Monday, December 04, 2006

Who's Better?

David Berri posted a very brief and insightful piece on The Sports Economist blog titled "The 'I Don't Know' Argument". Professor Berri addresses the now hot issue of which team is better and how we address such questions. Is Michigan better than Florida? Unfortunately the answer is "we don't know." That answer is both correct and unsatisfying.

Sporting contests are about determining winners, not about determining who's the better team or player. Given enough contests over time you can be pretty confident that the winners are the better players. The adjusted stroke average that the PGA Tour uses is a very good measure of skill since it takes into account an entire year of play between players at the highest level of the game. Bowling averages over the course of a season are probably of similar quality in determining the most skilled bowlers. Determining the best quarterbacks, pitchers, hockey players, basketball players or even tennis players is much more difficult.

You would think determining the best tennis players would be straightforward since it's a one versus one game. However, the players do not play against each other often enough, and their is no simple measurement like score in golf or bowling, to accumulate objective data. The rating system that is used in chess, about which I must confess I'm relatively ignorant, seems like a pretty good way to assess skill in a game like tennis.

The important message, though, is that we should all be careful about calling one team or player better than another without a lot more evidence than a couple of wins and losses.