Sports fans prepare for a statistical revolution

Close your eyes and picture a sports fan. Not just any sports fan, but a die-hard aficionado, one who lives and breathes sports.

Are your eyes closed?

Of course they’re not; you’re still reading this. But that’s okay, because if you are like the rest of the world, I already know the exact image you would have pictured. It was a man, on a couch or at a stadium, beer in hand, clad in either a jersey or no shirt at all, rocking body paint in the colors of his favorite team. If you need help conjuring up this image, try typing, “sports fan” into Google. Can you guess what nine out of the first 10 image results are of? I can.

But times change, and we, as sports fans, are changing with it. A statistical revolution is among us. Just 10 years ago, measures of achievement were self-explanatory: touchdowns, home runs, points scored. Nowadays, it seems like a new formula is being popularized every day. Quick, what are TS%, UZR and PER? If you answered, true shooting percentage, ultimate zone rating and player efficiency rating, then congratulations, you just made Bill James and John Hollinger smile.

Not everyone is on the statistical bandwagon. Angels center fielder Torii Hunter, a nine-time Gold Glove winner who prides himself on his defense, took offense last year when he was told his range graded out to below average on the UZR scale. And while Hollinger may believe he has come up with far more telling measures of performance than the basic stats found on the back of basketball cards, it is still points, rebounds and assists that earn players All-Star votes and fat contracts.

Still, these new stats can be beneficial for players and fans alike — as long as they are taken with a grain of salt. No statistic, however complex, can accurately predict the future.

The 2009 Seattle Mariners were outscored by 52 runs during the season. According to Bill James’ Pythagorean Expectation for Winning Percentage, their record should have been 75-87. The Mariners turned out to be one of the biggest surprises of the year, going 85-77. Just this week, the Washington Wizards defied the odds by winning the NBA Draft Lottery, despite having just a 10.3 percent chance of doing so. The smile on the team owner Irene Pollin’s face when she found out her team had lucked out was unforgettable.

In a way, having an understanding of statistical probabilities makes it appear that much more magical when they are defied. Luck will always play a big part in the world of sports, and no new statistic will ever change that. But someday we may want to update our typical sports fan’s image — perhaps replace the jersey with a pocket protector or the beer with a calculator.

I’m just kidding about the calculator part. Stay passionate, sports fans.

Alex Harkaway

Alex Harkaway can be reached at

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