Sports Are Different; Why Do We Talk Like They Are the Same?

I am a baseball fan, but I don’t dislike other sports. I go through phases of really enjoying college basketball; I even took my son to a game at my alma mater last weekend. The NBA doesn’t excite me as much, although I have found myself searching out Steph Curry highlights and even deliberately turned on an NBA game a few weeks ago to watch him play. (It’s really too bad that Curry is hurting the game of basketball.)

My relationship with football is slightly different, in that I used to play it and I kind of enjoy watching it but I rarely turn it on because I don’t want my sons to watch it and fall in love with it and end up severely injured or worse. (Sorry, I earned the right to be irrational and melodramatic when I had kids.)

Anyway, that is all a precursor to say this is not one of those “my sport is better than yours” columns. But it is a “my sport is different from yours so stop talking about them like they’re the same” column. So much of sports commentary lumps all sports together. Sure, there are some universal truths that apply to all sports more-or-less equally: athleticism is a good thing, players wear uniforms, etc. But there are also a few things that are true about football and/or basketball that are not true about baseball, but people who talk about baseball often seem to forget that.

Have you ever been to Disneyland? As a young father, I spent many hours in Fantasyland, the section full of kids’ rides like Peter Pan and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. After a while, you start to realize that those two rides — along with the Snow White and Pinocchio and Alice in Wonderland rides — are basically the same exact thing, just with different scenery. You sit in a car that rides on a track through pictures and sounds from a Disney movie.

Sometimes we treat the different sports like that, as if they are the same ride with different scenery and music. But beyond the superficial similarities, the sports are as different as night and day.

Why does it matter? To the extent that any sports analysis matters, it seems like a good idea to have accuracy in that analysis. In the current (social) media landscape, it is easier than ever before for regular fans to opine to the masses about their favorite teams, although you’d be forgiven for thinking they hate the teams they are talking about considering how much negativity there often is.

To be sure, there are plenty of things to be negative about with any team, if that is your goal. I prefer the positive route, but I won’t begrudge a person his or her say about everything that is wrong with his or her local sports team.

But it needs to be accurate. And much of the inaccuracy I often see comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of the differences between the sports. With that in mind, let’s talk about:

Things that are true about football and/or basketball but not about baseball

Los Angeles Lakers v Golden State Warriors

Credit: Ezra Shaw / Getty Images North America

Thing Number 1: Too many superstars can cause problems on the field/court, or one person’s selfish play is detrimental to the team’s overall good.

In football, each play generally involves the quarterback handing or throwing the ball to one person. In basketball, only one person can shoot the ball on each possession. By definition, every shot that Kobe Bryant takes is a shot that D’Angelo Russell is not taking. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is not the point; the point is that if you have four guys who all want to be the one taking the most shots, there is potential for friction. In the same way, if a football team has three great wide receivers and two great tight ends and two great running backs, there is a very high likelihood that eventually, someone is going to end up feeling like he’s not getting the ball often enough.

In baseball, though, each player gets his turn at bat. On a micro level there are similarities — if you sign two great center fielders, one of them is going to have to play left field and may not be as happy there, or if you have two “ideal” leadoff hitters, one of them won’t be batting leadoff. But on a broad scale, where a basketball team has to worry about getting enough shots for everyone and a football team has to worry about getting enough touches for everyone, a baseball team knows every player is going to get four or five at-bats each game no matter who is on the team.

I often hear people saying that a player is more interested in his personal stats than in helping the team win. But guess what? Every personal stat worth the paper it’s printed on helps the team win. The point of a good statistic is to identify the things a player does to help his team win; it is nonsensical to think a focus on those statistics is damaging to the team. (And if there is a particular stat that, by pursuing it, a player is damaging his team’s chances of winning, that says at least as much about that particular stat as it does about that particular player.)

Why does it matter? Fans and media alike often present a false dichotomy, saying they would rather have a team with great chemistry than a team of great players. These options are not mutually exclusive; in fact, a team of the best players has a significant head-start in the chemistry department, because “team chemistry” is usually an effect (rather than a cause) of a team’s success. A team of great players is likely to win a lot, which usually makes for a happy clubhouse.

So while “get the best player at every position” is not a viable strategy for the general manager of a football or basketball team, it is and always will be the best approach for a baseball GM. Not the most realistic, but the best.

Divisional Round - Kansas City Chiefs v New England Patriots

Credit: Jim Rogash / Getty Images North America

Thing Number 2: One or two great players can carry a team.

The reason for this ties into the first point. When I was a teenager, the Chicago Bulls won the NBA championship every year because of Michael Jordan. When Jordan “retired” the first time, they stopped winning championships. Then he came back and they won some more.

On each possession, a basketball team needs just one person to shoot the ball, so having the best player in history on your team is a distinct advantage. (Sure, you have to have Scottie Pippen and other players who are not awful so the other team doesn’t just put all five defenders on Jordan, but a team of four decent-to-good players and one historically great player has a very good chance at the title.)

It’s not as true in football, simply because there are more players on the team. But a great quarterback/receiver combo can carry a team pretty far (think of Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, or Steve Young and Jerry Rice, or Rich Gannon and Jerry Ri— I mean, Tom Brady and Randy Moss, etc.). Only one guy needs to touch the ball, so as long as you have reasonably valid threats at other positions, an elite combination like that can do wonders.

In baseball, as we talked about before, everyone has to come up to the plate. Starting pitchers can only pitch every fifth game or so. Barry Bonds never won a World Series. Neither did Ted Williams. Babe Ruth won a bunch of them, because he was the best player on a team of great players.

The closest we have seen to this dynamic in baseball, at least recently, is Madison Bumgarner‘s performance in the 2014 postseason. Simply put, Bumgarner did win the World Series for the San Francisco Giants. Giants pitchers pitched 61 innings in the World Series; Bumgarner pitched 21 of them. That’s 34.4 percent of the team’s World Series innings, pitched by one man, with a 0.43 ERA in those innings.

But here’s the thing: Bumgarner won the World Series for the Giants, but he didn’t get them there. In the regular season, he pitched just 15 percent of the team’s innings, with a 2.98 ERA. He was very good, but if you remove his 4.0 WAR, the Giants still finish two games ahead of the Brewers for the second Wild Card spot. If you double his WAR, the Giants still finish two games behind the Dodgers, so they win the Wild Card game at home instead of in Pittsburgh. No matter how you look at it, Bumgarner’s performance over the course of the regular season did not actually change the Giants’ postseason chances one way or the other.

Bumgarner’s World Series performance would equate to about 500 innings pitched with a 0.43 ERA over an entire season. Roughly speaking, he was probably at least ten times better in the World Series than he had been in the regular season. That’s not a great player carrying a team; that’s a great and unbelievably hot player carrying a team.

Why does it matter? If you use World Series championships — or team success of pretty much any kind — as evidence of an individual baseball player’s greatness, you are doing it wrong in multiple ways. Kirk Gibson was not better than Ted Williams. David Eckstein was not better than Ernie Banks. Madison Bumgarner is not better than Greg Maddux.

Division Series - New York Mets v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Five

Credit: Harry How / Getty Images North America

Thing Number 3: In any given game, the better team will win the vast majority of the time.

Teams in Major League Baseball play ten times as many games as NFL teams. In 2015, one MLB team (the St. Louis Cardinals) won 100 games. In the NFL, there were 11 teams that won at least 10 games this past season, including the 15-1 Carolina Panthers. The 1954 Cleveland Indians had a .721 winning percentage, the best mark since the end of the dead-ball era. In 2015, five NFL teams surpassed that winning percentage.

Four NBA teams are currently on pace to pass the 1954 Indians’ winning percentage, too. A 100-win season in baseball is a .617 winning percentage; currently there are six NBA teams on pace to beat that.

This point, of course, ties into our second point. If your basketball team has Steph Curry and Klay Thompson on it, guess what? You’re going to win a lot of games. If your football team has Cam Newton on it, apparently you become pretty tough to beat.

But in baseball, if your team has Clayton Kershaw on it, that only helps you in the 33 games he starts each year. Barry Bonds helps you just once every nine batters. Because one player can have such a smaller impact on any given game, the “best” teams are generally only incrementally better than the lesser teams. Is it possible to have the best player at every position to the point where you could expect to win 80 percent of your games? It might be, in that abstract, anything-is-possible sort of way.

But failure rate plays into it, too. Greatness in baseball “fails” a lot more often than greatness in other sports. A great hitter will get on base around 40 percent of the time; Barry Bonds in 2001 hit home runs in just 11 percent of his plate appearances. And hitters only get four or five chances per game.

By contrast, when Steph Curry takes a shot, he makes it 51% of the time, and he takes 20 shots a game. Tom Brady averaged 39 pass attempts per game in 2015, and he completed 64.4 percent of them.

This is why people say (correctly) that the MLB postseason is a crapshoot. Over the course of a season, the best teams will generally win more games than the worst teams. For the most part, the ten teams that make the postseason are, if not the ten best teams in the league, at least ten of the best fifteen or so. But when you are dealing with smaller differences between teams and the smaller sample sizes of the postseason, the chances of the “best” team winning the World Series go down accordingly.

Why does it matter? If you consider your favorite team’s season a failure because they lost in the playoffs, you’re missing out on real baseball fandom. The season lasts six months, and if your team made it into the playoffs, that means they gave you at least 86 or so victories over the course of the season. It sounds like some wishy-washy, everyone-gets-a-trophy sentiment, but only one team wins the World Series every year. Does that mean that the fans of the other 29 teams — 96.7 percent of the league! — should be miserable and angry and Twitter-ranty?

Of course not. Like I said, there are plenty of legitimate reasons for any team’s fans to be upset, and some of them are even worth being upset about. But when I see a person angry that his favorite team’s front office failed to put together a team that was “built to win in the postseason,” I see a person who does not understand the way the baseball postseason works.

It’s okay to be sad and upset when your team loses in the postseason. But don’t look too hard for Important Truths or Greater Meaning in their losses. The vast majority of the time, the truth is simply that the other team played better, or your team’s star had a bad game, or the other team’s slap-hitting infielder decided to hit like Babe Ruth for a series.


Each sport is different, and each sport should be discussed differently. Trying to apply fundamental truths about basketball to baseball is as insane as it is fruitless.

2 Responses

  1. David1971

    I’d say you’re pretty much spot on with everything you wrote. One little bit of trivia to back up your argument: Starting with Jordan’s 1990-91 Chicago Bulls, every NBA champion except one (the 2003-2004 Pistons) had an NBA MVP on their roster (either winning it that same season or some previous season). Talk about importance of having an all-time great player. I don’t have the time to do that calculation for the NFL or MLB, but the percentage of teams with MVPs on the roster can’t be 96 percent. I’m sure of that.

  2. David_N_Wilson

    I loved this, and it’s how I have always approached being a Cubs fan. I’m happy when we win, not as happy when we lose, but for every loss there are 161 other games to consider… I wonder if your “Twiter-ranty” will up the Twitter Ante on this…


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