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Book Review


by Michael Bowen & r & & r & The Wages of Wins by David J. Berri et al. & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & o enjoy this book, you have to like either statistics or sports, preferably both: The Wages of Wins is a crash course in Freakonomics for the really, really motivated guys in your fantasy baseball league.

But even if you only like competition and not calculus, The Wages of Wins (Stanford Business Books) lives up to its subtitle, "Taking Measure of the Many Myths in Modern Sport."

It takes measure with plenty of statistics -- authors David Berri, Martin Schmidt and Stacey Brook are economists, after all -- but also by relegating most of the numbers to the (lengthy) footnotes. And it keeps a sense of humor: There's a running joke about the NBA and its "short supply of tall people."

Economists are such cards. But they're also capable of exploding some sporting dogma: Can owners use giant payrolls to buy themselves championships? (No.) Don't fans prefer leagues that are competitively balanced? (Not really.) Does having a superstar lead to increased ticket sales? (Only for the other teams.)

Turns out that superstars don't help their teammates play better, don't perform better in crunch time, don't elevate their game during the playoffs. Oh, and NBA coaches and scouts basically don't know what they're doing: With draft prospects and veterans both, they overemphasize the value of scoring while greatly undervaluing things like shooting percentage, assists and rebounds -- you know, the stuff that wins games.

Quarterbacks, moreover, aren't anywhere near as essential to a team's won-loss record as the NFL's rating system implies. One of the book's funniest passages is the account of how the NFL came up with its convoluted yet incomplete quarterback rating.

Naturally, in among all the standard deviations and regression analyses and Gini Coefficients, the authors devise their own methods for rating quarterbacks and power forwards. The math isn't impossible to follow, and it's fun to watch Philadelphia 76ers guard Allan Iverson being used as a whipping boy. (Sure, he's a scoring machine, but only because he shoots with no discernible conscience while coughing up the rock a lot.)

Still, if you're "not the competitive type" and not a bean-counter, what does The Wages of Wins have to offer? The performance measures devised by Berri et al. aren't applicable to regular Joes, mostly because mid-level managers don't usually rate their employees in 17 separate statistical categories. But statistics, the authors remind us, tell us what the players are doing when we're not watching. Your wages for reading Wins? A healthy distrust of conventional wisdom. Whatever you're sure about is probably wrong.