Homer Simpson once told newscaster Kent Brockman; "aw you can come up with statistics to prove anything, Kent. Forfty percent of people know that." He may not be a perfect father or role model for today's generation of men, bit he's right. Stats can be useful for effective arguments, but without proper scrutiny, no statistical date is complete. While everyone and their neighbor likes to throw around stats like it's nobody's business, they are often used in an attempt to mislead and invalidate otherwise coherent points.
This isn't to say that stats are a bad way to make a claim, but even in the world of sports, there are numerous sports statistics that can be used in misleading ways. Obviously there has to be record keeping in sports for the purposes of commentating, analysis and even helping a game evolve. However, many stats are deeply flawed and completely convey the wrong information, which can mislead fans and leave them poorly informed.
This is a list of misleading stats and how they can be used improperly. Some stats have their most useful alternatives offered, which can create a more accurate appreciating of a team or athlete. If any of these arguments are simply terrible, please let your voice be heard in the almighty comment section. Again, this is a list of stats that are flawed and CAN be used to mislead. No statistical representation is completely faulty, thus this is a list of stats to be weary of and which must be scrutinized when cited.
Whether it be basketball, football, soccer, or hockey (which have different names and protocols for penalty calls), there is always a major difference between a good penalty and a bad penalty. I'll use football and hockey as examples as they are my two sports of highest expertise. On the ice, if a defenseman gets a tripping call for upending a faster player during a footrace that could lead to a breakaway, the penalty prevented a goal opportunity. "Steve Downeying" somebody, however, is a stupid penalty. In football, a defensive back who grabs the jersey of a receiver who is going to beat him and score a touchdown has taken a good penalty. Conversely, facemasking a quarterback after the play may be satisfying but it is a stupid thing to do.
While penalty yards or minutes can indicate a dirty player, not all penalties are created equal. Not all frequently penalized players are unskilled or simply dirty.
9 Any Career Stat (No Matter the Sport)
Often when discussing players, a commentator or analyst will cite a career long statistical accumulation to prove a point. Unfortunately, such a mention almost always needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Players with large amounts of goals, home runs, hits, touchdowns, tackles and dunks may have only amassed such a number due to a long and decent career. Career stats are seldom as reliable for the appraisal of a player's career as per game or per season stats.
8 Golf: Shot Distance
This one rarely tricks an avid golf fan, but there are still some who overrate the length of a player's shot. Great, a long hitter can crank a drive 350 yards off the tee, but add an approach shot into the woods, to a bungled bunker shot and a three putt and you are left with a big hitter wrapping his pitching wedge around a tree. A 250 yard drive, followed by a solid approach and a two putt is higher percentage and course management.
Long hitters may be impressive, but always remember, long shots matter less than great putts. Drive for show, putt for dough. 350 off the tee is a gifted ball striker, but not necessarily a gifted golfer.
7 Football: Tackles (In some cases)
This will need some clarification. Vontaze Burfict, the NFL's tackle leader from 2014, is one of the most complete linebackers in the league. Unfortunately, high tackle stats do not always indicate a great defensive asset. Cornerbacks who frequently allow completed passes will often have higher tackle stats than those who knock down balls in the air.
Similarly, more important than just the tackle statistic, is tackles made either behind or near the line of scrimmage. If a defensive end has a large amount of tackles on the season, that may not indicate that he is one of the best in the NFL. If 95% of those tackles occurred after a four yard gain by running backs, that end is likely being pushed back by the offensive line. Conversely, a defensive lineman who makes very few tackles in a year may well be one of the best in the league at plugging multiple gaps and tying up offensive linemen, clearing holes for his linebackers or safeties to make big plays. Take tackling stats with a grain of salt.
6 Hockey and Basketball: Shooting Percentage
In rare cases, shooting percentage in hockey and basketball can indicate a player who can hit baskets from anywhere on the field and snipe corners with his eyes closed. Unfortunately, it can also be a sign that a player does not shoot enough. If a player constantly strives to come up with a perfect shooting opportunity, his shooting percentage will be high but he could ultimately damage the scoring effectiveness of his team if "waiting for the right shot" turns to overall reluctance to put the puck or ball to the net or basket.
5 Time of Possession
While time of possession can indicate a dominant team during any game, it is not always the case. Unfortunately there is no statistical formula that can calculate quality time spent in possession of the ball or puck. There are plenty of examples available, but looking to the world of hockey, a team that gets the puck in their opponents' end during a power play and just cycle for two minutes without taking a shot actually waste a two minute opportunity with puck possession. Fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 90's and to a lesser extent today, are familiar with such power plays. However, I suppose any jaded fan base could say the same.
Similarly, time of possession can be misleading when used in football. Running the ball constantly, and getting a few first downs and then punting will use more time than a quick pass-heavy drive that culminates with a 40 yard touchdown pass. Again, look at how the ball or puck is used while a team has it, rather than how long they have it.
4 Football: Passer Rating
This stat is one of the most difficult stats to calculate in sports. While it is a great way to measure the skill of a quarterback, it leaves out some fundamentally important aspects of the position. First, it does not bring runs, sacks or fumbles into the equation. It is purely focused on evaluating a quarterback as a passer, which in today's game, is only one part of that job.
Rather than trying to calculate a quarterback's usefulness with one "one-stop-shop" stat, it is still more reliable to use yards per completion, completion percentage, interceptions, attempts, fumble stats, sacks, and even yards per rush. These accurately break down the position and allow a complete "pro and con" evaluation, rather than just saying "wow, what a large number!"
While passer rating can present a good picture of a quarterback in the pocket and throwing, the position is vastly more complicated than that and needs further examination. Many people still consider passer rating to be the be-all end-all of a quarterback evaluation number.
3 Hockey, Soccer and Baseball: Goals Against Average and Earned Run Average
While a goaltender and a pitcher have fundamentally different jobs, ERA and GAA can bring the same problem into analysis of these positions. In hockey or soccer, a goalie may let in a few goals in a game, but more often than not, a goal is not the fault of the man between the pipes. Lazy and ineffective defense is frequently the cause of a high GAA. Save percentage is a much better statistic to determine the skill of a goaltender/keeper.
ERA does depend more on a pitcher, but overall, a lousy defensive performance from the catcher, infield and outfield can contribute to a high ERA as much as a blown game on the mound.
2 Baseball: Fielding Percentage
Fielding percentage essentially boils down to the number of outs achieved by a player divided by the amount of balls hit to that player. Unfortunately, this stat has a very significant flaw. The greater athleticism and effort a player brings to the table, the larger the amount of hits he will be able to get to, but the more difficult plays they try to make, errors will rack up inevitably.
Derek Jeter will be the example here. Jeter is one of the greatest infielders of all time. However, he has one of the highest error totals in the league. This is by no means due to Jeter being a poor fielder. Rather, he is such a competitor that he will go after any number of near impossible hits, and will always try to relay them to a base for the out. Unfortunately, because he will get to more impossibly difficult balls than other fielders, and attempt to make the throw in low percentage situations, his fielding percentage could be slightly lower than a less mobile shortstop or third baseman who gives up more hits.
1 Hockey: Plus-Minus
Plus minus is used to show whether a player is on the ice for more of his own team's goals or the opposition's goals. Unfortunately, plus-minus often fails to indicate the role a given player occupies when on the ice. A prime example of such a player right now is Alexander Ovechkin. Ovie has a pretty sad plus-minus on a yearly basis, but it is not completely his fault. He's a goal scorer and his team relies upon him to do just that. Nobody who puts Ovechkin on the ice is doing so in hopes of him contributing a constant defensive effort.
A truly great hockey player can do it all, but in the case of some goal scorers, their plus minus rating is more of a reflection of a lack of overall defense on the team rather than their own defensive defectiveness. Also, plus-minus doesn't reflect power play stats, where player's like Ovie typically shine. In contrast a high plus-minus does not always a flawless defensive player. Plus-minus is more often a reflection of the skills of a line or team rather than individual players.
The debate over plus-minus is a deep one, and while some fans have started to slip away from using the stat, many still consider it a very important one to the appraisal of a player.
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