What's the Big Idea?

What's the Big Idea: Economists Say Your Team Can Win More

Sunday, October 11, 2009

It's Freakonomics meets Moneyball.

In a paper published last month by the National Bureau of Economic Research, economist Steven D. Levitt -- of "Freakonomics" fame -- teamed up with Mozilla's Kenneth Kovash to study that most critical of economic dilemmas: Do major league pitchers throw enough fastballs? And should NFL quarterbacks drop back to pass more often, instead of handing the pigskin to a running back?

In their study, "Professionals Do Not Play Minimax," Kovash and Levitt use game theory to examine every pitch thrown in the Major League Baseball regular season from 2002 through 2006 (a total of more than 3 million), as well as every play in the NFL from 2001 to 2005 (more than 125,000). These are perfect two-sided "zero sum" situations -- where one player's loss is another's gain -- something game theorists love. The authors find, however, that the pitches and plays don't conform to the rational patterns that economic theory would suggest.

Kovash and Levitt identify "negative serial correlation" in both sports, meaning that the decision on one baseball pitch or football play unduly affects the next choice. As a result, major league pitchers throw too many fastballs, while football teams pass the ball less often than they should. Opposing batters and opposing defenses can capitalize on this behavior, exploiting patterns when pitches or plays become predictable.

How big a difference would these findings make to the final scores? Kovash and Levitt estimate that a baseball franchise correcting such mistakes would plate an extra 20 runs -- or perhaps two more victories -- per season, while a football team would gain about a point per game, or about half an additional win each year. In other words, not quite enough to knock the Yankees out of the playoffs and, alas, probably not quite enough to get the Redskins there.

-- Carlos Lozada


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