Blog Entry

Eye for an Eye: Most important position in sports

Posted on: August 25, 2011 11:20 am
Edited on: August 25, 2011 11:52 am
It’s a debate as old as time … or at least the invention of talking TV heads: What is the most important position in sports? It seems the sports world has come to the universal conclusion that’s a quarterback in football. So we put it to our bloggers to represent their respective sports and make their cases for the most important position.

Royce Young, Eye on Basketball: Basketball’s kind of in a tough position to make a claim in this debate, because while a point guard is the quarterback of a team, he/she’s not always that important. I mean, look at who the Bulls won their titles with -- John Paxson, Steve Kerr, B.J. Armstrong. Or the Lakers with Derek Fisher. You sometimes get a similar thing in football with guys like Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson winning Super Bowls, but in basketball, it happens quite a bit.

And there’s not really a specific position that stands out as more important. Basketball’s a free-flowing game with positions often interchanging. Is LeBron James a point guard or a small forward? Heck, sometimes he’s a power forward. So really, basketball doesn’t entirely fit because it’s kind of a sport that doesn’t exactly feature positions.

So here’s what I’m arguing: Basketball’s most important position is always the alpha player. Whoever that may be. For the Magic it’s Dwight Howard at center. For the Hornets, it’s Chris Paul at point guard. For the Lakers it’s Kobe Bryant at shooting guard. And that one player can impact the game and team more than any other position in any sport. Because there are only five players on the court for each team, one player -- a great player -- can change everything. Carmelo Anthony carried Syracuse to a national title pretty much by himself. Dirk Nowitzki obviously meant everything to the Mavs in their title run. Michael Jordan ... well, I don’t even have to say.

Every other sport’s top position -- quarterback, pitcher, goalie -- all are really going to have to rely on their teammates as much as themselves. But basketball’s a game where one guy can entirely take over. (For reference, see Kobe’s 81.) And that’s why, while not an actual position, the alpha player in basketball is the most important in sports.

Evan Brunell, Eye on Baseball: Baseball is an individual sport masquerading as a team sport. While all players are collectively pushing for a team to win, the game relies on specific, individual contributions for the team to win out. As opposed to basketball or football, where players have to move in a cohesive unit, baseball spotlights individuals.

Due to the power of Wikipedia, we learn what scholar Michael Mandelbaum has to say about baseball in The Meaning of Sports: Why Americans Watch Baseball, Football, and Basketball and What They See When They Do.:

It is impossible to isolate and objectively assess the contribution each [football] team member makes to the outcome of the play.... [E]very basketball player is interacting with all of his teammates all the time. In baseball, by contrast, every player is more or less on his own.... Baseball is therefore a realm of complete transparency and total responsibility. A baseball player lives in a glass house, and in a stark moral universe.... Everything that every player does is accounted for and everything accounted for is either good or bad, right or wrong.
This is why advanced statistics have taken off in baseball as opposed to other sports. In baseball, it's easy to divide and quantify, to bastardize an old saying. And this reasoning is also why the starting pitcher is the most important position in sports.

Let's get one thing out of the way first in favor of the argument for a quarterback. There's no question that the closest approximation to a starting pitcher in another sport is the quarterback. A good or bad quarterback will derail the game, just like a bad day by the starting pitcher will kill the entire game as early as the first inning. What the quarterback has to his advantage, and what tips the scales to that position being the most valuable, is the schedule. The QB only has to play 16 regular-season games and has a week off in between to recuperate. Now, this isn't a negative -- it's simply how football functions. Due to this, the same QB can and will affect the entire season of a team, while even someone like Roy Halladay missing the entire year wouldn't necessarily destroy a baseball team's season.

But is the right point of comparison the entire season? After all, if baseball followed football's schedule to a T, baseball would only need one starting pitcher (plus a few in reserve, just like backup quarterbacks) as that pitcher would receive plenty of rest and be able to start all 16 games under a football schedule. (And just like a QB, an injury to the pitcher would then kill the team's entire season.) By the same vein, good luck making the argument that one quarterback would be able to sustain playing 162 football games in consecutive days. This is nothing against football or baseball -- these are two distinct sports. But we need to make the right comparison across both sports, and that means looking at the individual-game level.

And there, starting pitchers win out as the most important position in sports. If a quarterback fails in a season, the whole year is usually lost. But if he fails in one game, the game isn't necessarily over. The team can turn over the game to the running game, can hope that the defense clamps down and that special teams does its job. Of course, the same can be said about a starting pitcher. If the pitcher is playing badly, the team can hope for a lockdown performance by the bullpen and the offense to do its job. But it's much harder to overcome a starting pitcher imploding than it is a quarterback.

Remember, baseball is a team sport played by individual players, and in every game, the starting pitcher is the most important player on the field. Even the best hitters will only get to the plate around four times, but a pitcher who throws a complete game will have registered 27 outs, just barely under seven times the chances a position player gets. While a quarterback is in a similar position, being involved in a higher volume of plays than any other football player, the distribution of work is spread out much more, and the quarterback has to rely on other players doing their job to do his job. How can a quarterback do his job if his interior line keeps collapsing, or his wide receivers can't get open? The starting pitcher, meanwhile, stands on a circle in the middle of the field, all alone, with only his ability standing in the way of getting the menacing batter at the plate out. While other variables in baseball can influence a pitcher's effectiveness, such as the quality of the defense behind him, it doesn't come close to matching the variables in football that can mitigate a quarterback's ability.

The Bears made the Super Bowl with Rex Grossman. Enough said.

Brian Stubits, Eye on Hockey: Well this is fun to read you guys try to convince yourselves, but time to come out and play with the position you all are sleeping on.

I understand hockey isn't this country's most popular sport -- understatement of the debate -- but that shouldn't diminish it's most important position's role. First of all, a goalie is almost always in play. A QB, at best, is playing maybe 2/3 of the time in any game? Maybe? That's only if his team is really dominating. Then, of that, he hands the ball off to another player half the time.

A pitcher in baseball, particularly in the American League, is making about an equal impact as a QB considering half of the time he isn't in the game and more often than not he doesn't finish the game.

Basketball, while I must commend Royce for thinking outside of the box, just doesn't have a most important position that can compete here. The alpha player in basketball is a role perhaps more significant than any other in sports, but it's not a position.

That brings me back to hockey. Let me put it to you this way. If a QB, pitcher or basketball player is successful 85 percent of the time at what he does, he is the best player in his sport's history. Ever. If a goaltender succeeds 85 percent of the time, he's probably being relegated to your local beer league.

While you might maintain a goaltender is reliant on his offensive players too much, I would argue that's not the case. Because hockey permits ties in the regular season, it is the only sport where you can say if your most important position player is perfect, your team is guaranteed not to lose. A pitcher can only go so long in any game before being relieved even if he is perfect, a QB going perfect significantly increases your chances of winning, but is no guarantee. Same goes for basketball.

To speak a little more specifically, the Philadelphia Flyers just reached the Stanley Cup Final two seasons ago. Yet they just finished an offseason overhaul that saw them jettison their top offensive talents just so they could squeeze what they think is an elite goaltender on their roster in Ilya Bryzgalov. Or if you'd like I can point to Tim Thomas, who was simply amazing in the Stanley Cup Final this year and was easily the biggest reason why the Bruins won the Cup against the offensively supercharged Canucks. One player can make that tremendous of an impact in every game.

What other sport do they give players such descriptions as "standing on his head?"

In closing, a sport that is as low scoring as hockey is, surely you can all comprehend the value of keeping the puck out of your own net.

Will Brinson, Eye on Football: Well, for starters, it's cute that every single one of you is like "WE'RE BETTER THAN THE QB!" That pretty clearly makes the point that you're starting from behind.

Although not quite as much as a) Royce's need to create a fictional "position" to make his argument or b) Evan's need to take things down to an individual-game level in order to try and justify that a starting pitcher is the most important position. (We'll get to the only defensive-sided goaltender in a minute.)

Regarding pitchers, I have some questions. Who is the best starting pitcher on the Phillies, Cliff Lee or Roy Halladay? Why do pitchers not win the most valuable player award in their own sport? Why, if pitchers are so important to an individual game, have closers become so important? If the best pitcher in baseball last year, Halladay, completed just nine games, why on Earth would you think he could complete your fictional 16-game baseball schedule? Why are there multiple teams with multiple "aces" in baseball when there aren't enough quality starting quarterbacks to fill up the entire NFL? Are we dealing with different talent pools?

And most importantly: why are you citing Wikipedia?!?!?!

Actually, the most important question is why would you think that the level of an individual game matters? Justifying things at the level of an individual game is not only ridiculous and counter-intuitive to the very argument of importance, but it goes against the very "advanced statistics" you cited the paragraph before in that it condenses the argument to the smallest possible sample size.

To wit: Paul Maholm has five complete games in his career. PAUL MALHOLM! With an ERA+ of 96 for his career, he is the definition of not just "below average" but, more importantly "replacement player." That means that you can take someone who is typically worse than the average pitcher and potentially have him pitch the entire game and while you won't get the same performance, there's a decent chance that you get an acceptable performance.

Do you know what happens when you replace Peyton Manning with a below-average quarterback? The Colts win three games and are terrible.

That's how big a difference-maker quarterbacks are over the course of the entire season. The maximum value of any baseball player this season is 7.6 wins above the replacement value player below him (Jose Bautista) and for a pitcher it's only 6.9 WAR (Halladay). He's worth, then, 18 percent of the Phillies' season based on your own proclaimed advanced metrics. It's not even a remotely close argument.

As for basketball, the "only Kobe can score 81" argument is interesting, but I point to my man Peyton again -- while quarterbacks require other people to handle the physical action of completing a pass, there's little question that a great quarterback + terrible wide receivers can have success. Peyton did it with Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon. These dudes weren't great until he came around, of course. Or look at the Patriots, who were a dominant offensive team with Deion Branch as their top target last year.

Conversely, the Panthers had Steve Smith last season and won two games, entirely because they had the worst quarterback situation in the league.

In basketball, teams can be built all kinds of different ways. A great center, a great point guard, run-and-gun, defensive-minded, etc., etc. The same thing works in football, of course, but there's one problem -- it won't work without a great quarterback. Not anymore, not in the NFL, which has become so QB-dominated that it's surprising we're even having this discussion.

Brunell: Will asks "Why are there multiple teams with multiple "aces" in baseball when there aren't enough quality starting quarterbacks to fill up the entire NFL? Are we dealing with different talent pools?"

Just because teams have multiple aces doesn't mean baseball is crawling with them. Paul Maholm, for example, is the Pirates' ace, and he's hardly a "true" ace. Your argument about Maholm having five complete games doesn't quite marry up. Even a blind squirrel can find a nut every once in a while, just like Tarvaris Jackson can pull out a strong game from nowhere. It doesn't make Jackson an elite quarterback. Just like football, there are varying levels of great pitchers -- the elite ones, the great ones, the good ones and the rest.

A team lucky enough to have multiple "true" aces, like the Phillies, takes away that true ace for another team. Cliff Lee isn't the No. 1 pitcher on his own team, but if you put him on pretty much any other team, he would be the ace. Heck, Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre were on the same team for some time. So was LaDanian Tomlinson and Mike Turner. Each player was either great at the time or went on to be great, but it doesn't mean that there was a paucity of quarterbacks just because multiple good players at the same position are  on the same team. Plus, here you get into the differences between 16 games and 162 games. Every Opening Day, there are 750 players that receive at least one day's playing time in baseball. The number of players climbs over 1,000 by season's end, numbers that football can't possibly match. With that much competition, there are naturally going to be more aces. It's a simple ratio. It's not a different talent pool, it's a bigger one.

As to why the level of an individual game matters, we're here arguing what the most important position in the game is. How can you throw out individual games? Especially in football, you would think the importance of individual games is heightened because there are just 16 games in a season and playoffs are single-elimination. The argument is what the most important position in sports is. That tells me we need to figure out who influences the team's chances of winning the most. If you look at a season's worth of evidence, I don't think you can argue against the quarterback. But is it appropriate to compare a quarterback to a starting pitcher with all other considerations factored in? I don't think so. Compare them in a vacuum and distill it down.

Brinson: Even if the talent's shifted to one team -- as happens in many sports, even if the Favre/Rodgers point doesn't work as Rodgers actually became better by sitting and learning -- pitchers are used once every five games. That makes the argument done and done, because you know what Roy Halladay does every four out every five (individual!) games? He lights matches in between Ryan Howard's toes.

As for the goaltender, I think it's important to remember that you only win if you can outscore the other team. This is true in every team sport.

And goalies simply do not score points. In fact, when a team desperately needs to make a run and really get on the offensive in hockey, they actually pull their goaltender! Additionally, the cerebral and athletic requirements to be a goalie are, I'm sorry to say, just not the same that are required for a quarterback.

Stubits: Well you know the old saying: defense wins championships.

Brinson: Though I respect the arguments your making, goalies are just for the defensive, which is where every all of you remain when trying to argue that the quarterback isn't the most important position in all of sports.

Photos: Getty Images

Since: Feb 3, 2009
Posted on: August 26, 2011 8:03 pm

Eye for an Eye: Most important position in sports

Brodeur has looked barely above average the last few years with their rebuilding defence where they were starting 3 rookies each game, none of them wanting to go get a puck out of the corner
do you think maybe that has more to do with the fact that he's a 39 year old, 18 year veteran player, who's simply in the twilight of his career, and who's been battling injuries.

even when they were winning their cups, the devils weren't the greatest team in the league.  yes they had stevens and neidermayer, and to a lesser extent rafalski (even though he wasn't much of a player in his own end), but after that, they didn't have much talent on teh back end, and they certainly had no depth.  the devils won cups because of brodeur, without him, those devils teams don't even make the playoffs, let alone win cups.

i think goalie is easily the most important position.  qb's can rely on defense and a running game, a pitcher only plays in 20-25% of his teams games.  I hardly follow basketball at all, and so i'm not very knowledgeable on the importance of different positions.  however, if there was a sport where one player really can carry a team by himself, it's definately basketball.  all a team needs is one great player, and they can be carried all the way.  look at cleveland with lebron, and then without him.  i'm pretty sure lebron isn't a PG, so it doesn't really have anything to do with this argument.  that being said, i can't think of any teams who only have a star PG, and are successful.

Since: Aug 26, 2011
Posted on: August 26, 2011 7:17 pm

Eye for an Eye: Most important position in sports

i agree with you that it is close, but in the case of the shootout ( which is a silly way to end a game,  the only sport that changes its rules when the game matters most), you dont think the guy skating with the puck is exactly as important as the guy trying to stop him?  maybe the "extra shooter" in the shootout is the most important postion?

Since: Aug 26, 2011
Posted on: August 26, 2011 7:13 pm

Eye for an Eye: Most important position in sports

I guess it takes a fan of a team with a great goaltender to understand how important defence and team play is to making the great goaltender look that way.  Brodeur has looked barely above average the last few years with their rebuilding defence where they were starting 3 rookies each game, none of them wanting to go get a puck out of the corner.  a goalie can steal a game for you,  but so can anyone on the ice, its just the great saves goalies make stand out more than what a shut down defenceman does, or a hard working grinder in the corner wearing down the oposition.

Since: May 14, 2008
Posted on: August 26, 2011 7:09 pm

Eye for an Eye: Most important position in sports

I think this is really close between a goalie and a starting pitcher.

I think there needs to be given a distinction to a starting pitcher in the NL, because they get to bat, and have the ability to influence a game offensively and defensively. There have been many games in which the pitcher has provided all the offense...sad but true. 

However I will point out that I think a goalie is a tougher position to play both physically and mentally. Oftentimes the goalie is all alone, and needs to make the right play. A pitcher needs to make the right pitches, but his defense is always there (hopefully) to back him up if the ball does indeed get put into play....and it usually does get put into play.

A goalie does have to make the right passes and sometimes even winds up with an assist, so to be fair, a goalie can have some influence offensively, but not as much as a pitcher can. Plenty of pitchers have hit HR's this year, I don't remember any goalies scoring from across the ice.

That being said I still give a slight edge to a goalie for how demanding of a position it is, and how he often has to make the plays by himself. Especially in a tie game that goes to shootout. The goalie is all there by himself and simply has to make stops to give his team a chance to win. 


Since: Aug 22, 2007
Posted on: August 26, 2011 6:57 pm

Eye for an Eye: Most important position in sports

It's funny because when the Philadelphia Flyers made their run last season all CBS could talk about was how they thought the goaltending position was overrated and it was more important who surrounded him than who was actually in net.  Odd how times change when the Flyers went belly up panicked and over reacted the following year to get a up everything they actually had in front of him.  I too think the goaltending position is important but I think the naive fan thinks that it's just the goalie that keeps that GAA down.  Your most important players are your defenseman and how they take care of their own end.  As a Sabres fan I saw 2 contrasting views of this.  The year we lost to the Carolina Hurricanes in the conference finals we had a dominant group of D man and it took about 5 injuries and reaching about 8 deep for the Hurricanes to be able to beat us.  Fast forward to last season, where the Bruins only managed to escape us in the first round because of absolute atrocious defensive play.  Our D couldn't get it out of the zone for their lives, constantly turning the puck over and failing to outplay them in the most important parts of the rink(the few feet before and after the lines).  End result, the Bruins not only move on past us, but go on to win the cup.  Goalies are great when they are making the saves, but even Luongo proved that a world class goalie can be mediocre at best at times and it takes a solid defense to limit the chances of the other team to assist the goalie in making him who he is.  Bottom line, the goaltender is what the QB is to football, and the defense are the offensive lineman no one ever talks about but always are the reason for success.  Do you honestly think we'd be talking about Tom Brady for HOF if he had as poor of an O line as my Buffalo Bills have for the last decade....?  Nope, he'd be another QB casualty and no one would have ever wondered how he slipped to the 190 something pick

Since: Aug 26, 2011
Posted on: August 26, 2011 6:40 pm

Eye for an Eye: Most important position in sports

Does anyone remember the 2 GOALIES from the 2010 stanley cup finals?  One doesnt have an NHL job the other was let go by the winning team because they didnt think he was important enough or good enough to earn 1.5 million.   Suck on that!  j/k.... but really.... lol  I really Do agree that goalies are important, more important than 1 starting pitcher, yes,  but not the POSITION of starting pitcher( all 5 starters)

Since: Sep 18, 2006
Posted on: August 26, 2011 6:30 pm

Eye for an Eye: Most important position in sports

Not a hockey fan - but even I can admit that it has to be goalie.

Pitcher - I think you have to be there every game to be considered the most important position.
QB - Even Trent Dilfer won a Super Bowl
Basket Ball - Robert Horry has won 7 championships on 3 different teams.  On none of those teams he was the Alpha - but it was his clutch shooting that got those teams rings.

So while not a hockey fan - I can see the importance of having a hot goalie and how that can take you into the Stanley Cup.

Since: Aug 26, 2011
Posted on: August 26, 2011 6:17 pm

Eye for an Eye: Most important position in sports

Neptune, im from Canada, so ive seen my share of hockey and great goaltending.  But what you are talking about  is the best player on a team being Tim Thomas.  By far he was the most important PLAYER to his team this year in sports.  My favorite team is the Devils, in my mind the best goalie ever, (I admit he would be better if he worked harder) and perhaps they wouldnt have won as many cups as they did without him,  maybe they would have, they probably wouldnt have won any without Scott Stevens either,  does that make the defenseman the most important postion?  My point is a well played team game can overcome a poor goaltender.  I dont think too many goalies in the league would have had trouble shutting out the Leafs that night in the playoffs when Brodeur made an astounding 6 saves!

Since: Jun 19, 2011
Posted on: August 26, 2011 6:09 pm

Eye for an Eye: Most important position in sports

lionpride their is no way that a Pitcher is the most important player in sports I take it you don't watch much hockey because if you watch any of this years play-offs you would have seen one of the best performance's by a goalie every namely Tim Thomas he was the reason why the Bruins won game 7 against the Habs,Lighting and Canucks.

If your pitcher has a bad inning all it take is for your Offensive to come back and get the runs back I cite this years Boston Red Soxs and New York Yankees as a prime example of questaniable pitching but the team still ends up winning the game yesterdays Yankess 22 run outburst alone shows that at one point the Yankees were down by 7 runs.

if you score 7 goals in hockey the game is over even if have some of the best scorers out their your not going to get 7 goals back and if you do then it's a Beer League game.

Since: Jun 19, 2011
Posted on: August 26, 2011 6:01 pm

Eye for an Eye: Most important position in sports

Disagree Grant Fuhr out played Billie Smith for the Oilers 1st Cup and basically Bill Ranford stole the Cup from the Bruins in 89-90 Finals

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