the Giants.  As Norm remembers, a division title was riding on it.

“Pete Gogolak came in to kick a field goal from the twelve.  One of the Cowboys – I think it was Bob Lilly – broke through and blocked the ball.  Gogolak, without breaking stride, caught the ball with his left foot as it came off the ground and kicked it again.  Greatest bit of reaction I ever saw.  Darned if the ball didn’t sail between the goal posts.”

“Was it good?”

“Well, sixty-two thousand people thought it was good,” Norm said.  “I guess everybody watching all over the country did.  But I threw my flag.  The Giants all chaged me.  ‘What’s the flag for?’ they said.

” ‘I don’t know,’ I said.  ‘But something’s wrong.’

“And it was wrong.  I’d reacted instinctively, as you do with experience.  You can’t kick a loose ball.  If Gogolak had caught the ball with his hands, and had control of it, he could have kicked it again.  But this was a loose ball.  I called it a touchback and gave the Cowboys the ball on their twenty.

“Don Meredith (the Dallas quarterback) came running in and said, ‘Nice call, Norm.’  Of course, he had absolutely no idea what I’d called.”

I re-read this book a few weeks ago, and the story stuck out to me as it always has because I’ve never been able to find any reference to it outside of Schachter’s recollection.  So I started going through old newspapers to see what I could find, and hopefully find a video.

My research revealed that this game must have been played on December 18, 1966.  Dallas came into the game with a 9-3-1 record, New York 1-11-1.  Cleveland (8-5), Philadelphia (8-5), and St. Louis (8-4-1) all played that same day as well.  I believe that the tiebreaker at the time was still a one-game playoff, rather than using head-to-head record as a determining factor.  If that is the case, then a St. Louis win combined with a Dallas loss would have forced a playoff game.  So a division title, and a spot in the NFL Championship Game, was in fact on the line.

And I found film on it!  At the 5:55 mark of this video, you can see the right-footed Gogolak’s kick from the 12 blocked by Dallas’ Mike Gaechter, and his left-footed boot which was both celebrated and protested depending on team.  And then Schachter, the referee wearing #56, pauses for a few seconds before throwing the flag.

I bring this up not just because it’s a fun story, but because it illustrates a point.  I think in a rush to be first, or to be on the cutting edge, it’s possible to lose sight of the need to be right.  There’s nothing wrong with sitting back for a minute like Norm Schachter did, assessing everything, and then going on.

Fortune favors the bold, but I don’t regard needing to apologize, retract, or back off as being a fortunate outcome.

Statistical Idiocy

As mentioned previously and elsewhere on this site, my first foray into “the deeper game” was with baseball, and in some ways almost everything goes back to Bill James.  He will freely admit that he wasn’t the first, as an upcoming quoted snippet will demonstrate, but he was the one who brought deeper analysis (sabermetrics) to the public sphere.  Hell, he’s the one who coined the term “sabermetrics” to refer to baseball analytics.

It’s like Galileo and Kepler, immensely influential astronomers who happened to be contemporaries of each other.  Galileo was wrong about a great deal of things, but he wrote in a very clear way that was easily understood by anyone who happened to stumble across his writings – thus cementing his legacy.  Kepler, who was right about a great deal of things, wrote in an esoteric and convoluted manner that even he had difficulty following after reading his own writings.  The ability to effectively and clearly communicate is incredibly important.

In the case of Bill James, who earned a bachelor’s degree in English, his ability to weave very complex concepts into a straightforward and yet charming style of writing is a huge part of why sabermetrics became popular with more than just a handful of baseball’s most hardcore followers.  One of his books which I own (This Time, Let’s Not Eat the Bones) is a few hundred pages of his writing without the data to accompany it.

On page 254:

I am engaged in a search for understanding. That is my profession. It has nothing to do with computers. Computers are going to have an impact on my life that is similar to the impact that the coming of the automobile age must have had on the life of a professional traveler or adventurer. The car made it easier to get from place to place; the computer will make it easier to deal with information. But knowing how to drive an automobile does not make you an adventurer, and knowing how to run a computer does not make you an analytical student of the game.

Believe it or not, that was originally written 35 years ago, and it’s as true (and prophetic) today as it was back then.

From page 385:

A few of these arguments have merit. Most of them, to be blunt about it, are useful mostly to illustrate what a horrible intellectual stew men can serve up and swallow when they decide not to let careful analysis intrude on their prejudices. I am being too harsh; baseball exists to be enjoyed, and if you need your prejudices to enjoy it, why not? It is not fair to expect people to spend their lives studying sabermetrics before they can comment on the subject. But people fail to distinguish between ratings and records. They fail to distinguish between methods and raw data. They never give a thought to definition and purpose, to what is being measured. They dress up their prejudices with asinine analogies and irrelevant objections and then expect me to ignore these things so that we can have a dialogue as equals. And that is why I am being so harsh; I am just tired. I am tired of the argument. I am tired of trying to put this argument behind me, once and for all.

But this section is titled “Statistical Idiocy”, which comes from this quote on pages 25 and 26.  It’s in reference to Percentage Baseball, by Earnshaw Cook.

In the first major work on sabermetrics, published a year after the trade was made (1961), an opinionated metallurgist analyzed the Colavito-Kuenn trade at great length and with incomprehensible shallowness and reached the conclusion that the Indians had made a good trade. He couldn’t have been more wrong. It was a classic example of what I call statistical idiocy.

Statistical idiocy is the assertion that nothing is real except that which is measured in the statistics. That analysis of the trade ignored or dismissed as peripheral considerations every real or substantive issue that needed to be discussed, including the differences between Tiger Stadium and Cleveland Stadium, the differences between a 26-year-old player and a 29-year-old player, the differences in defensive value, and most importantly, the impact of the trade on the fans, the other members of the team, and on the players involved. That book set sabermetrics back by twenty years. This tour de farce of statistical idiocy reinforced the supposition that all statisticians were idiots, that the analysis of baseball by statistics must be one-dimensional and therefore unable to deal with the complexity of real-life situations.

What is “Talent”?

Baseball is a funny game, in which certain modest displays of individualism are regarded as tantamount to heresy, while other flagrant displays of individualism are embraced.

I have a fairly clear memory of being a young child and seeing Julio Franco of the Cleveland Indians step in for an at-bat.  Most batting stances are fairly simple and don’t deviate too far from a particular baseline.  In the case of Franco, seeing someone standing in the batter’s box, almost fully upright and yet knock-kneed, with his bat parallel to the ground and pointed toward center field, it was the strangest thing that a kid of 3 or 4 years old could possibly fathom.  It’s over three decades later, and I still remember that bizarre stance.

Somewhere else on my father’s bookshelf (mentioned above) was a book of sports trivia.  When I started playing baseball around age 5 or 6, I was told to make sure not to step back “in the bucket” when hitting.  But I had read about a Hall of Famer from the early days named Al Simmons, who was nicknamed “Bucketfoot Al” because he did exactly that.  Stan Musial had a disjointed, lunging stance.  Ernie Lombardi held the bat with interlocked fingers like a golfer.  Hank Aaron occasionally batted switch-handed (off-hand on top).  All are Hall of Famers.

This entire topic is about talent: the way that talent is concentrated or diffused, the way that it ebbs and flows, the way that what is perceived as talent may change over time.

In reference to catcher Elrod Hendricks’ unusual way of defending home plate, longtime Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver wrote, quite simply:

What difference does it make if a guy is awkward or even spastic if he gets the job done?

Bill James wrote the following in 1984:

In my part of the country there used to be a basketball coach named Jack Hartman. He was a fine coach and his teams would win, but a lot of times his players didn’t look like they were good athletes. Sportswriters talked a lot about how much Hartman did with so little talent, which was intended to be a compliment but became a tiresome one after a while, and Hartman finally said, “Look, what is talent? Talent is just being where you are supposed to be and doing what you are supposed to do.” What he was saying, in essence, was that you may think talent is being able to run fast and jump high and stop and start quickly, but I think that talent is blocking out on the boards and cutting off the passing lanes and hitting your free throws. You recruit the guys that you think have talent and I’ll recruit the guys that I think have talent, and we’ll see who wins.

And, in a biography written about him over twenty years later (The Mind of Bill James: How a Complete Outsider Changed Baseball by Scott Gray):

In the Abstract years, Kansas State University had a basketball coach named Jack Hartman. Bill referenced him on the subject of what talent means. “Hartman had a players in the late seventies named Ed Nealy, who was 6’9”, very strong, soft hands, but slow and couldn’t win a jumping contest against a sack of flour,” Bill says. “Hartman loved him, because he was always where he was supposed to be. I remember his quote about him: ‘Well, what is talent? Talent is just being where you are supposed to be and doing what you are supposed to do.’ Which is a very different idea of talent than most people have, but it worked for old Ed Nealy.

Jack Hartman played basketball and football at Oklahoma State, and played a year with the Saskatchewan Roughriders.  He started coaching college basketball a few years later, and became the head coach at Southern Illinois before moving on to Kansas State.

Reading the quotes above, it’s easy to think of Hartman’s teams as being composed of nothing but a bunch of Ed Nealy types – the gym rats and the farm boys who play “fundamental basketball”.  Find tape of Ed Nealy, and he played exactly like he’s described above: a physical presence inside who seemed to have an intuitive knowledge of how the ball would come off the rim or backboard and where his opponents were, and was able to compensate for his lack of athleticism through superior positioning and unusually soft hands.

I feel compelled to point out that, at Southern Illinois, Hartman recruited and developed a young player from Atlanta named Walt Frazier.  If Ed Nealy is “talent”, Walt Frazier is “TALENT!”  Nealy’s skills were subtle and preferred the shadows; Frazier is an NBA legend and a Hall of Famer.  Nealy was a bench player on Michael Jordan’s Bulls teams; Frazier was a key player on the Knicks’ only title teams.

Jack Hartman knew exactly what talent was and looked like, and he won an awful lot of games.

“Nealy was a 6-7 kid who couldn’t jump and he became one of the outstanding rebounders in the country,” Hartman told The Eagle in 1989. “I saw some things in Ed Nealy that were fairly obvious that were going to allow him to be a top college player. Obviously nobody else did because nobody else recruited him.”

“I come out of my office usually at 9:30 a.m. or so to take a little break and usually will go over in the weight room, and Ed Nealy is there,” former Bulls coach Phil Jackson once told the Chicago Tribune. “He’s the first one there and works as hard as anyone I’ve ever seen in basketball.

“And when I’m down in my crouch on the bench, I’ll look up and say, ‘Ed, what’s the other team doing?’ and he gives me a response of what he thinks they’ll be coming back with and what to watch for. He’s like another coach for us. He’s a great example for our bench. It’s guys like that who make coaching really a pleasure.”

“2014 Kansas Sports Hall of Fame: Ed Nealy.” The Wichita Eagle, Sec. Kansas State, 3 Oct. 2014

How It Applies Here

In any project which involves crunching data, using metrics, or performing any type of analysis that goes beyond the surface of an issue, there are certain arbitrary leaps that have to be made.  They may be completely grounded in logic, reason, and common sense, but an educated guess is still a guess.

The purpose of this project is to measure talent through a specific lens, in a way that assesses and challenges conventional logic of what talent is and how it is spread.

Here is the arbitrary leap which underscores this entire project: it is assumed that every player who plays in an NHL game possesses NHL talent.  It may be glaringly obvious and what anyone could clearly recognize as talent, or it may be subtle and apparent only to a particularly astute coach or scout.  It may be a particular skill set which has fallen out of favor, or that lasted too short because it was out of time compared to the conditions of the league.  But the first assumption is that players in the NHL possess NHL talent.

NEXT: Part 6 (Hartman’s Equation, and Common Sense)