Fantasy Academe: a Role for Sabermetrics

Randall Enos for The Chronicle

December 17, 2012

Our history department was recently blitzed by an external review. The conversations with the visiting committee revolved, perhaps inevitably, around the subject of productivity—a concept as elusive as it is ubiquitous. Our administration, increasingly corporate in outlook, tends to have a widgetlike understanding of productivity, while the faculty, defiantly medieval in its guildlike worldview, sees value in qualitative terms.

Little encouraging news came from the review process: Our department—starved of tenure lines, staggered by budget cuts, deemed laggardly in productivity—seemed to face a bleak future. As bleak, in fact, as a different set of reviews I was following: the postgame analyses of my imploding football team, the New York Jets, whose abysmal lack of productivity—aka death spiral—had driven me to fantasy football.

The meeting, in turn, drove me to fantasize about, well, Fantasy Academe. Might our profession, I wondered, have a place in this brave new world of statistics? A world that measures our value with metrics now used by sports analysts?

Fantasy sports, as you may know, have helped kindle our growing national obsession with sabermetrics. This is the statistical approach to baseball pioneered by Bill James, popularized by Moneyball, and since plagiarized, with varying degrees of success, by other professional sports. Sabermetrics, though it can be as rarefied as string theory, is based on a simple proposition: certain skill sets, traditionally overlooked by coaches and scouts, are critical to a team's success. By comparing these skills with various constants—a base average, other players at the same position, the stadium where one plays, the opposing team—these new metrics offer a more objective measure of a player's worth.

As a result, the stats we once memorized from our baseball cards or bandied about on the eve of the football draft have been swept away by a virtual wave of faintly sinister acronyms and abbreviations. Baseball now bristles with OPS (on base percentage plus slugging percentage) and VORP (value over replacement player), while football boasts of DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average). Ugly and awkward shorthand, perhaps; powerful and predictive, certainly. As the influential sports columnist Bill Simmons, long a holdout against the new metrics, admitted a couple of years ago: The old method of judging a player by 10 simple stats that could fit on the back of one of those baseball cards had "simplicity and elegance, mainly because we didn't know any better."

Should we know any better in the academy? What if the numbers of articles published, dissertations directed, conferences attended, or committees chaired are as prehistoric as interceptions thrown or rushing yards gained? Or, for that matter, numbers of seats filled or heaps of grants gained? Does any of this measure the pivotal role of certain faculty?

It's pretty silly at one level. Consider YAC, or yards after contact. This is the ground covered by a running back after one or more defensive players have ricocheted off him. What if we applied that to the academic gridiron? Instead of yards after contact, we'd have yards after criticism—in other words, the number of hostile readers the author of a submitted article can carry and still get it published. Third-down conversions? Not just when a quarterback plunges for a first down on third and one, but when a course gains one more student and reaches minimum enrollment just before the semester starts.

But there are other levels. An essential element of DVOA is the quality of one's opponents. For the sake of argument, let's say professors are playing against their students. Now, two professors give the same number of lectures on Wittgenstein's Tractatus, they make the same points about the book, and they explain its mysteries with equal clarity. Are the lectures of equal value?

Not at all, according to DVOA: A 100-yard running game weighs far less against the Jets' porous defensive line than against the Houston Texans' formidable front four. If yards are not equal, in other words, perhaps lectures, too, are not equal. Should we give equal weight to the lectures given to Harvard undergrads and those given to students at a community college across the river?

DVOA ignores total yardage, instead measuring yardage toward first downs. Four yards on third and three, in other words, are worth more than four yards on first and 10, not to mention four yards on third and 15. Transfer that to our own turf: Is the professor's effectiveness greater if the students' grasp of Wittgenstein leads to further insights played out in class, or instead stops with an exam?

Among the counterintuitive discoveries of sabermetrics is that a team should rarely, if ever, punt on fourth down. A political economist at the University of California at Berkeley, David H. Romer, ran the numbers and suggested that teams should not punt when facing fourth and four or less. Not surprisingly, few coaches—apart from Bill Belichick, that cantankerous contrarian, of the New England Patriots—have adopted Romer's analysis. The reason, according to observers, is that coaches are, as a group, deeply risk-averse.

Think of how this insight might apply to an even more risk-averse institution: a typical humanities department. When we bend to the winds of fashion by creating a major or minor in a flashy new subdiscipline, are we, in effect, punting? Far from being the academic equivalent of going for it on fourth and four, such a move is like punting on first down: We do it because of institutional inertia and professional myopia. Going for it on fourth and four, by contrast, might translate into teaching the core and teaching it well—at least if we all agree that our goal line is creating a literate citizenry.

I think a similar conservatism imbues both search and promotion-and-tenure committees. With the former, universities, in particular those pursuing greater visibility, look for star players with great stats—publications, grants, or labs. But sabermetrics warns us against this mad rush for marquee names: It is the "utility" faculty, as one colleague refers to them, who have the right skills to make for a winning season.

Promotion-and-tenure committees, too, are indifferent to these new metrics. We carefully read and discuss a candidate's letters and evaluations, but we overlook that those particular measures tend to be as subjective as our own deliberations. We tend, in short, to confuse personal impressions with objective analysis, and gut feelings with dispassionate examination. Add chewing tobacco and not much distinguishes us from that now-extinct species, traditional scouts.

Perhaps we will discuss the subject further next time we huddle at fourth and two.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of French history at the University of Houston Honors College.