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Thursday, February 3

ESPN Interview with Malcolm Gladwell  

Page 2 interviews Malcolm Gladwell about Blink today. Two things struck me about this interview. First, Jeff Merron seems to have actually read all or most of the book. Second, Gladwell seems a genuine sports fan. The result is a quality interview where both participants are on the same (or at least similar) page. In my experience this is surprisingly rare in book interviews.

I found most interesting the part where Gladwell talks about Moneyball and the need for balance in evalutating a player based on both stats and impression:

You are right to bring up "Moneyball," because reading Michael Lewis' book was a real inspiration for me. I think about it this way. What people in the classical music world discovered was that when they couldn't see the person auditioning, they made very different and much better hiring decisions than when they could see the auditioner. With a screen up, for instance, they began to hire women for the first time, which suggests that before that their judgment had been impaired by all kinds of biases they were unaware of. What they saw with their eyes had interfered with what they heard with their ears. Billy Beane makes the same argument about scouting prospects: that sometimes what you see — whether a player is short or tall, thin or heavy — corrupts your assessment of what really matters, which is whether a guy can hit. So Beane does, essentially, a version of what orchestras do: he put a screen. He doesn't let what he sees with his eyes corrupt his statistical appreciation of a player's ability.

But this doesn't mean that all instinctive judgments about players are useless, because the question of whether a guy can hit is only one of a number of questions that a scout has to answer. GMs also want to know: is the guy lazy or a hard worker? Is he coachable? Does he have good habits? Will he be a good clubhouse presence? How strong is his competitive desire? What separates Roger Clemens or Barry Bonds from any of the other top players drafted alongside them is not talent, at the end of the day. It's desire and competitiveness — and to predict that you very much need a seasoned scout who can look at a player and have an instinctive sense of what he'll be like years down the road. I always thought that the critics of "Moneyball" misinterpreted what Lewis was saying. He wasn't saying that all instinctive scouting judgments are flawed. He was saying that there are some questions — like predicting hitting ability — that are better answered statistically, and that the task of a successful GM is to understand the difference between what can and can't be answered that way. That's my argument in Blink as well.

Later in the discussion Gladwell mentions that he'd love to put eye-tracking goggles on Peyton Manning. I also think this would be fascinating. More than that, I'd love to put them on several QBs of varying skill and age. Seeing how these guys see the field would be fascinating. On Prime Time and other shows, ESPN uses the highlight box to focus on different players during a replay. Which players QBs highlight instinctually (specifically as opposed to what they might say afterwards) as they read the field would provide a great contrast. If only to compare how the field is seen by the viewer (or the coach's tape) vs. the guy under center.

MG: I'd love to know, on this same level of detail, how Manning "reads" a defense. Does he spend a extra fraction of a second on the linebacker, or the safety? When he's playing the Ravens, does he look to Ray Lewis first, or last, or does he do something completely unexpected like not looking at Lewis at all? Are there certain schemes that he takes longer to understand? If so, what are they? And so on. Manning, for instance, probably picks up blitzes better than anyone else in football. Wouldn't you love to know what he's doing, in the face of a blitz, that — say — Kyle Boller isn't?

Even if you haven't yet read the book, it should be a very interesting interview.

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