Michael Wilbon Went Looking to Prove Black People and Analytics Don't Mix, Found What He Wanted

By Jason Lisk

Michael Wilbon went looking for something, and he found it while talking with his friends. That something, in this case, was to show that “advanced analytics” and black people don’t mix.

"The mission was to find black folks who spend anytime talking about advanced analytics, whose conversations are framed by — or even casually include references to — win shares or effective shooting percentage, WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) or points per 100 possessions. It’s a failed mission so far. Totally empty. Conclusion: Advanced analytics and black folks hardly ever mix. Set aside the tiny handful of black men who make a living somewhere in the sports industry dealing directly with the numbers and there is absolutely zero mingling."

You know where else you won’t find people at water coolers and barbershops talking about VORP and Win Probability Added when you wander around your community? Pretty much everywhere, regardless of race or creed.

I can say this as someone who is, I think, analytical. Most people don’t talk about this in their daily lives, and it still represents a small minority of sports fans. Let’s face it, it’s all minorities and small groups of interests, whether we are talking analytics or something else. Less than 2% of the United States population watched Monday night’s Cleveland-Toronto game 4 on ESPN, to put in perspective how much of a bubble we may be in.

You can’t find anyone to talk analytics, a subgroup of a subgroup of a small minority of people you come in contact in real life? Oh, well that’s amazing and probably an insular viewpoint. Most people you will come in contact in real life will not be interested in (insert topic here).

I still have yet to meet anyone in my personal real-world interactions who cares about which Instagram personality is dating which athlete, yet our traffic numbers suggest you exist. I have yet (living in Missouri) to meet anyone who has ever talked about Mike Francesa, yet I know people care (probably because people who live in the Northeast, even though they do not represent the majority of the country, do). If I were to do a sampling of the friends I come in contact a la Wilbon, I might conclude that Mike Francesa has no appeal.

Over a decade ago, when I discovered message boards at Football Outsiders and then started writing at Pro Football Reference, I discovered people I didn’t come into contact in my every day life, but who shared similar interests with me when it came to sports. We were a small minority of people in a nation of 370 million. It was awesome to interact with people (I’m pretty sure they existed, even if I didn’t know who they were) who had a similar interest.

So Wilbon didn’t find any cross-examples of black people who embrace analytics. Since the article posted, others have pointed out that he didn’t ask them. It would require some analytical interest in finding the truth, but if you want to say that race matters when it comes to those small groups interested in analytics, you could maybe do a poll, and ask questions that isolate hardcore sports fans, race and income and age, and knowledge of certain stats. This piece is not persuasive at all that it matters. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t.

What constitutes “advanced analytics” is kind of a moving target, also. Those that that can lay out the intricacies of Wins Above Replacement may be a limited subset. Things like OPS, and simply looking at on-base percentage rather than batting average, or talking effective field goal percentage, are common place now, and would have been treated much differently thirty years ago.

I thought the Wilbon piece had some potential for some good points. In particular, I think the one raised by Amin Elhassan is the most interesting. Elhassan said “Don’t tell me that there are no black people who are good at math. There are black people who [are] expert at qualitative analysis, I worry that it becomes a way to exclude.” That point would be a great one to expound on, and I think it could have gone more in-depth on that issue, that teams that are going all-in on analytics are engaged in a closed buddy system just like many other sports management scenarios in the past.

But the case is largely made by Wilbon by talking to friends, and citing two of them by name. The piece closes with one of them wanting to blame anyone choosing to sign Dwight Howard on advanced analytics. This is a bogey man case of blaming literally anything on analytics.

Over the last four years, while bouncing from the Lakers to Houston between ages 27 and 30, here are Dwight Howard’s ranks in “win shares” (warning: advanced analytics alert): 43rd, 138th (injured half the year), 27th, 29th.

Like anything, you can justify anything after the fact, but my gut is Howard gets signed because he is a former first overall pick who was a dominant player five years ago, and someone will take a chance on talent and finding a “good situation”, not metrics. I can’t confirm that though, because everyone that I talk to says they don’t care where Dwight Howard signs. I conclude then, that no one cares where Dwight Howard goes.