What's the Matter with Gladwell?

Malcolm Gladwell is a great writer - his writing style is very enjoyable, and his focus on the counter-intuitive has won him many fans. If he wrote about things I knew nothing about, I'd probably find his work very enjoyable too. The only problem is that he likes to write about inefficiencies in sports, and every time I look closely at what he's saying, I find that at best, he's come to an irrelevant conclusion; at worst, he's wrong.

Take hockey, for example: Canadian junior hockey leagues have a disproportionate number of players born in the first three months of year. As a result, Gladwell claims that Canada is "squandering the talents of hundreds of boys with late birthdays." The only problem is that the skewed distribution only exists at levels where it doesn't matter. If you look at NHL stars instead of 16- and 17-year-olds, the distribution of birthdates is almost uniform.

How about basketball? Gladwell detailed how a Silicon Valley executive hired former San Francisco 49ers Roger Craig and his daughter Rometra, who played Division I basketball, to coach his 12-year-old daughter's basketball team. The Craigs found many inefficiencies in the 12-year-old girls' game and exploited them in a way that brought an otherwise miserably bad team great success. From this, we are led to believe that David can beat Goliath. Or maybe the inefficiencies exist because at that age, sports are focused on having fun...And it would never occur to anyone to hire professional athletes to systematically dismantle an opposing team.

Gladwell's latest book discusses football. In particular, he claims that NFL quarterbacks drafted early in the first round do worse in the pros than quarterbacks drafted later. In other words, NFL General Managers are supposedly so bad at their jobs that better quarterbacks would be selected by random chance. (His source for this claim is David Berri, who had previously authored "The Wages of Wins," a book about sports economics. Here's a review of Berri's book [warning: pdf] that made me very skeptical of anything he wrote.) Gladwell's claim is thoroughly debunked on this blog - the median quarterback drafted 1-10 puts up 18148 passing yards during his career; the median quarterback drafted outside of the top 100 has a grand total of zero NFL passing yards.

I find much of Gladwell's response to this criticism incomprehensible, but he does argue that NFL quarterbacks need to be evaluated on a per-play basis and not in terms of aggregate performance. In other words, all these years that I thought that the 210th pick in the NHL draft wasn't very valuable because 90% of players picked in that slot never played in the NHL, I was wrong. I should have looked at it on a per-game basis, which would have led me to the conclusion that it's one of the best picks in the draft (Henrik Zetterberg was drafted 210th overall in 1998, and accounts for the majority of games played by 210th draft picks.)

There are plenty of real inefficiencies in sports that smart people have found or exploited: the West Coast Offense; the A-11 Offense; the Left Tackle; and perhaps most famously, On-Base Percentage; or going back further, we have the goalie mask and baseball gloves. This list could go on for quite a while. But NFL General Managers being no better at identifying quarterback talent than a bunch of guys throwing darts at a dartboard? I'm afraid it's not true, and to use a poorly-researched academic paper to claim otherwise does a disservice to the world of sports analysis.

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