Birnbaum: The under-appreciated Pete Palmer

From SABR member Phil Birnbaum at Sabermetric Research on November 21, 2013, on fellow SABR member Pete Palmer:

Whenever someone mentions David Romer and fourth downs, I think of Pete Palmer, and how he might be the most under-appreciated sabermetrician ever.

While Romer gets all the mentions, Pete was actually first to figure out that NFL coaches are too conservative.  I have a copy of the 1998 edition of “The Hidden Game of Football” (which Pete wrote with Bob Carroll and John Thorn).  Chapter 10, “Kicking Up a Storm,” goes through the logic of when you should go for it on fourth down, as opposed to punting or trying a field goal.  Like Romer, Pete finds that teams should try for the first down more often.  One of Pete’s many conclusions, just as an example:

” … you should NOT kick a field goal unless you have six or more yards to go on fourth down.  And if you’re inside your opponent’s 10-yad line, you shouldn’t kick no matter what the distance.”  

Romer cites the Palmer chapter in his paper.   He reports that the book’s method yields “implausible results,” but isn’t specific about which results. I think some of the differences come from assuming different values for field position: Romer’s data comes from some fancy math with quadratic spline curves, while Palmer’s comes from 1997 play-by-play data.  I discussed some of the differences in my blog post on the subject.

But, I’ve digressed … my point is not to analyze who’s right, just to point out that Palmer had done roughly the same thing, but is barely remembered for it.  Part of the reason, as far as the mainstream press is concerned, might be that Pete is just some guy who wrote a book, whereas Romer is instantly credible as a Ph.D. economist.  Still, my impression is that Palmer gets doesn’t get as much recognition even within the football sabermetric community.

In fact, I can’t believe “The Hidden Game of Football” gets so little mention at all.  It was the first sabermetric analysis of football I’d ever seen, when the first edition came out in 1988.

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Originally published: November 21, 2013. Last Updated: November 21, 2013.