Tuesday, January 14, 2014

One Shining Moment

I used to be much more of a baseball fan than I am right now, but on occasion I can get suckered in binge reading Joe Posnanski or someone like that, particularly in the middle of one of the sport's classic debates between sabermetricians vs. traditional media members.

Jack Morris' Hall of Fame candidacy has been one of those types of affairs, a 15 year debate about the value of a durable pitcher with a few shining postseason heroics but fairly underwhelming overall numbers. Plenty of different rationales have been offered by the pro-Morris camp, but I think that as much as any recent athlete I can think of, Morris is simply defined by a few big moments (most notably game 7 of the 1991 World Series), and the residual impact of those highlights trump all other factors in the minds of those who tend to rank players based on their gut feel as opposed to a detailed comparative analysis of their performance record.  Many of the arguments in favour of enshrining Morris seem to be people reaching for justification to support their already decided position.  That can of course be fairly criticized for being poor analysis, but I don't think you are going to convince many people purely by calling out their analysis, especially when they are being largely driven by subjective perceptions.

I think the power of the shining moment can be just as significant in hockey, perhaps even more so given the overwhelming importance of the Stanley Cup playoffs.  Just as with pitchers in baseball, winning or losing tends to stick with goalies in that it is easier to recall the successful plays of the winner and the negative ones of the loser.

One of my personal favourite examples of this is Marc-Andre Fleury in the 2009 playoffs.  Many hockey fans called him clutch and said he made the big save at the right time, because they could easily recall his stop on Lidstrom with time running out in the Finals in game 7, along with his breakaway save on Ovechkin and a few stops against the Flyers in round one.  But the rest of Fleury's playoffs were pretty ordinary (.908).  Nobody is able to fully recall even a small sample of shots like the 686 Fleury faced that postseason, it's going to inevitably filtered down to a few memorable ones and if the ones that stick are saves a goaltender will come off looking good.

I also think it people took longer to figure out Ondrej Pavelec was actually a pretty mediocre goalie because of his propensity to make the big highlight reel saves.  Fans would be travelling home from a game thinking of that one he snatched out of mid-air and not about the fact that he let in 4 out of the other 29 shots against, but it is how many you let in out of how many chances that really matters.

On the other hand, negative perceptions can be similar.  Tony Esposito seems to be remembered much less fondly by many older hockey fans than his overall record would suggest, and it doesn't take long at all in any discussion of his merits before somebody brings up Jacques Lemaire scoring on him from center ice in game 7 of the Finals.  Tommy Salo wasn't an all-time great, but he was a solid NHLer with an impressive international carer even though it remains awfully hard to think of him as even a competent netminder at this point because of the taint of that one Belarus goal influencing our collective memories.  I think that is how bad-team goalies tend to be forgotten and dismissed, it was always curious to me when someone like Allan Bester was treated as a punchline despite fairly impressive stats, but if you can't think of a goalie making a big save or winning something then you're probably going to think of some bad goal or another.  No matter how good they are, no goalie ever comes off looking good in a highlight reel of their goals against.

I believe countering this effect is one of the most important uses of the statistical record in evaluating athletes.  There are some legitimate quibbles about statistical recordkeeping and the reliability of various metrics, but at the same time all observers also have biases and faulty memory, and it's well worth having an extra check to ensure that the events our brains remember did actually happen in the way that we claim they did.  Maybe a player was clutch and "knew how to win", or maybe certain events stick in the memory more strongly than others.  The burden of proof should always be on the former position, in my opinion.

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