Reading List

I've been accused many times by many different people of making things up. Friends, family, and coworkers have all raised the B.S. flag on me. My problem is that I remember things both too well and not enough. I'll remember the gist of an interesting magazine article from ten years ago, but the details will be hazy. Someone will say, "where did you get that?" And I'll say, "I don't know. I read it somewhere." "Yeah right," is usually the response.

One of the most common (and favorite) emails I get asks where I get my ideas. Many of them come from the random things I read, so I thought I'd share some of the most relevant books and articles. And with the off-season in full-swing you might have some extra time on your hands come Sundays. Below is my "I read it somewhere" list.


The Hidden Game of Football

Authors Caroll, Palmer, and Thorn were the first to bring innovative statistics on the NFL to the masses in this 1988 book. They explored topics included expected points, win probability, and a "win/fail" model of play success that is the basis of Football Outsiders' DVOA. I didn't read Hidden Game until the beginning of the most recent season, more than two years after beginning this hobby. I'm glad I did because I was able to develop my own original ideas, and the book is so insightful and original that I think it would have put me in a box.


The Wages of Wins

Before I started this site, I had recently read Freakonomics. I thought someone should write a Freakonomics but about sports. Wages comes pretty close. Written primarily by economist, basketball expert, and long suffering Lions fan Dave Berri, the book looks at all major American sports with a heavy dose of the NBA. The centerpiece is Berri's Wins Produced stat for basketball players.


Fooled by Randomness

This is one of my favorite books of all time. Nassim Taleb writes about the role of randomness in the world and our lives. He's part mathematician, part economist, part financial trader, and part philosopher. His prophetic warnings of how Wall Street's risk models were perilously overconfident were sadly unheeded. Fooled by Randomness was a big bestseller, and Taleb's follow-up The Black Swan was an even bigger hit.


Super Crunchers

The alternate title of this book was supposed to be The End of Intuition. 'Super Crunchers' and other titles were tested with quantitative methods before settling on the final name of the book. It's an overview of the many fields being influenced by advanced statistical methods. Airline prices, medical diagnoses, wine vintages, dating services, and even movie script formulas are all now the domain of econometric modeling.


Coincidences, Chaos, and All That Math Jazz

This is a fun, very non-technical book about a wide range of topics, including probabilities, uncertainty, chaos theory, cryptography, notions of infinity, and even aesthetic proportions. It's all interesting stuff, but I learned the most about chaos theory, and it influenced how I think about modeling and why predictions are so difficult.


The Drunkard's Walk

This book is very similar to Taleb's Fooled by Randomness but far less opinionated and with more of a historical bent. Don't read one or the other. Read both.


Games and Decisions: Introduction and Critical Survey

When groundbreaking thinker super-geniuses write books with titles that say "Introduction...," don't be fooled. This book is one of the milestones of game theory and it's highly technical. But if you really want to understand the inner workings of game theory, dig in. I had to read each chapter two or three times before I could understand most of it.


Game Theory: A Nontechnical Introduction

This is the book I wish I had read before Games and Decisions. It is the most interesting 272 pages I've ever read. The implications of game theory relate to so many topics--relationships, economics, psychology, business, diplomacy, war, and even evolution. It's clear, complete, quick, and fascinating. No calculus, I promise.


Moneyball

Michael Lewis' smash-hit book on baseball sabermetrics. This is much better than his attempt at football--The Blindside. Soon to be a movie starring Brad Pitt (I'm not kidding).


Freakonomics

This book has little to do with sports, unless you count sumo wrestling. A runaway bestseller a couple years ago, it's about applying econometric math to things other than economics. A few years before the book was published, I was using logistic regression to predict which midshipmen at the Naval Academy were most likely to violate its honor code. That's how I first learned all this stuff.


Non-books

An Introduction to Utility Theory

This is the best explanation of the concepts of utility theory I've found. It's a survey of all the basic research and ideas of utility theory. It's chock full of great stuff.


GameTheory.net

Want to take courses in game theory from the top universities in the world? You've hit the mother lode. Lecture notes and lots of other great resources are available here. My favorite is this class.


Romer's 4th Down Paper

A groundbreaking application of quantitative football analysis. My summary if it here.


Anthology of Statistics in Sports

This is a compendium of hard-core academic research in sports. The studies cover a wide variety of sports, including football. To be honest, some of it is over my head. But I like stretching my mind, and I learn a lot from studies like these, not just about the subject at hand but about good methodologies too.


If you have any suggestions, please add them in the comments below.

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14 Responses to “Reading List”

  1. Ryan says:

    I'm in the same boat. I have difficulty recalling specific details, statistics, or authors but I can remember with ease the 'jist' of an argument, article, or idea. I'm really jealous of those that can recall details with ease. I wish I could.

  2. Odysseus says:

    I've read Fooled by Randomness, Moneyball, and Freakonomics, and can say that I loved them all and am happy to see you did too. They are great and really emphasize approaching things with a fresh and realistic point of view, and not to rely on "intuition".

  3. Odysseus says:

    Also, this quite a bit off topic but does anyone know where I can watch old NFL games? Or even recent ones, like a rebroadcast of the most recent Super Bowl? Thanks!

  4. Ryan says:

    Odysseus,

    I believe NFL.com has rebroadcasts online part of their Game Rewind package with Verizon. You have to pay some money for that deal, and I'm not sure how good it is.

    NFL Network rebroadcasts games, but edits them down removing "trivial" plays like punts that hold not game significance, and penalties. You'd have to be patient to find the game you want, or set up a DVR I suppose for that.

  5. Brian says:

    Can't believe there's gonna be a Moneyball movie. I would think that the Blind Side had more potential as a movie than Moneyball. I'm sure Hollywood will throwin a love triangle or something to appeal to more than just the internet sports statistics community.

  6. Ian says:

    I've mostly been reading my PHP, either my own or a manual, for my stats parser. Thanks for the database sample Brian. The code is coming on alright, although there are some irritating issues coming in e.g. NFL.com occasionally doesn't have the extra point in its play-by-play, CBS has some incorrect plays (rushes down as passes), ESPN doesn't keep all the play commentary in the same box, FOX doesn't have game time etc.

    I'm going with CBS, but validating data with NFL.com's season and game stats. With any luck I'll have the 2008 season done soon.

  7. JDTapp says:

    I understand that they are making The Blind Side into a movie, I think they're waiting until Oher is out of college.

    If you like Taleb, I recommend his "mentor" Benoit Mandelbrot's latest book The (Mis)Behavior of Markets: A Fractal View of Risk and Reward.

    In the sports stats genre, I recommend Basketball on Paper by David Oliver.

  8. William T says:

    Taleb is remarkable, a vivacious human being.

  9. Cashrox says:

    Awesome. Finding good books to read is somewhat hard. Some of these books look like they'll be great fun to read.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Huh? All I see is The Hidden Game of Football.

  11. Brian Burke says:

    Looks ok to me. Anyone else having problems viewing the page?

  12. Anonymous says:

    I see it now that I'm at work and using IE. I use some Firefox version at home.

  13. Anonymous says:

    As a result of this list I am currently reading Moneyball. It's a great read, one which underlines the need for innovative thinking and new approaches to the game. The ideas apply across all sports. I think that's one of the reasons so many of the ideas mentioned in this blog are not readily accepted but the football world.

    But I would like to add a point into the baseball discussion. Mike MArshall was a pitcher in major league baseball. He came to the sport with a PhD in kinesology and was troubled with the delivery pitchers use. He developed an new way of throwing the ball, one which would allow a pitcher to start everyday without injuring his arm. He now trains pitchers to throw that way but his pitchers are scorned and major league teams avoid them. Mike himself holds the record for most consecutive games for a pitcher - 13.

    I guess my point is that old ideas are slow to be discarded in all sports and in all areas of life as well.

  14. Anonymous says:

    "Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind how sports are played and games are won" by tobias moskowitz (professor at u of chicago) is the freakonomics of sports.

    In fact, the author of freakononics even says Scorecasting is the closest book to freakonomics he's seen on the cover!

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