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Andy Kirkaldy: Stats can help both athletes and observers

On Saturday I watched my younger daughter’s college lacrosse game. At one point she burst through a knot of four or five players battling for a ground ball (lax-speak for a loose ball) and tried to scoop it. Her first try to pick the ball up knocked it clear of the scrum.
But she was able to snag the ball cleanly on a second try, and then reverse field and sprint down the right sideline, back toward the opposing goal. Two opponents tried to pin her along the sideline, but she stopped, switched to her left hand, and tossed the ball to a teammate.
Even though she earlier netted a goal in a 13-10 loss, that play was easily her best of the day. It allowed her team, the Sharks, to gain possession, and they scored soon afterward.
That’s why the sport has a statistic for ground balls — they count. Often the team that wins the ground-ball battle wins the game. On Monday, Mount Abe senior middie Owein LaBarr scooped 10 vs. Otter Valley; his team won, 16-10.
That’s why sports stats often matter. The good ones tell us something about what happened, and about players’ skills.
In the Saturday game, the Sharks’ goalie made two saves. The other team’s goalie made 10. The other team won by three goals. Now, those two saves could mean the defense in front of the Shark goalie surrendered too many unstoppable shots; saves can be a tricky stat. In this case the simple explanation would be correct: The Shark netminder didn’t have her best day.
On the other hand, in the 2016 NCAA Division III women’s lax final four, Middlebury College goalie Katie Mandigo stopped 22 of the 38 shots she faced. She was the final four MVP.
Another example: What does a baseball player look like with a .249 batting average, a .306 on-base percentage (OBP), a .388 slugging percentage, 12 homers and 43 stolen bases? Yes, it’s a quick guy without a lot of plate discipline (or he would draw more walks and have a better OBP) and not much power. Outfielder Rajai Davis put up those numbers for Cleveland in 2016.
How about one with a .262 average, a .361 OBP, a .562 slugging percentage, 47 homers and two steals? Yes, that’s a lumbering slugger who walks a lot because pitchers are careful, and he’s patient. Those numbers belonged to Baltimore first baseman Chris Davis in 2015.
Other stats do have to be taken with a grain of salt. I love watching fearless Boston Celtic Isaiah Thomas, who averaged an outstanding 28.9 points per game this season. I was at the Fleet Garden when he scored 41 vs. Portland on Jan. 21.
But Boston was missing defensive stopper Avery Bradley, and Thomas had to defend a top opposing guard. Blazer guards C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard combined for 63 points and 10 assists.
Two points here about Isaiah’s scoring average: At five-foot-nine (maybe) Thomas really can’t guard anybody, and the Celtics have won 18 NBA titles and have never had a player lead the league in points per game. It’s not enough just to know how many points someone scores.
Then there is the obsession with “double-doubles” in basketball. That’s when a player records in a game at least two of the following: 10 points, 10 rebounds or 10 assists. Announcers and sports information departments love double-doubles; sometimes they even cite “near double-doubles” instead of trusting us to do the math for 12 points and nine boards.
Still, I often wonder if 12 points and 10 rebounds is more useful than, say, 26 points and eight rebounds. Not that I’m going to knock Russell Westbrook for averaging a triple-double for an entire NBA season, mind you. Now we’re crossing over into valuable information. I would probably still vote for James Harden for MVP, though.
There also remains a central problem with stats. For sure there are team stats: Points and yardage for and against in football, team earned-run average in baseball, and even team points-per-possession in basketball.
But the stats sports fans and alleged experts toss around the most — such as the ones used in debating whether Westbook or Harden should be the NBA MVP, Tom Brady is better than Peyton Manning, or Mantle was better than Mays — are those individual stats.
And the stat that really counts in team sports is the record: There is a saying in soccer that the only ones that matter are wins and goals.
Why should we pay attention to so many individual stats when what really matters is how the team fares?
This is delicate territory. Successful teams depend on chemistry, on players who accept roles and trust and support one another. Too much emphasis on individual accomplishment can threaten what is paramount, the success of the group.
On the other hand, most members of the team are not all-stars. Well, unless they play for the Golden State Warriors, but that’s another story.
They are doing essentially thankless jobs like scrabbling after ground balls, bunting runners up to second base, or setting picks. Why not keep track of what everybody does for the team, not just the goal-scorers, home-run hitters and three-point shooters?
Credit where credit is due. 

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