The Statistics of Skill in Sports

What do we want out of our sports? Do we want non-stop upsets where we have no idea what will happen? Or do we want true skill and greatness to prevail more often then not? The answer is obviously somewhere in the middle but which side of the spectrum should it lean toward?

Unsurprisingly, out of the major sports, the presenter in the video found that basketball is the least random and the sport in which the results are determined by skill the most. The NBA is incredibly top heavy with the best teams routinely winning over 60 out of the 82 regular season games. You just do not see this type of dominance in either the NHL or the MLB. This, in theory, means that NBA games are decided less by luck and more by skill. But, before NHL twitter gets their cumulative panties in a bunch, there is an important distinction to be made: this does not mean that players in the NBA are more skilled than players in the NHL/MLB. It instead highlights the differences in the way each game is played. In the NBA, there are only five players on the court at a given time and your best player is on the floor roughly 80% of the time. Compare that to the MLB where your best hitter may only get three at bats or the NHL where your best player is lucky to be on the ice for 30% of the game. The more players that are involved in a game and the less your stars influence the game, the higher the variance becomes and the more likely the better team will lose.

If Lebron James wanted to, he could have the ball in his hands on every possession and guard the best opposing player on every defensive series of every single game. This gives Lebron, or any other NBA star, an influence over the outcome of games that, outside of a few exceptions, is not seen in any other major sport. In any particular game, you could argue that a pitcher has a higher influence than an NBA star on the outcome of their game. While this is probably (definitely) true, a starting pitcher only gets to play 1 out of every 5 games, drastically reducing the season long impact. The only other argument to be made is for an NFL quarterback. While quarterbacks have a massive influence on the outcome of games, football is such an inherently team game that teams can find other ways to win even if their quarterback is sub-par (looking at you Trent Dilfer) Conversely, I would argue, that it is impossible to win an NBA championship without at least one of the top 8-12 players in the league. Unsurprisingly, the video also notes that beyond the major sports, sports like tennis and swimming have even less variance. These are individual sports where everything is about skill. This is why Phelps won 20 gold medals and why Federer could spend 100+ weeks at world number 1.

In my opinion, this shows why the NFL is king. You have the MLB on one end of the spectrum, where there are no true upsets. And then you have the NBA on the other, where only about 3 or so teams could actually win the championship. But then you have the NFL. There are clear favorites every year, yet, you have absolutely no idea who will win it all. With a few exceptions (see AFC wild card teams) legitimately any team that made the playoffs this year could have won it all. Just look at what happened, Nick Foles won a super bowl, and although it was a major upset, it was always plausible. Hell, we almost got a Jags/Eagles Superbowl. Would it be a story at all if an MLB wildcard team made or even won the world series? Not at all. On the other end of the stick, could the Blazers actually make the NBA finals? What about the current Eastern Conference four seed Pacers? or the Heat? Nope. We aren’t even talking about winning the championship, rather just making it there. The thought of a five seed or lower making it that far, let alone winning a title is asinine in today’s NBA. We want their to be true greatness and see the best players at the top of the game, but we also want to be surprised routinely and be kept on our toes. It’s a fine line. A line that I believe only the NFL truly toes.

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