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Thursday, May 18, 2006

Gladwell: junk Bonds

Malcolm Gladwell is reading Game of Shadows, and concludes that sports records should be contingent on statistical analysis to expose obvious doping:
“Game of Shadows” is a death sentence for Bonds. More to the point, it’s impossible to read the book and accept that Bonds has a right either to the single season home-run record or, assuming he keeps playing, the career home run mark.

So what should we do? I think we need to set the bar a little higher for record-setters. Justin Wolfers, an economist at Penn, just did a study analyzing college basketball scores, concluding that there is ample statistical evidence for point-shaving in about five percent of college games... I think we should loose the forensic economists on all record-setters, and require that athletes pass a statistical plausibility in the wake of their achievements.
“Game of Shadows” points out that Bonds had the second, ninth and tenth greatest offensive season in baseball history at the ages of 36, 37, and 39 respectively—and the average age of everyone else on that list (Gehrig, Foxx, Ruth and Hornsby) is 27. No one—no one—turns himself into one of the greatest hitters of all time in his late 30’s. His home run record should have been denied as statistically implausible.

He has also followed up, in the wake of massive reader revolt against his proposal:
Juries send innocent people to jail all the time. But we put up with that because the alternative--no legal system--is a lot worse. What if--in sports like baseball and track and field and swimming--we had a record-review board. We assembled a panel of experts who reviewed the circumstances under which the record was set, physiological evidence from the athlete himself or herself, and statistical evidence about the plausibility of the performance. Beamon would pass. FloJo would not. Bonds would not--and nor, I would wager, would McGwire or Sosa.
Incidentally, in "Baseball by the Numbers," by the Baseball Prospectus team, there is a very nice essay by Nate Silver doing exactly this: using forensic tools to try and gauge the extent of steriod cheating in major league baseball. It's worth a read. Silver concludes, interestingly, that the overall amount of cheating seems to be quite small, and confined largely (at this point) to mediocre players trying to get a little edge, not superstars trying to become mega-superstars.

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