Book review: Scorecasting

I haven’t written a book review since, like, the 10th grade. And it surely came in the form of a book report about which I couldn’t have cared less. With that said, Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports are Played and Games are Won, by Tobias Moskowitz (not related to Fievel Mousekowitz) and L. Jon Wertheim, is a gem.

I read another book, A Mathematician in the Ballpark, right before this one. Although I enjoyed it for its content and attempt to be accessible to a novice reader, I still found it hard to read, but I couldn’t place my finger on a reason why. As I read Scorecasting, however, it dawned on me: This book is readable. It’s entertaining. The writers, removing the context of content, are simply good at what they do. I won’t say the author of A Mathematician in the Ballpark wasn’t a good writer, because he was. But it just didn’t have the kind of umph to draw in a novice reader that Scorecasting has, and it has it in spades.

The book applies economic theory (and some heavier analysis using econometrics, a form of statistical analysis) to prove or disprove idiomatic expressions ingrained in sports culture. The authors look at how incentives, biases, probability and even luck can influence how an umpire calls a pitch or Ray Allen shoots a three. Their conclusions may not sit well with you — the authors do not provide what is probably very lengthy procedures to their experiments, which will be unsettling for the most skeptical of readers — but my goodness, are they convincing.

My favorite chapter is about PEDs, conveniently very topical. It doesn’t set out to debunk any kind of profound myth, but Moskowitz and Wertheim do a stellar job of not only explaining the incentives as to which players use PEDs and why (key word: opportunity cost), but also simplifying the subject matter to make it accessible to readers who may not be big-time sports fans or economics buffs without completely watering down the content. The authors give the reader credit without assuming too much, and what results from the chapter is a wonderful explanation of the power of incentives within Major League Baseball and in a global context of starkly different socio-economic conditions.

The book is an especially fun read for people who dabble in not only sports analytics and economics but also psychology and behavioral economics. Understanding the reasoning behind the behavior of a player (or coach or umpire or general manager) is just as fascinating as the answers to the questions that are as timeless as professional sporting.

I likely wouldn’t use space here to recommend a book, but I plowed through this book in a week, which is about the fastest I’ve read a book in 18 months. I don’t know whether that’s something to celebrate, or if it means I’m not very well-read, but no matter. Scorecasting is well worth the read and is accessible to just about anyone — well, except for maybe a person who hates sports, numbers and understanding the human mind.

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