Scorecasting by Tobias Moskowitz and Jon Wertheim – lessons for Padres and Chargers

In 1998 the Chargers traded away three top picks to land Ryan Leaf

Home teams get better treatment from umpires and referees, according to this new book.
  • Home teams get better treatment from umpires and referees, according to this new book.

"Root, root, root for the home team.” It’s a tuneful ditty to sing during the seventh inning stretch, but it won’t help Padres fans. They should really sing, “Pray, pray, pray for the umpires to act as they normally do” — that is, biased toward the host team.

That is one of many conclusions of a delightful new book, Scorecasting, by Tobias Moskowitz, a professor of finance at the University of Chicago, and Jon Wertheim, a writer for Sports Illustrated. They apply exhaustive statistical analysis to sports of all kinds and reach some iconoclastic conclusions that blindly devoted fans may not like but would be well advised to study.

There are lessons for both the Padres and the Chargers. In fact, the book, in describing fatuous decision-making in the pro football draft, cites both very smart and very dumb moves by the Chargers.

First, the home team. Yes, statistics definitively prove that the home team in major sports wins more often than the visiting team. The difference is greatest in soccer. In America’s Major League Soccer, the home team triumphs 69.1 percent of the time. The home team wins more than 60 percent of the time in Europe and South America, where soccer is more a religion than a sport.

Home teams are more likely to be successful when stealing a base or turning a double play (Padres vs. Brewers, May 2, 2010).

Home teams are more likely to be successful when stealing a base or turning a double play (Padres vs. Brewers, May 2, 2010).

Home teams have the least significant advantage in Major League Baseball. Between 1903 and 2009, home teams have won 54.1 percent of the games. The authors refute the reasons most often given: (1) Crowd support. Nope. “Fans’ influence on the players is pretty small,” say the writers. (2) Travel rigors doom visitors. Not statistically valid. (3) Home teams benefit from easier schedules. It’s true that big college football teams jack up their won-loss records by scheduling sissy schools at home, but that’s not a big enough factor to explain the overall phenomenon. (4) Baseball teams tailor their rosters to fit the idiosyncrasies of their ballparks. Listen up, Padres: that’s no ticket to inordinate home success. I’ll consider that below.

“ ‘Officials’ bias’ is the most significant contributor to home field advantage,” say the authors, and they make a superb statistical case for it — pointing out, for example, that soccer outcomes are the most dependent on referees’ calls. Looking at reams of game data, Moskowitz and Wertheim show that in baseball, home teams strike out less and walk a lot more per plate appearance than do the visitors. Further, when the game is close, home teams have an even larger advantage in umpires’ ball and strike calls. Similarly, home teams are more likely to be successful when stealing a base or turning a double play.

Now for the clincher. Between 2002 and 2008, up to 11 teams had a system called QuesTec that measured where the ball went over the plate. Ergo, the umpires had machines looking over their shoulders. The authors studied 5.5 million pitches in those years. The result: “Called strikes and balls went the home teams’ way, but only in stadiums without QuesTec — that is, ballparks where umpires were not being monitored,” write the authors. As H.L. Mencken wryly observed, “Conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking.”

The authors say that umpires “call balls and strikes correctly 85.6 percent of the time. But the errors they do make don’t seem to be random. They favor the home team.” (Incidentally, in pro football, the introduction of instant replay in 1999 resulted in fewer calls in favor of the home team.)

Then came a point in the book when I slammed it down and screamed “Horse manure!” The authors insist that most if not all officials are “uncorrupted and incorruptible, consciously doing their best to ensure fairness.” After I recovered from my outburst, the authors hedged their bets. “In a variety of ways — some subtle, some not — officials must take in cues that the league has an economic incentive for home teams to do well.” Right on! Sports are part of the entertainment business. And game-fixing is another variable.

Now let’s go back to the Padres. Petco Park is designed to be a pitchers’ park. The team hopes to win by stacking up on good pitchers and fleet, sure-handed fielders. In other words, defense wins. The book cites multiple statistics showing that defensive-minded and offensive-minded teams win about equally in all sports. In baseball, the authors show that teams molded to their ballparks’ peculiarities don’t necessarily have an advantage. Pitchers’ parks aren’t a panacea, and teams that beef up on sluggers to take advantage of a hitters’ park don’t clean up, either.

Geoff Young, a statistics expert who follows the Padres, said in the Hardball Times last year, “Petco Park remains the most difficult environment in [Major League Baseball] in which to score runs, and by a wide margin.” But, using complicated formulas, Young said that the Padres were winning only 1.5 games per 162-game season more than they would be expected to win, “and it’s quite possible that luck is the overriding factor.”

Young figured that from 2004, when Petco opened, through 2010, the Padres won 52.9 percent of their home games, while Major League Baseball home teams were winning 54.6 percent of theirs. “The question of whether the Padres are using Petco Park to their greatest advantage remains open,” said Young. This year’s experience would hardly seem to make the case — at least thus far in the season. They are now 7 wins, 14 losses at home.

Even though it’s not certain that there will be a pro season in 2011–2012, the National Football League went through with its ritual draft of college players last month. As always, controversy raged. Scorecasting points out how team managements, clinging to hoary theories, continue to make big draft blunders. A classic example is the 2004 draft in which the Chargers snookered the New York Giants, who desperately wanted Eli Manning, brother of the league’s best quarterback. Other top quarterbacks available were Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger.

The Chargers took Manning first. He didn’t want to play in San Diego. The Giants could have traded for a lower pick and taken Roethlisberger, but they were so hot for Manning that they drafted Rivers and then gave him and three draft picks to the Chargers for that first pick. The Chargers got Rivers; Pittsburgh got Roethlisberger with the 11th pick. The Giants “effectively considered Eli Manning to be worth more than Ben Roethlisberger plus four additional players,” write Moskowitz and Wertheim sardonically. And the first pick in the draft typically is paid about 80 percent more than the 11th pick. National Football League general managers grossly overvalue the high draft picks.

But the Chargers can be taken too. Almost all San Diegans are aware of the 1998 draft in which the Chargers traded away three top picks plus active players to move up to second place in the draft and land Ryan Leaf, who has since landed in a heap of trouble and never amounted to anything in the sport. By trading up to get a supposedly top player, then paying him a monstrous salary, a team often pays “the price of a Porsche for a clunker,” write the authors. By taking top picks, “you will never get a great player at a cheap price.” But just try to tell that to the National Football League.

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"Home teams get better treatment from umpires and referees, according to this new book."

An interesting premise, I have a couple of thoughts on this story.

So in baseball, with 162 games and balance between home and away games, the bias canceled out???

But in the playoffs, whether is baseball, football or most any sport the team with the higher seed gets the call. So are the authors implying the SuperBowl in the pros, and bowl games at the college level, where teams play at neutral sites, are NOT biased by the officiating?

One man does not a football team make...but with that said, Eli Manning and the Giants have a SuperBowl ring since he's been at the helm quarterbacking the team. Rivers and the Charger can't past the second round of the playoffs with, what most who follow the stats say, they have a much deeper talent pool. So much for stats.

Now who was snookered in the 2004 draft, it wasn't the Giants as you say. It was Charger fans by Spanos. All that 2004 nonsense did was allow Spanos to raise prices over and over for all the overrated talent. Talent that has yet to deliver us to the promise land and never will while a billionaire gets richer.

Yes, pro baseball teams play 162 games, half at home, half on the road. So it should balance out. However, it a 5-game or 7-game playoff series, the team with the most home games should have the advantage. I agree that Chargers and Padres fans have been snookered by Spanos and Moores through the years. Best, Don Bauder

These authors have spoken heresy. Why, if the fans thought the refs and umps were showing bias, it would go far to lessen the interest in the sports in question. if you can't believe in the fairness of the officials, what basis is there for really thinking that "your" team can come out on top if only it outplays the other team?

Biased officiating has been a scandal of sorts in college sports over the years, resulting in some teams finding it hard to get other school's teams to play them. (A few years back there was some obviously biased officiating going in favor of Washington State in its home football games. Hmm. Didn't Ryan Leaf come from there?) But supposedly those few cases are dealt with and only rarely recur. Uh, huh.

Any time that a team starts to do better than it whould do, and when there is a reason or need for its success--such as a stadium/ballpark election--the fix is suspected. Now they are saying that officiating could be the cause and means of affecting the outcome. Nothing is sacred, is it?

Yes, nothing is sacred. On the one hand, the authors say that the refs and umps are honest folks -- they only react unconsciously when aiding the home team. On the other hand, the authors admit that the leagues want home teams to win, and refs and umps want their jobs. So the authors are hedging. Game-fixing and point-shaving are not new, as you know. I can remember fixing scandals in the 1940s. If memory serves me right, the Chicago Black Sox scandal was before 1920. Best, Don Bauder

Ah yes.... Shoeless Joe Jackson... He is remembered for his performance on the field and for his association with the Black Sox Scandal, in which members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox participated in a conspiracy to fix the World Series.

The 1919 Black Sox scandal gave birth to the saying, "Say it ain't so!" As Shoeless Joe Jackson was on his way to a hearing (or something similar), a waif ran up to him and shouted, "Say it ain't so, Joe!" Best, Don Bauder

Alas, it always has been thus . . .

About the only remaining argument for "professional" sports teams is that it diverts the yahoos from committing worse crimes (except maybe for child neglect and wife-beating.

Congratulations, btw, on the new format; both your blogs and articles on the same page! At least one of my pleas has been answered!

There is a publicly-held company called World Wrestling, or World Wrestling Federation -- something like that. The CEO calls it "scripted entertainment." Probably the SEC requires the truth in its filings. I am so old that I can remember in the 1940s and 1950s when the announcers on professional wrestling used to pretend it was for real. Does anyone remember the professional match for the world championship in which one of the contestants, the villain, was Gorgeous George? (He sprayed perfume in the ring before deigning to get in.) Or does anyone remember Haystacks Calhoun, who supposedly weighed 400 or 500 pounds? (I have forgotten which.) There would be a tag team match: Haystacks by himself against two other contestants. Best, Don Bauder

George used a real purty little perfume bottle, one of those little crystal thangs wit a little (pink sequined?) rubber bulb. I could never figger out whether he was striking a blow for tranvestite rights or makin' fun oughta 'em. Didn't he wear a cape too?

In the wrestling business they would always ask you if you were a "bleeder." If you were, the other guy (or George) would have some tape on his fingers with razor blades sticking out just a little, almost flat against the tape. Your "opponent" would wait until you got up a sweat, then would scrape your forehead by drawing the blade backwards across your forehead following on the heels of some "terrible injury" or another. A little blood mixes with a lot of sweat made quite a prop.

Any-way, the whole gol-durned world is a flim-flam factory now. That's why I ain't got no confidence in "The Economy."

I can't remember now whether Gorgeous George sprayed perfume in the ring before he "wrestled," or whether his aide sprayed the perfume. In either case, the audience booed vehemently. Gorgeous George was the bad guy and played the role to the hilt. Yes, there is a lot of similarity between today's world and professional wrestling. Trenchant observation. Best, Don Bauder

I ain't sure neither, but I remember it as being George. Maybe there're some old kineoscopes or still photos?

I'm sure there is historical documentation on the famous Gorgeous George "wrestling match." I didn't check google or Wikipedia. I don't remember who his opponent was. Best, Don Bauder

Keep in mind that today's Padres play in the worst league in baseball -- the NL West. The LA Dodgers have financial problems, Arizona is lousy, the Rockies seem to be fading fast. The Giants may still have a good team. The Padres may do better than you think. Best, Don Bauder

The NL West is their division, not their league. And in terms of on the field, I would argue that the NL central is no better than the NL west, if not worst. The Cubbies, Astros and the Bucs were 3 of the worst NL teams last year and aren't any better this year. And in the Al, the central is not much either. The only suprise is the Indians playing so well and the Twins sucking so bad; at least they can fairly claim injuries as their. Excluding the AL east which is hands down the best division in baseball, last year there was only about a 3-4 difference percentage wise between all of the other divisions. When it all shakes out, I would expect this year to be the same.

That means 2 of the 3 NL divisions are lousy. It doesn't give much hope to National League fans, although last year the Giants won the World Series. Of course, the AL has been better than the NL for some time. Best, Don Bauder

There's little indication of that this season looking at from their current place in the standings, the cellar.

Admittedly, there is little indication now that the Padres will have a good season, but I repeat: the other teams in the NL West, other than the Giants, look pretty anemic. Best, Don Bauder

I completely agree. It is just a statistical and emotional phenomenon. Teams do better at home. Look at the schedule: www.inthecitysandiego.com/san-diego-padres-game-schedule.html for 2012 looks to be a repeat for sure.

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