Holiday Gift Guide for Statheads

I get several requests for data, help with research papers, and interviews each week. Of all the interesting requests, one stands out. A woman wrote to me saying that her husband was a diehard fan of ANS, and that he would watch games with a crumpled up printout of the fourth down go-for-it chart while screaming at head coaches through the television. For Christmas she wanted to get him a large framed copy of the chart, so she asked me for a large high-resolution version. How could I not oblige?

For those of you a little less dedicated to the cause, I thought I'd put together a list of my recommendations for gifts suitable for the stathead in your life, which just might include yourself. In no particular order, here are some gift ideas with an advanced statistical bent.

First off, treat yourself to some of these very stylish duds. Then, consider some of these great gift options:

Michael J. Mauboussin is chief investment strategist at Legg Mason Capital Management and a friend of ANS. He's recently written The Success Equation: Untangling Skill and Luck in Business, Sports, and Investing. The book includes many of the same principles that underlie the approach here at ANS. Michael is also a pioneer of advanced lacrosse stats.

When I first heard Hollywood wanted to make a movie about sports stats, I thought it was an elaborate prank. Moneyball turned out to be pretty good. Not only is it a good movie, it encapsulates the broad concepts behind the analytics movement. But the best thing about the movie to me is that it helps answer a question I'm often asked--"What the heck do you do for football?" I now just say, "I'm the fat kid from the Moneyball movie."

Fooled By Randomness and Black Swan author Nassim Nicholas Taleb has another book out. This one is called Antifragile. I haven't read it yet, but it's on my list. I've learned much from Taleb, but to be honest, I think he's believing his own press lately. The whole fragile/anti-fragile/Mediocristan thing is interesting, but it reminds me of ideas from my systems engineering classes at the Academy. It seems like he is just relabeling basic concepts of stability and equilibrium in a social or economic context. Still, I have enjoyed his previous books, so on the list it goes.

Daniel Kahneman recently wrote Thinking Fast and Slow. Together with economist Amos Tversky Kaheman, Kahneman is the psychologist who created the field of behavioral economics. Besides being a fascinating window into human nature, Thinking Fast and Slow explains much of the apparently irrational decisions by football coaches, players, and analysts. It's a fast, fun, and easy-to-digest book about some very deep and complex concepts. Highest recommendation.

Wayne Winston is a professor and basketball analyst who wrote Mathletics, a great digest of analytic approaches in several different sports. It's also a primer for using Excel to crunch sports stats. It was a quick way for me to get a broad exposure to the tools and stats for sports beyond football.

Scorecasting is another book in the same vein. Behavioral economist Tobias Moskowitz and SI writer Jon Wertheim teamed up to coauthor this attack on conventional wisdom in sports. Full disclosure: I haven't read it in its entirety.

It's not a stats-oriented book, but The Essential Smart Football is an Xs and Os book on play tactics. It's by longtime friend of ANS Chris Brown. The Kindle edition costs less than a latte, so there's no excuse for not picking up a copy (...or whatever the phrase should be for downloading a book).

Jonathan Bales is another friend of ANS and co-contributor to Fifth Down at the Times. Jonathan also runs The Dallas Cowboys Times blog. He has written Fantasy Football for Smart People. You'll find many of the similar concepts from ANS in it. The timing might not be great, given that the next fantasy draft is 8 months away, but at least put it on your Amazon wish list.

Bob Carroll, Pete Palmer and John Thorn wrote the groundbreaking book The Hidden Game of Football in the 1980s. It's decades ahead of its time and pointed the way for guys like myself. Embarrassingly, I hadn't read the book until years into my analytics hobby/career. In a way I'm glad I waited because it allowed me to develop my own independent approach. While reading it you can feel the authors' frustration..."If only we had the data and computational tools at our finger tips, there's so much more we could do." Well, now we do, and sites like Football Outsiders, Football Perspective, and ANS are the fulfillment of what Hidden Game promised.

There are two editions of Hidden Game. The revised edition came out in the late 90s and has more of a fantasy spin. You'll have to scrounge for a used copy, as new ones are listed at several hundred bucks.

For those interested in other sports, Dean Oliver, who now leads ESPN's analytics department wrote Basketball on Paper several years back. Tom Tango, Micahel Lichtman and Andrew Dolphin wrote The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball. Dave Berri, Martin Schmidt and Scacey Brook authored The Wages of Wins, and Berri and Scmidt teamed up again for the follow up Stumbling on Wins.

Baseball sabermetrician turned poll aggregator/controversial media sensation brings us The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail-but Some Don't. I haven't had a chance to pick it up yet, but I can't imagine it won't be right up the ANS alley.

And if you've got $179 lying around, why not pick up a copy of The Economics of the National Football League? (I wrote the chapter on football utility models.) Who buys these things? Libraries I guess.

What are your recommendations?

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8 Responses to “Holiday Gift Guide for Statheads”

  1. Phil Birnbaum says:

    When I first saw the post, I thought you were selling mugs. Guess not. :)

  2. tmk says:

    Taleb is good.

  3. j holz says:

    you had me until Scorecasting. if you read through that you will find all kinds of crimes against mathematics to pick apart.

  4. Brian Burke says:

    I think you can actually buy a mug if you want. But it's mostly a joke. I will be getting ANS Xmas ornaments for the family though.

  5. David Berri says:

    Economics of the National Football League is a great book. At least, I think it is. I co-authored one of the chapters (with some guy names Brian Burke). But never saw the book.

    So if anyone buys it, let us know what you think :)

  6. David says:

    Allow me to recommend "How we know was isn't so: The fallibility of human reasoning in everyday life" by social psychologist Thomas Gillovich. It's addresses why human judgments differ from accurate probability judgments often in very systematic and predictable ways.

  7. tmk says:

    All I want for Christmas is an ANS fantasy leauge based on S.R. and EPA.

  8. OnSolThree says:

    Yeah I noticed when reading it that there's very little talk of statistical significance, numbers are really only deemed significant when they agree with the authors.

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