Thursday, June 09, 2005

Lies...And Statistics

We've talked a lot about misuse of statistics and poor math in the law. I'm happy to report: it's not just us.

Take this example from ESPN. In many sports (baseball in particular), the collection and "analysis" of statistical data has become the subject of books (see "Moneyball"), television shows ("Stump the Schwab") and movies (well, maybe not movies). It has also given rise to the amusing phenomenon of the meaningless statistic. And here is a perfect example, from Marc Stein's preview of the NBA Finals (now, I can't really explain why I am even following the NBA finals, much less reading previews, but I think it has something to do with the fact that I am huddled in front of a computer at least 8 hours a day):

"The Pistons are proven champions who got back to the Finals by improving to 7-0, including last spring's playoff run, in games with a chance to eliminate the opposition."

Let's break that down: "elimination game" translated into English is simply the last game of any series. Obviously, the champions don't lose the last game of a series. So the fact that the Pistons have won the last game of the series for seven series in a row is no more or less remarkable than the fact that they have won the last seven series in a row. I suppose that on some level, Stein could be saying that they haven't lost when they had a chance to close out a series, even when their own elimination is not at issue (i.e., they lead the series 3-2 and they win game 6), but again, what is special about this statistic? What more does it tell us than the fact that the Pistons can win serieses?


Anonymous SportsFan said...

I heard that one too, but when I heard it the commentator said something about the Pistons being about to break the record. In baseball, isn't there something like an official record book? So it only gets into the book if it's a statistic that has been deemed worth following? I remember some sort of controversy because people wanted to start using a different number to evaluate hitting skill a while ago, and it wasn't one of the ones the record books kept track of. Does anyone know whether this is right? Is there something like that in basketball? I know no one is so nuts about stats as baseball fans, but still. There oughta be a law.

6/09/2005 1:37 PM  
Blogger Armen said...

Yeah there's an official record book. E.g. The NBA didn't keep stats on the triple-double until magic johnson.

6/09/2005 6:33 PM  
Blogger Craig said...

My understanding is different than yours. As I take it, an elimination game is any game in which a team *could be* eliminated. A seven-game series, therefore, could have four elimination games.

6/10/2005 1:11 PM  
Anonymous Panda said...

An elimination game is a game when the team has a chance to close out a series. So what Stein meant was that when the Pistons have won 3 games in the series, they did not lose the next game in any of the series.

It is still possible to lose elimination games and still win a series. Let's say the Pistons were leading a series 3-2, and lost their next game to tie the series. That game they lost is an elimination game. The next game then becomes another elimination game, and if the win it, they still win the series having lost an elimination game.

Every game after any team has one 3 games in an NBA playoff series is a potential elimination game.

That said, the statistic is supposed to show how teams can close out a series. Whether or not it's significant is another matter.

6/14/2005 3:53 PM  

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