Wednesday, March 31, 2010

More on Basketball and Baseball

I've been thinking about the relationship between basketball and baseball I touched on in my last post, and I want to refine what I said there a little bit. Basically, my argument was that there's more specialization in basketball than in baseball, and that - combined with smaller roster size - means that individual players are much more important to a teams' success than in baseball. I certainly think that is true, but the question is a little trickier than that.

While they need not be specialized on offense, baseball players certainly are specialized on defense, and they tend to carry those personae to the offensive side of the game as well. Indeed, a whole culture has arisen in baseball around what players from each position ought to do as hitters. It is certainly possible, for example, to have a speedy first baseman or a lumbering shortstop, but those are rare occurrences in reality. Teams have ideas about leadoff men and cleanup hitters that correspond very strongly to certain positions (leadoff men tend to be SS, 2B, or CF; cleanup hitters tend to be 1B, DH, LF). In short, the specialization doesn't seem all that different from basketball's specialized positions: Center, Power Forward, Small Forward, Shooting Guard, and Point Guard.

It is easy for me, as a baseball fan, to say that baseball managers arrange their lineups in a silly way. The stereotypical number two hitter - a slap-hitting, punchy nobody like David Eckstein or Walt Weiss - is a terrible waste of resources, but that doesn't change that there is a two-hitter persona that does dictate who hits second on most teams. The Rockies, for example, will likely insert Dexter Fowler into the two hole, whether he is suited for it or not. The point being, convention is king in baseball lineups, which is also true in basketball. There's nothing stopping a team from starting three seven-footers and two point guards... It just isn't done.

Unlike in baseball, there is at least some sense that current basketball "lineups" are optimal in one way or another. Then again, how often have you seen a team go on a run when they put in their "short" lineup? Or their tall one? Why not build a whole basketball roster with one big guy and four little, fast shooters? If I was a perpetually bad team, I might consider it.

The reason, however, why there's not a lot of inventiveness in basketball on that front is that basketball remains, unlike baseball, a sport where a single player has tremendous influence. Both games are team sports, of course, and the overall offensive and defensive contributions of every player involved in a given game are added up in roughly the same way. The difference - which I under-emphasized in my last post - really is the size of the team and the distribution of the offensive opportunities. In basketball, a star player like Carmelo Anthony will have a much higher percentage of the opportunities than a star baseball player, like Joe Mauer, will have. Even if everything was distributed equally in basketball, Melo would still get roughly 20% (1/5) of his team's offensive touches (ignoring substitutions, of course, which would scale this number down slightly). In reality he gets much more, and that can be scaled up or down based upon his health, his comfort, and whether he's "hot" on a given night.

Not so in baseball. Joe Mauer will get (very close to) 11% (1/9) of his team's plate appearances, and there's nothing the Twins can do to improve on that. Whereas the Nuggets can keep the ball out of Kenyon Martin's hands on offense, the Twins can't do anything about the fact that Nick Punto gets as many chances to hit as Mauer does. The outcome of this is that single players have a much bigger influence in basketball than in baseball.

Even on defense the difference is visible, because there are 9 players to whom the ball might be hit in baseball, and only 5 who may have to stop a shot (both of those are gross oversimplifications, and indeed both sports struggle much more with defensive statistics than with offensive ones for that reason). Needless to say, any error in this simplification will tend to widen the gap between individual impact on a game of baseball or basketball because, while every player is involved in every play on defense in basketball, that is rarely the case in baseball. Again, individual contributions - especially of star players - make up a higher percentage of overall impact on the game.

Ultimately, success in both sports requires efficient players at every - or as many - positions as possible, but in baseball it's much easier to be balanced. It is not surprising, then, that baseball was the sport that spurred the statistical revolutions that are sweeping almost all big-money athletic competitions (like European soccer). Those revolutions are built upon understanding the true value of a player's overall contributions, so that teams can be built not just of stars, but of useful players. As my last post said, the Colorado Rockies do it well.

It is also not surprising that basketball was the second sport on the statistics bandwagon, and while there are certainly "stars" that contribute to the success of great teams in the NBA, there's very good reason to believe that the San Antonio Spurs - who won over and over in the 2000s, despite their small market - were the Oakland A's of basketball: they got the value and efficiency thing before anyone else did. Sure, Tim Duncan helps, but their championship teams were models not of a star carrying a team - the traditional model - but rather of a team, period. No player was inefficient.

When commentators say that sports are about "teamwork," and single out good "team players," they misunderstand what's really going on. Being a good teammate is not about some mystical force; rather, it's about contributing to the efficiency of your offense and defense. Allen Iverson is not a good "teammate" for the same reason that, for example, Sammy Sosa wasn't. It has nothing to do with the numbers of points they score or homeruns they hit. It is/was because they are/were inefficient, bad at defense, and expensive. Take a look at the NBA standings - or, even better - take a look at last year's MLB standings. It's pretty easy to tell, from those, which teams are paying attention to little things like efficiency and value, and which ones aren't.

No comments:

Post a Comment