Friday, April 6, 2007

Theismann Says: Great Players Make Great Plays

Shortly after Florida wrapped up its second straight men’s college basketball championship, and article appeared on declaring that (and I’m paraphrasing from memory here) coach Billy Donovan had joined the list of all-time great college basketball coaches.[1] In more-related-than-you-think news, Ramon Ortiz pitched quite well for the Twins on Wednesday.

How do we evaluate greatness? On the surface, this question seems simple: we use results. We look at who did well, who did Lima, and we tally up the score at the end. But this system misses the essence of true greatness entirely. When we focus solely on results, we overlook the existential essence of what the great really is. Think about the Donovan example for a moment. The ESPN article claimed that his team’s ability to capitalize on Ohio State’s cross-eyed shooting catapulted him into position as “one of the elite coaches in the sport.” Now, obviously Donovan has done something rare. But does that change his ability as a coach? Of course not. He’s just as good now as he was before that game tipped off (aside from gaining whatever experience he got from the game). If Donovan is great now, then he was great before, too.

I’m not saying people do not improve. I’m saying we get cause and effect mixed up. Winning the second national title doesn’t make Billy Donovan a great coach; being a great coach won Billy Donovan two national titles. Now think of Ramon Ortiz. Very few people consider his signing to be a shrewd Terry Ryan move. But what if (and I know this is a huge if) Ortiz actually has a decent year? What if the move turns out to be worth it? Some will then say that this makes Terry Ryan an even better General Manager, because he has another success to point to. Wrong. Any success Ryan has had or will have happens because of his pre-existing skill.

We have a tendency to get things flipped around like this. Peyton Manning didn’t finally become a great quarterback after winning the Super Bowl—he won because he was a great quarterback. We must keep “great” and “accomplished” separate, because often they have little to do with each other. The RBI is another good example of this. The once-proud stat is now a punching bag for the enlightened baseball mind; rightfully so, given the way it was previously used. RBI has no business being used to evaluate a player’s quality. But it does tell you what they did. These are separate concepts. RBI as an historical record works just fine: Hunter drove in Punto. What does not work is: Hunter is a good player because he drove in Punto. In this example, Hunter drives in Punto because he’s a good player.

Keeping these two concepts of “good” and “accomplished” separate frees many now-derided stats from sabermetric purgatory (I’m looking at you, save). Once a player’s quality and his past accomplishments are freed from each other, we get to enjoy all kinds of fun things (like an Aaron Boone home run to beat the Red Sox) and make peace with the more disappointing ones (like Ernie Banks’ World Series rings) that don’t seem to mesh with skill as we accept it. And the more we can enjoy in life, the more enjoyable life can be. (Or, is it: we enjoy more things in life because life is more enjoyable?)

John Sharkey makes mediocre plays at

[1] Something the kids call “research” led me to this column by Andy Katz, titled “Second crown elevates grinder to greatness.”

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