Grantland's Jonah Lehrer Loves Intangibles So Much He Made A Whole Argument Out Of Them

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Aren't sports statistics terrible? Of course they are. Sports has been overrun by number-nerds, and the number-nerds get angry if you point this out. So Jonah Lehrer, writing at Grantland about the pernicious influence of numerical analysis, makes sure not to bring up any actual examples of how numbers are misused. Why get in some boring nerd-fight with the nerds? Nerds.

No, let's talk about cars instead. When people shop for cars, Lehrer writes, they think they want horsepower and fuel economy—boring factual note: it's hard, as a car shopper, to maximize both of these things at once—but really, psychologists have found that car owners are happier about having comfortable seats and a sturdy frame.


Sports teams are the same way, because at the end of the season, psychologists survey the fans, and if a team's fans report having a feeling of satisfaction with their overall team experience—well, that team gets a trophy. But the sabermetricalistic movement is ruining all that:

My worry is that sports teams are starting to suffer from a version of the horsepower mistake. Like a confused car shopper, they are seeking out the safety of math, trying to make extremely complicated personnel decisions by fixating on statistics. Instead of accepting the inherent mystery of athletic talent—or at least taking those intangibles into account—they are pretending that the numbers explain everything. And so we end up with teams that are like the worst kind of car. They look good on paper—so much horsepower!—but they fail to satisfy. The dashboard is ugly, the frame squeaks, and the front seats make our ass hurt.


Who are these teams that leave their fans with sore bottoms? Lehrer doesn't say. Literally. He does not name a single team or executive or player that illustrates this overreliance on statistics. At least Joe Morgan knew enough to blame Billy Beane for ruining baseball. Lehrer writes that stats are "being widely applied." They have seduced "coaches and executives." And "coaches and fans." Also an imaginary little boy from a literary analogy by Philip Roth—"If that little kid were around today, he'd be obsessed with sabermetrics." As friend of Deadspin Josh Levin said, there are enough straw men in the piece to field two whole straw basketball teams, have them play each other, and then measure their plus-minus to evaluate the relative strength of each straw man.

The reason statistics are bad is that J.J. Barea is good. Good in a David Eckstein way, a way that the statistics disdain.

By nearly every statistical measure, the Mavs were outmanned by most of their playoff opponents. (According to one statistical analysis, the Los Angeles Lakers had four of the top five players in the series. The Miami Heat had three of the top four.) And yet, the Mavs managed to do what the best teams always do: They became more than the sum of their parts. They beat the talent.

Yes, if you want to get technical about it, J.J. Barea did have a teammate who is seven feet tall and has won a league MVP and who somehow beat out J.J. Barea for the Finals MVP award. But: grit and hustle! The Mavs were "outmanned" by every statistic by most of their playoff foes. Except their regular-season scoring margin, which was better than half their opponents'.

And their 57 wins. Only one of their four playoff opponents had more. If you care about numbers.


Lehrer does care about numbers, when he wants to. It's true, he writes, that paying attention to numbers would keep a team from giving Aaron Rowland Rowand $60 million. He brings up J.J. Barea's "minus-14 rating" in the playoffs as if everyone had been talking about it. (No one was, because it's a worthless number based on a tiny sample, or because they were just saying, "Dag, that guy is short.") "For a nerd like me, this quantification of sports has been tremendous fun," Lehrer writes.

But Lehrer is a special nerd, the kind of nerd who sits with the jocks and makes fun of the other nerds. Now all the other nerds are mad at him. See how it works?