The estimable David Kopel, a Volokh blogger and research director of the Independence Institute, has posted on his confusion over my salute to the Miami of Ohio Redhawks victory over the Michigan Wolverines Sunday night, as well as my love of seeing various Buckeye teams trounce Michigan again and again –which is pretty much how it has been for the last decade.
Mr. Kopel brands me a “self-hating Wolverine” because my J.D. is from the University of Michigan Law School, as was my dad’s for that matter. A wonderful law school, still among the nation’s best, and my friends from those years are still extremely close.
But a good Buckeye treat Michigan as most of the smart Vikings treated England. Land, grab what’s worth having, and leave. The law degree was worth having. The college sports, well, cue the music.
On yesterday’s program I raised the question of which sport is the most difficult to coach. The agreement yesterday was that baseball was the most complex of the sports, and thus the most difficult to coach. Today arrives a missive from one of the game’s great statisticians:
Baseball is America’s GREATEST, not most complex, sport.
The question was asked: which is the most complex sport. What do we mean by complexity? By complexity we mean many interconnected parts, or an involved arrangement of parts. Right? Complexity is a measure of the number of possibilities. In the context of sports, an effective defense has to meet the possible choices of the offense. Thus, the number of possible ways a player or team can create an offense is important. If a player or team has a more diverse set of offensive plays, the other side may not be able to defend against each play. The plays that it cannot defend against can be exploited.[# More #]
At the basic level, given the threat of scoring in the first play of the
game, of the three major sports (baseball, football, and basketball), here is how they rank in complexity:
Why? The conclusion is derived from combination and permutation
Let’s take the first play in each sport; how many mechanisms are there to
score? (Ignoring decoys, screens, stunts, pick-and rolls, et cetera just
for the sake of simplicity)
In football you have a quarterback, a fullback, a halfback, two tight ends
and two wide receivers; there are 8 ways to score on the first play of a
game. Defensively the other team has at least thirty-seven variables to
A to B
A to C
A to D
A to E
A to F
A to G
A to B to C (just 1 lateral pass) (30 COMBINATIONS OF THIS)
In basketball five different players can score on the first play of the
game. Defensively the other team has at least five variables to defend
There is a 24 second shot clock in the NBA; let’s say 5 different players
can touch the ball within the 24 seconds, 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 = 120 possible different combinations of ball handlers the other team would have to defend against
In baseball only one player can score on the first play of the game. This is
your lead-off hitter, who unless his name is Rickey Henderson, will probably not score in his first at-bat of the game. Defensively there is only one threat to defend against.
In a matter of seconds (no more than about 7) in football the offensive and
defensive coordinators must have 11 guys simultaneously making the correct decision, and if any of them falter disastrous consequences are likely to ensue – 7 points. In a matter of seconds (as many as 24) basketball all 5 guys on the court must be in sync, and if any of them falter disastrous consequences are likely to ensue – 2 of not 3 points. In baseball in the first play of the game there is just one hitter vs. one pitcher prior to ball contact. There is no coordination with other players per se save for some defensive positioning; the pitcher may make a mistake, and if he does that can result in 1 run. The one pitcher is less likely to make a mistake than one or more of the 11 football players, or one or more of the 5 basketball players. Because off all the “moving parts” and defensive
combinations a football player is more likely to make a mistake than either
a basketball player or a baseball player defensively; and for the same
reasons a basketball player is more likely to make a mistake than a
You could also perform this same analysis on a “possession” basis…there are usually 9 possessions in baseball; more possessions than that in football, and many more possessions than that in basketball – therefore there are many more opportunities to score over the course of a basketball game than in either football or baseball (not to mention an extraordinary level of potential scoring permutations and combinations), and more opportunities to score in football than in baseball. On a possession basis basketball is the most complex sport, followed by football and baseball.
The fact that a baseball season has more events does not make it a more
complex “game.” A single baseball game is not more complex than a single basketball or football game. You could perhaps make an argument that baseball has a more complex “season” because there are more games and as a result there are a greater number of possibilities…but that wasn’t the question…and IT MISSES THE POINT. WHO CARES ABOUT COMPLEX? All that matters
It is as true to us today as it was to Walt Whitman and Mark Twain over 100
years ago that BASEBALL IS AMERICA’S GREATEST SPORT, not because of
“complexity – it is baseball’s elegance; its simplicity and consistency of
design, focusing on the main features of the contest…at the plate man
against man, in the field part of a team…it is dignified gracefulness that
makes it our greatest sport. It has 162 games in a season not because that
makes it “more complex” – it’s because we couldn’t stand it if there were only 82 or 16 baseball games like basketball and football…baseball season ends and we stare out the window until its spring again. Football season ends and we say, “Pitchers and catchers report next month!”
It’s also God’s game because anyone who ever saw Nolan Ryan throw a
no-hitter…was there to see Rickey Henderson get his 3000th hit on the
same day Tony Gwynn played his last game…or watched Derek Jeter execute a perfect hit and run…or watched Dick Williams manage a game against Sparky Anderson…or saw Johnny Bench park one into the second deck…or cried when Cal Ripkin and Tony Gwynn went into the Hall of Fame together…got a
taste of what it must feel like in heaven.