Stumbling on Wins: Stumbling on a Great Book

(This is going to be a “Publishers Weekly” abridged review, because I want to follow up with a series of posts discussing in depth some of the fascinating points made in the book, many of which will not be basketball related, but all of which are sports related.)

Disclaimer.  Professor David Berri of the WoW Journal has been very generous to this author and this blog, in fact much more generous than even internet protocol (whatever that is) requires, so when I was asked to review the newly released follow-up to The Wages of Wins, I’ll tell you the truth, if I hadn’t liked it I would have just demurred on the review.  Thankfully that’s not necessary.

This was a terrific book.  It was a book that was ostensibly about sports, but really about the foibles of human judgment.  A fascinating study.  I learned a lot of new information in this book (eg, the NBA’s conventional drafting strategy is so clueless the fact that a player made a trip to the Final Four in the same season as the draft causes his value to soar — unbelievable.  Hold fo my alternative why tomorrow. Its different from the authors). 

I wish I could write a proper review extolling this book.  But I don’t have much time this morning. 

Here’s what I can tell you, and I think you’ll get the point.  I am an extremely particular reader, okay?  If the material is weak, if the research is weak, or if the writing is weak, the book gets put down.  I don’t care if the author is my brother.

Well, I got the book yesterday.  Okay? I started to read it last night.  You follow me?  Its morning and I’m finished.  And I’m really f’ing tired this morning, and its my birthday, and I have no idea how I will get through this business day.  (So please, forgive the disjointed nature of this review).

That my friends is the ultimate compliment I can give to a book.  And I mean it.  After “reading” Bill Simmons desecration of the English language and of all forms of logical reasoning and valid argumentation, I needed to read a well-written, well-researched, and well-argued book in the worst, and Stumbling on Wins delivered. 

Now, I’ll admit to you, when I saw “Defending Isiah Thomas” as Chapter One, my first thought was not a good one.  I thought, “Warmed over WoW Journal”.  Not at all.  If material that has appeared on Prof Berri’s blog, its presented in a new light, or reframed in some way.  Thus even old points appear as new.

As I said, abridged review, but two quick points before I close. 

First, what I absolutely love about the work put out by Berri and Schmidt is it is written in plain English.  Subject-Verb-Object. Subject-Verb-Object.  That may sound like a back-handed compliment, it absolutely is not.  The hardest form of English writing is simple, understandable, well-structured writing, especially when you are dealing with a subject like Economics.  These guys can do it, and they do it through out the book, and this reader appreciates the effort and skill that it took.  (One nitpick, they use the contrivance “the material tells a _______ story” a few too many times, but that’s small potatos).

The reason I point this out is the basketball “stats” world in particular is filled with way, way too many writers who hide the logical foundation of their arguments behind impenetrable mathematical work.  Its annoying.  Berri and Schmidt have the confidence not to do this, and it makes the book read more like “Freakonomics” than “Calculus 203”.  (No offense to the guy, but if you want to read the polar opposite style of writing, pick up a copy of Dean Oliver’s “Basketball on Paper”).  Its getting better, and sites like Basketball Prospectus are leading the way, but the basketball analytics is WAY behind baseball analytics in that regard.

I want to close by defending the pair.  While they are adept with the English language, sometimes their economic brains get them into unneccesary trouble.

In Henry Abbott’s review, and I don’t have time to site it but its on his blog, he pulls a quote that makes it seem like the book is a pair of smarty pants mocking the sports establishment.  Not at all!  As I said, their book is a study of general human decision making.  It examines why we, all of us, make poor decisions.  Yes, GMs and Coaches happen to be the subject matter, but it might as well have been MBAs and Lawyers.

Remember, when you ask an economist what the weather is like outside, if its nice he’ll say “I have no evidence to suggest it will rain.”

FOOTNOTE:  This is NOT a “Stat Geek” book.  Henry Abbott characterized it as such in his review, but his focus was misplaced. 

This is a book that applies economic theory to the sports industry.  It is a study of irrational decision making and the misunderstood, or overvalued inputs that cause faulty outputs.  Its a study of human behavior, in other words, not of numbers necessarily.

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3 Responses to “Stumbling on Wins: Stumbling on a Great Book”

  1. Stumbling on Wins: Stumbling on a Great Book and More Early Reviews « The Wages of Wins Journal Says:

    […] in this forum.   Ty got his copy of Stumbling on Wins yesterday.  Today he posted his review.  I encourage everyone to read the entire discussion.   But I want to highlight these […]

  2. brgulker Says:

    Happy birthday!

    Look forward to the book.

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