Gladwell on The Wages of Wins

Malcolm Gladwell reviews The Wages of Wins in this week’s New Yorker.

It’s hard not to wonder, after reading “The Wages of Wins,” about the other instances in which we defer to the evaluations of experts. Boards of directors vote to pay C.E.O.s tens of millions of dollars, ostensibly because they believe—on the basis of what they have learned over the years by watching other C.E.O.s—that they are worth it. But so what? We see Allen Iverson, over and over again, charge toward the basket, twisting and turning and writhing through a thicket of arms and legs of much taller and heavier men—and all we learn is to appreciate twisting and turning and writhing. We become dance critics, blind to Iverson’s dismal shooting percentage and his excessive turnovers, blind to the reality that the Philadelphia 76ers would be better off without him. “One can play basketball,” the authors conclude. “One can watch basketball. One can both play and watch basketball for a thousand years. If you do not systematically track what the players do, and then uncover the statistical relationship between these actions and wins, you will never know why teams win and why they lose.”

The WoW is by three economists—Dave Berri, Martin Schmidt, and Stacey Brook— who have been doing some of the best research in sports economics over the past few years. I happened to end up at a dinner with Dave Berri at the Western Economic Association meeting last July, where I learned about the book. I thought the book had a lot of potential, given the work these economists had done. It reminded me of what William Easterly did in The Elusive Quest for Growth with his amazing academic work on economic growth.

Because of our similar research interests Dave sent me a few finished chapters, and it was even better than I thought. I’ve mentioned it a few times over the past few months, because of my excitement over what I have read. I think the readers of Sabernomics will enjoy its discussion of not only baseball, but other sports as well. The chapters on basketball are exceptional. Now that I have the entire book in front of me, I find that it has exceeded my already high expectations. Sometimes I wonder if my opinion is the exception or the consensus, but it turns out to be the latter. In addition to Mr. Gladwell, the book has also received praise from Alan Schwarz (cover blurb) and Tyler Cowen.

I’ll try and post a more thorough review of the book soon, but I’m a bit tied up with some other projects, so I can’t make promises. If you read the book, or find other reviews, and want to post comments in this thread, go right ahead. Also, check out the authors’ blog.

One Response “Gladwell on The Wages of Wins”

  1. Marc says:

    No doubt this is true and it’s frustrating listening to Bobby Cox and other managers (most of whom are high school graduates) rant about how numbers don’t mean anything (except the numbers they are used to seeing.)

    On the other hand, does systematic automatically mean statistical/economic? Is there nothing to be learned from simple observation? Statistics don’t come from nowhere. If a hitter, for example, hits a lot of home runs, it reflects a skill and ability relating to how he swings. There has to be some relationship, it seems to me, between skill level and performance, although it’s clearly not absolute. A guy with a bad swing or poor technique isn’t going to hit home runs and simple observation should have some place. A lot of scouting criteria, of course,are patently ridiculous–“baseball face” and so forth. But it seems to me that there is a place for non-statistical observation as well as statistical analysis.