Rocket Science: Daryl Morey Brings Hard-Core Statistical Analysis to the NBA

Houston's pro basketball team pins (at least a part of ) its hopes on a brainiac GM

And in usual form, Leslie Alexander delivered this message to those who doubted his decision: "I was right, and everyone else that questioned it was wrong."

Contrary to popular belief, statistics do not lie. At worst, the numbers are merely unwilling accomplices forced into an arena to which they don't belong. The true masters of deception are the people who, consciously or otherwise, flaunt their misleading stats to continue perpetuating half-truths and outright lies. Perhaps no one knows that better than Bill James.

James was one of the first people who used statistical analysis to look beyond the veil separating old-school baseball logic from innumerable hidden truths. Thirty years ago, he began writing his annual Baseball Abstracts, which poked so many holes in the game's conventional wisdom, readers had to wonder why baseball's powers-that-be couldn't figure out such things for themselves. Whereas traditionalists were in love with a player's batting average, James demonstrated that on-base and slugging percentages were far more important when it came to generating runs — which was, after all, the point of the game. And he didn't stop there. Among many other things, James was also among the first to stress the role of luck in both a pitcher's win-loss record and a batter's runs-batted-in total.

Les Alexander believes a more analytical approach will give the Rockets an advantage.
Daniel Kramer
Les Alexander believes a more analytical approach will give the Rockets an advantage.
The Rockets are hoping to get a big lift from newcomers like Luis Scola.
Daniel Kramer
The Rockets are hoping to get a big lift from newcomers like Luis Scola.

James dubbed his particular field of study "sabermetrics," a somewhat cumbersome name derived from SABR, the acronym for the Society for American Baseball Research. His intent was not to remove the human element from the game — in fact, he acknowledged the limitations of statistics and urged open-­mindedness above all else — but rather to shine the light of objectivity on a game dominated by players, coaches and executives who implicitly placed their trust in old-school maxims and what they saw with their own eyes. James had no interest in overthrowing the establishment. He merely hoped his statistical analysis could bring balance to it.

But balance was not something to be won overnight. It took decades before major league baseball embraced some of James's ideas. Fans, meanwhile, were quicker to catch on. By 1982, the Abstract was a best-seller. Scientists, professors, Wall Street analysts, mathematicians — they all were fascinated by this new-old world which James was exploring. From a small city in northern Ohio just outside of Cleveland, a young boy was paying close attention, too.

Daryl Morey wanted to stay near Cleveland. He was a sophomore in high school when his Dad's business opened up branch offices in Toledo, Detroit and Chicago. A move was imminent. Aware of Daryl's resistance to relocating, his father asked him to make a list of the reasons why such a move would be either good or bad. The teen's No. 1 reason for staying put: "I thought that the Cavaliers and Browns had a good chance to win and I wanted to be in the town when it ­happened."

Basketball was his favorite sport, but he was just as well-versed in baseball and football. When he wasn't playing on the court or in the field, young Daryl spent hours absorbed in games like Strat-O-Matic and Earl Weaver Baseball. By the time he was in middle school, Morey was already showing an inclination toward viewing sports from a more analytical ­perspective.

"Very early, I was always focused on how to better forecast players because, frankly, the data was there," says Morey. "I was always somewhat interested in how to figure out who the best player was and always hoped it was my favorite Cleveland Indians that I was rooting for, and always seemed to be disappointed when it wasn't. When I was younger, they were pretty bad. I just got passionate about it and that brought me to Bill James. [His books] were inspirational to how taking an objective look at things and beliefs can help you succeed in sports and anywhere, really."

Buoyed by the discovery of a kindred spirit and his dominance in the emerging world of fantasy sports (that's right, fantasy junkies, you too can become a real-life GM — just as soon as you graduate from Northwestern and MIT, of course), Morey set out on a path he hoped would allow him to make his mark on the professional sports landscape.

Two important events took place when Morey arrived at Northwestern. During his first week on campus, he met his future wife, Ellen, while playing volleyball at a picnic. They went on their first date within a week and got married five years later.

"It's a good story if you're a girl and it's a bad story if you're me," jokes Morey. "I tend to avoid the topic because the guy's story is supposed to be more like, 'I sowed my wild oats and now it's time to settle down.'"

The other life-changing event came in the form of an entry-level job with a company called STATS Inc., a Chicago-based firm that provides sports statistics and analysis primarily to teams, leagues and media outlets, and one which Bill James himself had joined about a decade earlier.

"Daryl has many skills that I wish I had, but never will," says James. "A lot of those skills aren't apparent maybe the first time you meet him. But you soon realize he's got a brilliant mind and he's also a great people person."

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