Moneyball II: Charles Barkley, the Sports Media, and the Second Statistical War
When Charles Barkley sank his teeth into analytics this month on Inside the NBA, you could almost hear the whole Internet groan. “I’ve always believed analytics were crap,” he said, later adding, “They’re just some crap that some people who are really smart made up to try to get in the game ’cause they had no talent.”
It was a familiar script to Fox Sports’s Rob Neyer: “Ten years ago, even five years ago, if the whole Barkley thing would have occurred, we could have said, ‘Charles Barkley is wrong about this. How ridiculous is it that someone on national TV is saying this?’ But how many times do we have to write that story?”
People wrote it anyway. Barkley’s rant was “unintelligible” and “wholly useless” (SB Nation); his target — ostensibly Rockets GM Daryl Morey and his apostles in the media — was a “straw man” (ProBasketballTalk); and Barkley himself was a “doofus” (Deadspin).
Barkley wasn’t just wrong about advanced statistics. Speaking weeks before the ninth-annual Sloan Sports Analytics Conference (which kicks off tomorrow), he seemed to be fighting a rearguard action. “The war’s over,” CBSSports.com’s Matt Moore declared. “The nerds make the decisions whether Barkley likes it or not.” Keith Olbermann concurred: “Most of the dinosaurs like Chuck don’t even realize the war is over … ”
To which I’d ask: What war is that? The war that pitted writer versus writer, and GM versus GM, to prove once and for all that advanced stats are valuable? Sure. That war — let’s call it Moneyball I — is over.
But Barkley was firing a shot in a second war. Let’s call it Moneyball II. This clash doesn’t pit a blogger versus a newspaperman in a debate over the value of PER. It pits media versus athletes in a battle over who gets to tell the story of basketball. “I viewed Charles Barkley’s comments as being completely about media criticism, not about how a team is run,” said Craig Calcaterra, who blogs at HardballTalk. “If Barkley were still playing and a coach came to him and said, ‘Here’s something we discovered in our analytics department,’ I’m sure he’d be receptive to it. But he doesn’t want to hear someone in the media second-guessing his authority about basketball.”
Moneyball II is an older war. It’s about who really owns the game. It’s about a group of people whose jobs by their very nature threaten another group of people. You may know this war by another name. It’s called sportswriting.
Though it took decades to conclude, Moneyball I was a rout on the scorecard. Its villains, talented as they were at their own game, were comic buffoons. In the 1960s, the sportswriter Leonard Koppett was toying with then-radical concepts like adjusting for different eras of baseball history. “Where others approached statistics as black-and-white,” David Stern once noted, “Leonard uncovered the shades of gray that gave them meaning and context.” One day, Koppett was lugging his satchel full of reference books into a press box. Jimmy Cannon, the New York Post’s resident sourpuss, smirked, “Whatcha got in there, Lennie, decimal points?”
And so it went for the next four decades. The sabermetrics-wielding writer said, “I just want information. And I’ll follow that information wherever it leads.”
The denialist said: “You’re a nerd.” Or: “You’ve never seen a ballplayer naked.” The former was a permanent condition, but statistically inclined writers would eventually be lucky enough to accomplish the latter.
There were industry changes that led to the flowering of advanced stats in the media: the crumbling of the newspapers that gave food and shelter to old-line, skeptical sportswriters; the emergence of Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs, and Football Outsiders as incubators of young talent; the data supplied by leagues like the NHL that essentially blessed the writers who’d long been using numbers to understand sports.
There was also a philosophical shift. “I’m 41,” said Calcaterra, “and people my age or younger switched from saying, ‘When I grow up, I want to be the center fielder for the Yankees,’ to, ‘When I grow up, I want to be a general manager.’ It wasn’t because of Moneyball. It was because of computer simulations, Strat-O-Matic, and Lance Haffner baseball and football. They interested people in sports who weren’t good at them, and they made you think about sports in a different way.”
“The cult of the general manager,” as Neal Pollack called it. Front-office types became nearly as big and heroic as the players themselves. A group of sportswriters became shadow GMs — or even real executives like John Hollinger. As Calcaterra saw it, the question that animates much of today’s media is, “Can I build this team better than the way it’s being built?”
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The Washington Post’s Neil Greenberg came of age during Moneyball I’s drive to victory. In the early ’90s, he was using Bill James’s projections to conquer his Rotisserie League. He began posting on Tumblr, landed some freelance gigs, and is now a staff reporter at the Post, where he writes the Fancy Stats blog (“Where numbers meet news”).
“Back in the ’80s and ’90s,” Greenberg said, “if someone wrote that a player was not good because they watched all the games, it’s almost if he or she was making that judgment based on their opinion. It was like, ‘I watched the games. This is what I saw. This is what I feel.’
“For me, I don’t even care. It doesn’t matter what a player’s position is. It’s: ‘This is what the numbers are saying.’ … There’s no agenda, no feeling or emotion. If the player accumulates X points over Y period of time, then they belong in this group.”
It could be the motto of analytics devotees everywhere. Yet a funny thing happened when players started reading Greenberg’s stories. They didn’t see him as an objective number-cruncher. They saw him as another nosey writer. “Richard Sherman chirped at me on Twitter, and then blocked me, after hearing I wrote that he wasn’t worth $12 million,” Greenberg said. “Hockey players tell me to shove my stats up my ass.”
These are typical scenes from the front in Moneyball II. No longer were two critics arguing about the best way to review a movie. These were directors and actors arguing that the critics had no right, no artistic standing, to review movies at all.
There are exceptions: Andy McCullough, who covers the Royals for the Kansas City Star and used to cover the Mets for the Star-Ledger, remembered R.A. Dickey asking him, “How come FIP doesn’t like me?” But more emblematic was McCullough’s exchange with outfielder Jason Bay about one of the Mike Trout–Miguel Cabrera MVP debates.
“I said, ‘I don’t understand why it’s a debate,’” McCullough remembered.
“He said, ‘Me too.’
“I said, ‘Yeah, it’s got to be Trout.’
“And at the exact same time, he said, ‘Cabrera.’
“He said, ‘What’s wrong with you?’
“And I said, ‘What’s wrong with you?’”
Today’s sportswriters employ numbers to greater effect than the previous generation did, but the nature of the writer-athlete relationship remains unchanged. I asked Al Leiter, the former pitcher who’s now an MLB Network analyst, a hypothetical question: Imagine that two writers produced stories saying you were having a bad year. One writer relied on outmoded measures likes wins and the eye test; the other on ERA+ and a litany of advanced metrics. Would one critique make you feel better than the other?
“No,” Leiter said. “The old New York columnist who’s watching me is writing what he’s seeing. It wouldn’t be unreasonable, if the person knows what the hell he’s looking at, to say, ‘He’s not having a good year, a good game,’ whatever. Similarly if the sabermetrician circled back and gave you statistical data to back it up. I’m pretty sure they’d go hand in hand.”
The old laws of the clubhouse still apply. If you tell a player he’s lousy and have the numbers to back it up, the player turns his back on you. If you tell a player he’s wonderful and have the numbers to back it up, the player cracks a smile and then turns his back on you. “At the Super Bowl this year, I told Michael Irvin that, by our statistics, in 1995 he had the best season of any wide receiver in the last 25 years,” said Football Outsiders’ Aaron Schatz. “He was kind of excited to hear about that.”
What analytics can do is give writers safe spaces where they can force connections with athletes. It’s like they’re comparing notes from separate sessions of film study. Last year, ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh looked at SportsVU camera data and noticed that even though Dwyane Wade was a reluctant 3-point shooter, defenders were covering him outside the arc like he was Klay Thompson.
“I go up to him and have an adult conversation,” Haberstroh said. “‘Hey, man, can you help me out with something? I was looking at the numbers and found that guys stick to you on the perimeter. Do you notice that?’ He lights up. ‘Yes, I noticed that, and it’s been driving me crazy.’”
The reason Wade was being so tightly defended was that his opponents, themselves enriched by data, discovered that Wade scored lots of points by cutting off the ball. So defenders were following Wade wherever he went, even when he ventured to spots on the floor where he was unlikely to shoot. (This can be measured by the metric called “gravity score” and “distraction score.”) As they spoke, Wade started darting all over the court, showing Haberstroh just what he was seeing during a game. Haberstroh got a fascinating piece out of the exchange.
Yet if Haberstroh had told Wade that according to the metrics, Wade’s favorite shot was killing the Heat, the former Finals MVP wouldn’t have been assuaged just because Haberstroh was relying on a SportVU’s electronic eye. “It would be strange for me to go up to a car mechanic and say, ‘I’ve looked at a car you’ve repaired and you’re doing this totally wrong. You’re the worst guy,’” Haberstroh said. “Human nature is to reject anyone who says you’re not good at something.”
It’s the message, not the data, that matters. Schatz noted that while analytics haven’t infiltrated football to the same extent they have baseball and basketball, nearly everyone knows that running backs aren’t valued as highly today as they were 20 years ago. “Now, we crap on running backs but we think that centers and right tackles are more important,” he said. “The same athlete-versus-the-media dynamic exists, we’ve just changed who’s angry at us.”
The old tradition of walking into a locker room and seeing a player reading your nasty piece in the newspaper has been replaced. Now, the player finds your nasty-but-analytically-sound piece on Twitter. “If I wrote something negative about a baseball player — and this is true for my whole career — I always hoped he wouldn’t see it,” said Rob Neyer. “Nothing good can come of that.”
Us Neyer fans would argue that if he’s writing a pan, he’s harnessing more data than anyone could have 40 years ago. It’s a better pan. Whereas most players would argue that Neyer is just like his predecessors — he’s making a charge he has no standing to make. This is because Moneyball II isn’t about methodology. It’s about power.
At first glance, the Barkley affair seemed like a classic Moneyball I skirmish. Barkley is a member of the media. Moreover, he’s a likable media member, one you’d want to embrace as a colleague in a way that you wouldn’t want to claim, say, Phil Simms. But Barkley is best understood as an ex-player, someone who can treat the media like a man he just met in an Orlando bar. “I took everything written about me personally,” Barkley wrote in a 1993 memoir. “I would throw tantrums at home and hold grudges against any writer I perceived to be my enemy.”
Barkley belongs to an interesting demographic: players who were rewarded by one set of statistics during their careers, but who lived long enough to see (and then confront as TV panelists) the rise of a different set. They are the Jack Morris generation: witnesses to their own reevaluation. “I have a lot of experience with guys in his position,” said MLB Network’s Brian Kenny. “They were exceedingly productive players in the ’80s and ’90s. They had success in the game. They understood the game. Their views were validated every stop along the way, in playing and broadcasting.
“Now, there’s this new wave of people telling them to learn a new language, and there’s bound to be some resistance.”
In his initial salvo, Barkley’s language was striking. “They never got the girls in high school,” he said of stats junkies. “And they just want to get in the game.” It’s a variant of the very old joke about a critic being a eunuch in a harem.
“That really stood out, didn’t it?” said Brian Kenny. “It was a lead balloon.” But you can find similar slurs from pitcher David Price, who in 2013 dismissed two TBS reporters as “nerds.” And in the puckish title of Howard Cosell’s 1985 memoir, I Never Played the Game. And in the 1970 quip of Detroit sportswriter Joe Falls. When informed by a fan that he had no right to opine on baseball, Falls replied, “My office lets me write obits and I’ve never died.”
Barkley’s problem with reporters isn’t that they’re using the wrong tools. It’s that they’re reporters. “I don’t think it’s an analytics thing,” said Andy McCullough. “It’s the Kevin Durant point about us not knowing shit.”
More proof comes from an analytics panel held at the NBA’s All-Star Weekend. Sitting next to Mark Cuban, Phil Jackson, and others, Barkley reprised his act as an analytics troll. But the panel ended with a surprise: The host put an article by FiveThirtyEight’s Neil Paine on the big screen. Paine had argued that advanced stats love Barkley. Barkley got a big smile on his face. Analytics were suddenly OK, even helpful, when they confirmed something Barkley already knew: He was great.
One thing that’s hard for sportswriters to understand is that writing an article is by its nature an aggressive act. Every time we write, we are claiming a piece of the game for ourselves: I understand this in a way that you, the athlete, do not. This is no less true of the guy who uses sabermetrics than it was of the guy who sat in a drafty press box, pulled Camels out of his wide-lapelled sports coat, and used two fingers to peck away on his Underwood.
This is honest work. Even noble, in a certain light. But it’s also part of a power struggle. And using numbers to say someone ought to be unemployed doesn’t make the news go down any easier. “If anything, it’s tougher when someone does it with numbers, because it has at least a patina of objectivity,” said Neyer. The writer insists it’s not personal, but the athlete sees it as highly personal.
One way to understand how it feels to be judged externally is to perform a thought experiment. Let’s say the NBA players came up with a metric to measure the true value of sportswriting. And let’s stipulate that their metric was really good — perhaps created by Larry Sanders during his sabbatical from basketball.
Let’s also say the metric minimized or dismissed the way sportswriters judge one another. These are mere distractions, the players would say. So no points for getting a piece in the Best American Sports Writing; for Richard Deitsch posts and reposts; nor for various “soft” factors. (“He was great on Twitter.”)
Now, be honest. Would we call these players objective truth-seekers? Or meatheads who didn’t know the first thing about how hard it is to write on deadline? Guys who got so many girls in high school that they never paid due attention to the world outside their orbit?
“I would probably say, ‘I worked for ESPN,’” said Tom Haberstroh. “I’m sorry, but this is what worked for me. This is what I know.’” He laughed. “I’m sounding a lot like Charles Barkley.”
To repeat, louder this time: Barkley is dead wrong about analytics. His critique is broad enough to be meaningless and was almost certainly conceived in bad faith.
But Barkley was accidentally useful in clarifying just what the analytics revolution has done for sportswriting. It has created a better, smarter press corps — in the eyes of the press corps. But in the eyes of all but a few adventurous players, the media hacks haven’t changed much at all. No player is granting us the right to judge him. But judge him we must. If we do our jobs right, Moneyball II ought to be a quagmire.