Sunday, April 13, 2008

Statistical Madness

It's that magical time of year when young men's thoughts turn to baseball. Yes, the season's only two weeks old and I've probably watched about 30 hours of it. Over the years, I've developed something of a routine for the season --- follow it fanatically for about three weeks, let it fade into the background until July, then pick it up again for the playoffs.

You would think that given my love for the game, I would also be a fantasy baseball fanatic. But I'm not. About six years ago, I joined my last fantasy league. I spent hours poring over scouting reports and publications, I tinkered with budgeting scenarios left and right, and spent every morning studying box scores with talmudic intensity.

Needless to say, I had my ass handed to me.

But I noticed something else - while willing my players to succeed, I'd manage to completely lose any joy I took out of the game. After that season, I hung up my box scores and scouting publications.

This is the central lesson of Fantasyland: A Season on Baseball's Lunatic Fringe. Sam Walker, baseball columnist for the Wall Street Journal, entered Tout Wars, the nation's premier fantasy league in 2004. He thought his insider's knowledge of the teams, players and managers, combined with some statistical analysis, he'd blow away the sabremeticians and (big-time) rotogeeks in the competition.

What followed was a descent into madness. Walker ended up spending close to $50,000, lost track of friends and family, had severe stress-induced back spasms, and finished close to the bottom of the pack. And he chronicles every step of the journey.

If you've ever fanatically followed a sport (or are a fantasy geek), this book is a must-read. Take, for example, Walker's and his statistician, Sig's, statistical breakdowns on the personal lives of players:

The results, unscientific as they may be, are nonetheless fascinating. Marriage has no impact on performance. Players who double their salaries play only slightly better the following season. Those who are arrested for drugs, guns, or lewd conduct show no appreciable change, but anyone who commits assault sees a performance dip. Having a first or second child isn't significant, but 80 percent of the players who had a third child saw their statistics decline more than a player of similar age. As for the impact of religion, Sig's analysis yielded a troubling conclusion: "Turning to God," he says, "costs you 2.5 runs a season."

As the season wears on, Walker's team falls further out of contention. He debates whether he should trade David Ortiz for Jose Guillen. After deciding to pull the trigger on the trade, Ortiz goes on a rampage (this was 2004, the year the Red Sox humiliated the Cards in the World Series) and Guillen gets benched for the last week of the season after throwing a temper tantrum against manager Mike Scioscia. Walker's (and his teammates') reaction shows just how far they'd fallen.

In the end, Walker returns to society, and he still continues to play Tout Wars today, just not with the same religious zeal. If you enjoy learning about a slightly lunatic fringe of the baseball world, this book is well worth your time.

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