By Andy Hoglund
When I was growing up, there were two ways to get the Orioles score in the morning. Since we were in the dark ages before Google, you could either wait for the Washington Post to arrive, or watch the 6 a.m. broadcast of Sportscenter.
I often sought the paper, and recall vividly the frosty dew beneath my toes as I eagerly sprinted across the lawn to retrieve it, wearing only boxers (and a blanket of courage.) Tearing open the Sports section – shout out to Thomas Boswell – I devoured the box score, sizing up the various stats about how many hits Cal Ripken had, or if Mike Mussina might finally achieve a 20-win season.
Today, a player’s bottom line has exploded with a myriad of numbers and metrics assessing their performance… nay, “value.” Historically, RBIs and batting average were always a good indicator of a player’s worth. Now there’s WAR (wins above replacement), a fairly graspable stat that broadly quantifies how much a player improves his team. But when do benchmarks become minutia and what exactly is PECOTA? SECA? xFIP? I know I’m likely sounding curmudgeonly, and fans of Grantland may scoff. However, at a certain point, does this kind of ‘inside baseball’ terminology further lend to the criticism that the game is too muddled and technical?
Seemingly, the world has gone stat-happy (as opposed to slap happy.) A teacher’s merit is not measured in compassion or the creativity/thoughtfulness they inspire in their pupils, but incessant student testing… often administered with the same kind of bureaucratic rigidity that would not be out of place in The Twilight Zone. Music and films are green lit due to focus groups proving their marketability. It’s a trite point, perhaps, but no less nauseating.
Elections are won and lost on the science of statistics, and a variety of digital thought leaders have emerged on the importance of understanding these ground breaking new breakdowns of the widening generational and demographical breaks. Crucially, this new class of consultants makes things just opaque enough that you’re never truly comfortable with the numbers you’re staring at.
I wondered: why stop at elections themselves, or baseball? Why not take a WAR-style approach to all things in life? Let’s crunch some numbers:
A. Movie Actors Quality Assessment
Movie stars are often assessed by their box office totals, which can be misleading in today’s world of international markets, NetFlix and On Demand. And, ultimately, what does box office even matter if a film is awful? We need a formula that really sells the quality control associated with any one of Hollywood’s leading performers. Under my proposed MAQA (Movies Actors Quality Assessment) formula, determining a movie star’s true wattage would best be gauged by the number of times they’ve been featured in a film nominated for, as an example, Best Picture.
For instance, you may think Brad Pitt is overrated as an actor, but he actually has an impressive MAQA rating of 2.27.
That’s an incredible MAQA score, people. Rivaled only by Tom Hanks.
B. Presidential WAR
Or, let’s quantify presidential achievements. It is time to have numerical assurance of one commander-in-chief’s undisputed superiority.
Take the match-up of Bill Clinton versus Barack Obama. What if we could pinpoint their exact WAR, factoring in jobs created, lives saved, settled Middle East crises and legislative victories? You multiple the cos and sin against Republican obstructionism and subtract points for cow tailing to the base. From that, we realize Barack Obama has a presidential WAR of 4.5, compared to Bill Clinton’s 4.1 (turns out Waco and impeachment weighed down his statistical average.) Case closed!
C. Washing my socks
Recently, I thought my personal habits needed a little audit. Thankfully, I determined – through some complicated number crunching- the true value of my time spent at home, and how I might better utilize my free moments. It turns out washing my socks has a very low return for the amount of time it takes to wash them.
It seems even the most mundane aspects of life can be assigned value thanks to metrics.
I guess, despite all our posturing about obtaining Zen, nothing soothes our Western mind more than a chart/graph.
All kidding aside, there are multiple practical rationales for using numbers and statistics to track success, and undoubtedly the practice can contribute to greater efficiency and increased accountability in a variety of fields. The key is maintaining perspective in a sea of overwhelming, lifeless numbers.
On the client-side, our work constantly demands quantification. Demonstrating our value add is both reasonable and necessary in the world of client relations. In my more reflective moments, however, it occurs to me that there is more to public relations than cold hard statistical analysis. Sure, you can shadowbox about how Twitter is going to transform your marketing apparatus, but where’s the human face to that? It is appealing to justify interfacing with the public as a simple matter of likes, RTs, cume, circulation or hits. That these numbers can provide insight – in context – is no question. But earning good will is long game – stats seldom reveal the nuance in branding. In fact, when you fixate on numbers too much, you risk undercutting the more humanistic side to marketing.
It’s not that sabermetrics on its head must be resisted. After all, an advanced statistical reading of great baseball players like Ted Williams only confirms his greatness. What’s been lost is the kind of humanism often based in experience and old school gut instinct. Numbers like the ones I used to read in my Orioles box score usually fade – it’s the richness of the anecdotes, and the lives and memories they represent that makes them worth remembering.