Sports

New book 'The Eye Test' reminds us that humans are more integral than ever in age of analytics

In the book The Eye Test: A Case for Human Creativity in the Age of Analytics, Canadian author Chris Jones explores the grey areas in life, refreshing the analytics discussion — and not only in the sports arena.

Canadian Chris Jones' recently released book explores grey areas of sports and life

(Submitted by Chris Jones)

The 2019 Toronto Raptors were the first team to win the NBA championship without a player drafted in the lottery's top 14 on the roster.

They were the scrappy underdogs — especially in the Finals against the dynastic Golden State Warriors — who, by the numbers, probably shouldn't have ended the season holding the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

Contrast that with their Scotiabank Arena co-tenants, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Replete with high-pedigree stars, including a No. 1 pick, the Maple Leafs on paper are perennial Stanley Cup contenders. And yet they haven't won a playoff series since 2004.

Games aren't played on paper. The disconnect between the Raptors' success and the Leafs' consistent failure is one that can't be captured by numbers — there's a necessary human element when dissecting athletic competition.

That's the premise of the book The Eye Test: A Case for Human Creativity in the Age of Analytics. Author Chris Jones, of Port Hope, Ont., explores the grey areas in life, refreshing the analytics discussion — and not only in the sports arena.

"I want to make the case for taste, for curiosity, for open-mindedness, for expertise, for love. If beauty isn't a virtue, a good eye still is," writes Jones, who is also a CBC Sports contributor.

Jones wrote most of the book during the COVID-19 pandemic, aiming for hope in a time of despair.

(Submitted by Chris Jones)

"In a way, working on the book was like a very personal antidote to all the bad things that were going on in the world and all the bad things we also hear about," Jones told CBC Sports. "And now I hope the book does that for its readers, too. I hope it does the same thing that makes you feel like the world isn't complete s--t."

The Eye Test is divided into chapters on entertainment, sports, weather, politics, crime, money and medicine. But what makes the book flow is the way Jones weaves them into one another. Anecdotes about the TV show The Price Is Right appear throughout. There's a tale about Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten in the chapter on money. A story about Jones' son Charley, who lives with autism, is inserted in the sports section.

"Being his dad has been an incredibly rewarding experience. It's also been hard and maddening sometimes," Jones said. "But he's taught me so much about perspective and how there isn't one right way to do anything. He's informed my way of thinking so much, and he has no idea that he's done that for me. But he just has." 

The Jeter Gulf

That "way of thinking" is applied across the book, with Jones emphasizing nuance in all facets of life.

New York Yankees star Derek Jeter became the epicentre of the numbers vs. eye test argument for his defence. Jeter won five Gold Glove awards as the top shortstop in the American League and authored the iconic play of his career with a backhand flip to home from the first-base side to nab Oakland's Jeremy Giambi for a crucial out in a 2001 playoff game.

Jeter's defence was thought to be unassailable — that is, until a statistic called Ultimate Zone Rating was invented, which revealed that in 2010, Jeter's final Gold Glove season, he was rated the third-worst shortstop in the AL.

The Gold Glove in 2010 was voted on by managers and coaches throughout baseball, who viewed Jeter as the best. How can there be such strong variance from the numbers?

"That [Giambi] play isn't lessened by what we know now about Jeter's fielding abilities," Jones writes. "It's all the more remarkable, as well as proof of the heights to which devotion will lift you. Maybe he had limited range, but the special way he saw the game made him capable of greatness all the same."

Jeter, it's worth noting, is an outlier — per a study cited in the book, the eye test and the numbers often match up when evaluating players' defensive abilities.

"That's where I think there's value for a good, smart, creative, experienced people to go, 'Well, maybe this is what we need.' And that's what the book is in a strange way," Jones said. "It's like going 'Yeah, you have some of the answers, but you don't have all the answers.' And when you don't have all the answers, what you need is a good person."

In 2013, Gold Glove balloting was changed. Twenty-five per cent of the vote is now weighted toward analytics, with managers and coaches maintaining the rest.

'I'm pro-human'

When the topic of sports analytics comes up, Jones recalls covering the Toronto Blue Jays for the National Post in the late 1990s and the team's manager, Jim Fregosi, explaining just what made the changeup so special.

"It was about deception and the courage it takes to throw a changeup and how hard it is to make all your deliveries all the same which you have to do to not tip off the pitch," Fregosi explained to Jones.

The art of the changeup can't be wrapped up in a single number, even if the pitch's spin rate and velocity are readily available.

Since Billy Beane's Oakland Athletics were immortalized in Michael Lewis' 2003 book Moneyball, MLB front offices changed the way they valued players to focus more heavily on numbers and less on the eyes of seasoned scouts.

Jones argues that both are important elements.

"I'm not anti-Moneyball. I'm not anti-science. I'm not anti-data. I'm pro-human. I think the way we think these days, in sort of a very black and white way about stuff, is not helpful," he said.

The Eye Test wants you to marry the statistics with what you see. It wants you to consider the role of luck in success, and of humanity in algorithms.

It wants you to understand that the Maple Leafs, no matter how good they seem on paper, might just lack that winning quality that numbers can't show.

It wants you to realize that the 2019 Raptors were more than the sum of their parts.

"And that's when I think people come in. Those really-hard-to-quantify things that matter when a bunch of people work together, in sports or not. Chemistry, I guess, is what we're talking about. So how do you quantify that?"

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