Sabermetricians attempt to reduce baseball to a series of numbers that define the relative strengths and weaknesses of ballplayers.
Mathematical geniuses, not ex-ballplayers, being trusted to evaluate talent? Not even Rod Serling saw that one coming. He might have thought about writing a “Twilight Zone” script on it, but probably figured it was too far-fetched for science fiction. Serling, no doubt, figured that everyone knows figures lie and liars figure.
A Moneyballer might argue that a player who leads the league in outfield assists has a really strong arm. In contrast, a scout who actually prefers to watch a ballplayer work his craft in a game instead of studying numbers, would know a rag-armed outfielder often leads the league in assists because so many runners run wild on him that he’s bound to throw out some of them.
In general, though, numbers capture a baseball player’s value better than a cager’s. Basketball involves five parts moving in concert with individual match-up elements figuring into the equation. Every baseball play starts with a pitcher battling a hitter. The events that flow from that are important, but secondary to the initial confrontation.
One particular number on the Missouri stat sheet illustrates just how powerfully basketball numbers mislead.
First-year Missouri coach Frank Haith, off to a terrific start, uses this seven-man rotation, listed in order of their field-goal percentages: Ricardo Ratliffe (.751), Steve Moore (.528), Kim English (.512), Michael Dixon (.447), Marcus Denmon (.441), Matt Pressey (.428) and Phil Pressey (.394).
Any mathematician worth his slide rule can tell you that Phil Pressey, Matt’s brother, Paul’s son, drags down the team’s season shooting percentage to .498, which nonetheless leads the Big 12. After all, without Phil’s 175 shot attempts, the Tigers would be shooting .515 from the field. That’s what the figures say. They lie. That figures.
Ratliffe’s high shooting percentage is a testament to his ability to catch what’s thrown to him. Easy shots are created for him because English, who plays power forward, is shooting .495 from three-point range. As Kansas coach Bill Self pointed out, following English to the three-point line removes the double-team against Ratliffe. And everyone gets better shots because Phil Pressey penetrates to collapse the defense and is so adept at finding the open man.
“They’re better off the bounce than any team we’ve played this year, no question,” Self said of the Tigers. “Matt Pressey’s having a really good year, no question. Denmon, Player of the Year candidate in our league, no question. Dixon, unbelievable off the bench, arguably as good a sixth man as there is around. And of course, Kim’s having a good year.
“But little Phil Pressey’s still the guy that drives the bus, and he makes plays with his speed that are very hard to coach. He’s good at finishing himself, but until you watch a lot of tape, I don’t think you really appreciate how fast he is.”
Statistics reveal Phil Pressey leads the Big 12 in assists and steals. They don’t show that he also is the main reason Missouri leads the Big 12 in field-goal percentage.