Have numbers become too subjective?


Anyone who believes mathematics is the world’s universal language clearly hasn’t been following the news lately. Depending on where you are or what channel you’re watching, the numbers have Sarah Palin as either the most popular woman on the planet, the most despised woman on the planet or as one Fox poll suggested, the woman who most voters haven’t yet made up their minds about. There is no such thing as a general consensus anymore.

And sports is no exception.

By now, anyone who might stumble across this website has listened to countless members of the media, including former coaches and players, scrutinize Bill Belichick’s decision to go for it on fourth down at his own 29 yard line against the Indianapolis Colts last Sunday night. The discussion continued even into week 11, with commentators from every game taking the time to weigh in on Belichick’s call.

But what was interesting about each analyst’s opinion wasn’t the opinion itself, but rather, the information collected to help form the conclusion. Just as the reporting done on Palin this week, the numbers used to back up a given commentator’s thoughts varied based on who and where they were coming from.

Of course, there were plenty of statistics that supported both sides, which is the exact same thing that happened in baseball this week. The National League Cy Young Award was given to San Francisco Giants’ ace Tim Lincecum, whose 15 wins were the fewest of any starting pitcher who played a full season in history to win the award.

Lincecum is widely considered the most dominant pitcher in baseball, but there is little doubt that just 15 wins would have automatically kept him out of the running a few years ago. His victory this season is thanks to a host of “new statistics” that many argue help offer a more accurate view of a player’s ability.

But does a pitcher’s WHIP (walks and hits divided by innings pitched) or a player’s VORP (value over replacement player) really give us a much clearer view of who should be winning these awards? Was St. Louis Cardinals’ pitcher Adam Wainwright, who won four more games and lead his team the playoffs, really that much less-impressive than Lincecum?

It appears to me that these statistics in baseball, much like the numbers used the judge Belichick’s fourth down decision and Palin’s popularity, simply comes down to a matter of convenience. The writers probably picked Lincecum because he had a great year and it made for a much better story – a repeat winner in just his third year in the bigs. The standard statistics wouldn’t allow him to win, so the voters found numbers that would.

And there lies the problem. Instead of providing the whole truth, numbers have become as subjective as the people delivering them.


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