20 Well-Kept Secrets in Sports That You’ll Want to Know
We think we understand sports. We often don’t.
This “Moneyball” age for baseball, basketball and even football has taught some minor lessons, but one major one: we don’t fully understand sports. Athletes, fans, and analysts all have conceptions of how a game works, and most of it is right. Stats mostly confirm prior beliefs. However, many times these new stats show viewers secrets they never knew were true. These secrets are only found by deep investigative work done by people who really know the sport. Lots of economists have come in and tried to simply use math to do the work. That hasn’t worked either. The real leaders have been those who love their sport and are smart enough to figure out how to apply statistical methods to them to get better results.
What this has resulted in is an unveiling of many secrets no one knew in the past. So many findings have simply changed the way people play, manage and watch the game. Oddly enough, many of the revelations have simply been improvements on bad stats. Batting average is a bad stat, on-base percentage and slugging percentage are better ones.
Each of the secrets here was found from deep statistical analysis done by each sport's best experts. Some may change the way the game is played, some will not but are simply amusing or interesting. Each is not obvious just from watching, but comes in only after years of deep analysis or complex statistical regressions.
You may not believe some of these secrets, and truth be told someone could come along later and disprove one or two. But each has been scrupulously studied and well backed up. Almost all of these secrets will prove true -- you can either accept them now, or be proven wrong later.
Jay Cullen is a New York Giants, NFL and NBA writer for RantSports.Like him on Facebook at Jay Cullen-Rant Sports or add him on Google.
20. No Kicker has Proven to be Consistently Better Than Average
Look at this data:
Kickers who made between 70% and 75% in one year field goals made 82.4% the next year.
Kickers who made between 90 and 100% field goals in one year, made 81.1% the next year.
What does that mean? It means that a below average kicker is more likely to do better the next year than a kicker with a top percentage. That is, every kicker from 1999 who took more than 20 field goals. The data is simply inarguable. Kicking is random. There is an elite class of individuals who kick well, and none (okay, maybe one or two, but that is it) of them are noticeably different than the other for this small of a sample. I think of it like this: what if the top 32 pitchers in the MLB only threw 40 pitches a season? Would we have any idea who the best one was? No. The same goes with kickers. GMs need to stop spending millions of dollars on kickers when a replacement level one is just as likely to do well.
19. The Safest Draft Picks are Tight Ends
What position to take in the NFL is, of course, a debate of serious concern for NFL GMs. Many target areas of need, others just take the best player available. But what if they could know which positions are “safest” or least likely to bust? Well, they can. Bill Barnwell of Grantland did a study where he looked at players taken in the top two rounds and then looked to see if they had become starters within the next four years. Then, he looked at which positions did the best. Turns out, tight ends were the safest picks. Now, this study does have some issues and it does not even come close to suggesting tight ends give the most value. What it does suggest though is that if you draft a tight end early, he is more likely to become a reasonable starter than if you draft another position like running back or defensive end.
18. The Most Dangerous Draft Picks are Quarterbacks
On the other hand, quarterbacks are the least likely to pan out. In fact, quarterbacks drafted in the top two rounds only became starting quarterbacks about 50 percent of the time. Being a bust is as likely as being a starter for quarterbacks. Now, this does not mean GMs should not take quarterbacks. They are the riskiest, but they have by far the highest pay off, as a top quarterback can change a franchise. However, what this does say is that missing on a draft pick at quarterback does not suggest that a GM is a bad drafter at all; in fact, 50 percent of GMs whiff on those picks, so drafting JaMarcus Russell shouldn’t be that embarrassing (okay, maybe it should be).
17. Most Running Backs are Worthless in the Draft
Before you attack me on this, some running backs clearly are valuable. Adrian Peterson is an all-time great player and clearly is very important. Most running backs are not important though. The reason for this is that running backs are injury prone and replaceable. There are lots of stories of no-name running backs coming into the league and dominating. This rarely happens with quarterbacks or at other positions. Furthermore, running backs constantly get injured because they get banged up so much. Think about, it, they get tackled by a giant dude every time they get the ball. This results in running backs being the youngest position on average. Having a great running back likely means he will be good until 30. Other positions will play until 33 or 34, so they have more value. Additionally, top running backs in the draft are very likely to bust; in fact, they are the second-most likely to bust after quarterbacks. What this means is that drafting a running back early is simply a mistake. Teams can wait and still find Arian Foster late in the draft. Almost all GMs are beginning to accept this, as running back salaries have plummeted and fewer and fewer are going in the early rounds. Of course, there are always counter examples (not Trent Richardson though -- read up, he is an average RB at best), but the stats are showing that drafting running backs in early rounds can really hurt a team.
16. Getting the Olympics Often Hurts a Country’s Economy
Many believe that getting the Olympics is great for the host city, but often it simply hurts. There are a multitude of arguments and possible reasons for this. There is no need to go into complex economics here, but the results have been pretty clear that the Olympics likely hurt, and do not help a host city’s economy. This happens because the cost of preparing is so high and the benefit is short lived. People love to claim it raises tourism and jobs, but both of those trends are short term. Tourism does rise, but it has not been shown to make dramatic differences long term. In addition, jobs are created, but most are in construction and are gone by the time the games are played. On the other end, the public finances almost all of the expense and the resulting tax hikes or spending cuts severely damage local economies. The U.S. once again missed out on getting the Olympics, but that might actually be a great thing for its weak economy.
15. Teams are too Conservative on 4th Down
NFL teams are extremely conservative on fourth down, often kicking a field goal or punting even when all they need is inches. I will not go into detail on the complicated statistics, but by looking at success rates on fourth downs as well as the likelihood from scoring at each yard line, it can be made very clear that NFL teams are vastly too conservative. Many may be skeptical by this, as a “given three points” is clearly of value, but this analysis misses two key points of information. First, kickers miss more than people realize. A guaranteed three points often means a field goal that goes in 80 percent of the time, but NFL teams also convert fourth and inches around 80 percent of the time. Furthermore, when NFL teams are in the opposing red zone, even when they do not succeed at getting the first down, they often back up the other team and get points shortly thereafter because of the field position.
There is disagreement about exactly when to go for it and when not to, but many economists believe that NFL teams should go for it on fourth and three or less every time if they are in the red zone or in the “no man’s land” area from around the 35-yard line to the 45-yard line. Even if one does not follow the statistics strictly, a close look at success rates suggests that NFL teams are wildly conservative and should at the very least go for it much more often when in the red zone.
14. Betting Underdogs ATS is a Better Bet in the NFL
Most people who bet like to bet on favorites; when, in fact, the better bet is often with underdogs. When betting against the spread, the underdog wins about 52 percent of the time. This is because of two reasons. One, the NFL has more parity than most people realize. There is not nearly has much difference between teams as the media will lead you to believe. Secondly, NFL teams play to win, not cover the spread. So if I bet a team that is getting +4 points and the other team is up three with four minutes to go, I get an advantage because the winning team is likely to simply try to run the clock out by getting first downs. They could probably get a field goal if they wanted, but they play to win, not cover, so I actually get a benefit there. Most professional gamblers realize this and are more likely to bet the underdogs. There are of course counter examples, and the edge is small (only 4 percent, 52-48), but in gambling 4 percent is huge.
13. Baseball is Not Actually in Decline
Baseball isn’t really in decline. It is true that certain TV measures are down, but attendance is up, and TV viewership for local games is up as well (just not necessarily for the playoffs or nationally televised games). But because of DVR, it is not necessarily that case that fewer people are watching. Additionally, the male 25-43 demographic still eats up baseball, and that demographic is hard to get in TV land. MLB will keep getting huge deals for TV because they have the right captive audience. Now, it is true that the NFL and the NBA are increasing in viewership much faster than MLB, and baseball could fall behind basketball soon, but the myth that baseball is slowly dying simply is not true. Baseball is making a ton of money, and as long as that happens, MLB will be fine.
12. Turnovers are, for the Most Part, Random in the NFL
There is a perception that defenses “force” turnovers, and sometimes that is true. Defensive ends getting to the quarterback and forcing fumbles, or safeties getting good jumps on the ball do happen. But, a lot of turnovers are simply offenses making mistakes. How can one prove that? Well, if defenses caused turnovers, one would think that a defense that got a lot of turnovers early in the year would then get a lot in the latter half too. If that were true, it would show that defenses are consistently good at forcing turnovers or consistently bad. In reality, it is only a little true. There is a .14 correlation between teams that get turnovers early in the season versus teams that get a lot in the later half. What does .14 mean? Well, a completely random chance would mean a correlation of 0, and a perfect correlation (defense always cause turnovers, offense do not have any effect) would be 1. So the .14 figure means that defenses do have some effect, but usually a turnover is a random occurrence, or a mistake by the offense, not the defense making a stellar play. Certainly this is different for different teams, but as a general rule, offenses cause over half of their turnovers, while defenses “force” less than half.
11. PER is a Bad Measure of Efficiency
Most people think PER is a super advanced stat that measures efficiency really well. True economists scoff at that idea. The reason is a quirk in PER to stop guys who do not shoot very much from having great PERs. Players get a small boost just from shooting so that guys like Tyson Chandler do not lead the league every year. While that makes sense, it also means people do not have to actually be efficient to do well. Any player that shoots above 22.2 percent from three or above 33.3 percent from two gets a boost to their PER. What that means is every time Monta Ellis shoots a fadeaway that goes in 35 percent of the time (well below average), he gets a boost to his PER. PER can be good for some things; in fact, it is a good measure of production, almost like a minutes adjusted sum of assists, rebounds and points -- but it is not really a good measure of efficiency. Stats like wins produced are much more based on efficiency. PER is useful, but the name “efficiency rating” is pretty misleading.
10. NFL Teams Converge to 8-8 Rapidly From Year to Year
Many people like to remember teams in the NFL that are always bad or always good, but in fact that is rarely the case. Sure, if a team has Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, they can be consistently good (or if they are the Cleveland Browns, they can be consistently bad), but for the most part teams head toward 8-8 every year. A lot of work has been done looking at this, finding various rates of convergence. The most interesting data might be the better data though. For example, from 1996 to 2005, if someone had bettered the over/under on season win totals on the under for 9.5-win teams and the over for 6.5-win teams, they would have won 58 percent of the time. That means that those teams converged much faster to 8-8 than even Vegas could predict. Parity reigns supreme in the NFL, though fans and Vegas often forget that.
9. NBA Players Shoot Around 90 Percent From 3-point Land in Practice
Lots of people sitting at home like to associate with 3-point specialists because they think they could do it. The 3-point specialists are usually shorter and hey, they do something we can all do -- shoot. The NBA players make more, but sometimes when you’re playing pick-up, don’t you think that you could hit 35 percent of your threes? If only you were like 6-foot-3, right? 3-point shooters shoot around 40 percent in game, so it seems like the average Joe could compete, but the defense really does affect a lot of their shots. In fact, many can shoot over 90 percent when shooting over and over in practice. If you ever want to prove to yourself that you couldn’t make it in the NBA, take 100 threes. If you make fewer than 80, you’re not even close.
Fun fact: After games Steph Curry, plays a game with himself where he shoots threes until he misses two in a row. His record last year? 76.
8. The Second Free Throw Goes in More Than the First
This isn’t the kind of thing that will change the sport, but it is kind of a fun fact. The second free throw is 3-4 percent more likely to go in than the first. This makes sense -- let someone practice something once and they will get better. What is disturbing is that it suggests icing a kicker in football is not just ineffective, but actually counterproductive. Obviously these are different sports, so don’t read too much into it. But, it is something to consider.
7. Defense Matters Slightly More Than Offense
Many people like to say, “defense wins championships”, but few actually believe it. Don’t believe me? Look at almost any top 10 players list and who is on it. Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, Kevin Durant, James Harden. Who is not? Roy Hibbert, Marc Gasol. Both of those centers were top defenders, but will never be in the top-10 conversations. Why? Because people overvalue offense and like to pretend defense doesn’t actually matter. In reality, defense actually matters more than offense. Having a top defense is more correlated with winning championships than having a top offense. In truth, the difference is actually pretty small, and the data is clear that NBA champions are almost always good at both. However, if defense is more important than offense, then why are top defenders never ranked as high?
6. Most Athletes Go Bankrupt in Their Lifetime
Most people simply think that athletes are overpaid and that’s the end of it, but most athletes actually end up filing for bankruptcy. This is becoming less of a secret every day, especially after a documentary on ESPN aired about the issue. This fact does not suggest athletes should be paid more, but it does sort of reveal a backside few people see. In few other jobs does one go from making millions to having little to no marketable skills. What happens is that players have trouble planning how to manage their money long-term, and then face problems later after friends and family have begged for help (there are also people like Charles Barkley, who just simply spends too much). In fact, 78 percent of NFL players and 60 percent of NBA players will declare bankruptcy at some point. Every sports league should have a financial advisor for their players. They could take it out of their salaries and it would more than pay for itself. With all the money the owners make, there is simply no excuse not to have these services.
5. The Strike Zone is Biggest in a 3-0 Count
As a little kid, we all heard that the strike zone is bigger with a 0-2 count. So researchers looked at MLB strikes called to see if it was actually true. In fact, it is. What is more interesting though is that the strike zone is biggest with a 3-0 count. The reason likely has to do with the psychology of the umpire. They expect a strike, so they are more likely to call one. One has to wonder how pitchers could manipulate this, or if it suggests that batters might want to swing more with 3-0 counts than they usually do.
4. Lineup Order Does Not Actually Matter Much
There’s been some back and forth on this, but the truth is that lineup order is not that important. At most, it is worth one win a year. That one win is also usually assuming a random order as opposed to a good, but sub-optimal one (which is what most teams have). The stat-heads like to believe that the best hitter should bat second. As to whether that is true does not really matter much, because again, lineup order does not matter much. As an example, one writer, Matt Klaassen, compared a team that had a pitcher bat fourth versus one that had an optimal lineup. The difference was projected to be 16 runs a year, which translates to about 1.5 wins (10 runs is worth one win on average). 1.5 wins is not nothing, but no manager is that stupid. The order matters, but with smart managers calling the shots, the differences between teams are so minuscule that it does not really make a difference.
3. Referees Do Give Make-Up Calls, and Stats Have Exposed Them
Many have always believed referees do makeup calls, but have never really had proof. Well, here it is. Paul Gift wrote a paper for the MIT Sloan conference looking at judgment calls and the subsequent calls shortly after. One can use that data to see if teams who had the call made against them are more like to get the next call. In fact, there were slightly, suggesting that referees do sometimes do give make-up calls. Of course, no one can prove if the referees do it on purpose or not (Tim Donaghy said he did, but he is only one referee; though he said others did, that may not be true today). Regardless of intent, the statistics are clear in that it probably does happen.
2. Fumble Recoveries are Random
Recovering fumbles is almost never a skill. Forcing fumbles is. Many players and teams have shown that they consistently force fumbles. What that means statically is that forcing fumbles early in the season is correlated with forcing fumbles late in the season (or from year to year). Fumble recoveries have no such statistical backbone. In fact, offenses and defenses basically go 50-50 on all fumbles. When there are 22 dudes diving for a ball that does not bounce in any predictable way, the person who ends up with it is lucky, not talented. That shouldn’t be surprising. What it does suggest though is that when teams are blamed for turnovers, it is often unfair. For example, if each team fumbles twice, but one team recovers all four times, it is not that the team recovering fumbles is better, it is just randomness. However, you can bet that the media will blast the team who just happened to get the short end of the chance stick on Monday morning.
1. Refs are the Biggest Reason for Home-Court Advantage
Some economists and analysts even believe refereeing is the full and only cause of home-court advantage. Most do accept that travelling also seems to have an effect, as well as certain stadiums and fans (you can calm down now, Seahawks fans). How can they be so sure that refs make the difference? Well, in MLB, home players walk more and strikeout less. In the NFL, home teams get called for fewer penalties (an interesting side note: the introduction of instant replay in the NFL diminished home-field advantage by 25 percent). In the NBA, home teams get more calls and are called for fewer fouls. In fact, traveling calls are made on away players 15 percent more often. Not only are all of these shown to be true, but it has also been shown that bigger crowds cause more drastic effects. As it turns out, having thousands of people yell at you affects your decision-making.