Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Graphickry: Team Salary, Team Performance

Ben Fry has concocted an ingenious interactive graph showing the relationship between each Major League Baseball team's salary and won-lost record for any day of the season.

To criticize such a graph--certainly the most interesting and useful presentation of this data that I've seen--would smack of churlishness and ingratitude. Hey, that's my cue!

The problem with the graph is that it distorts the relative positions of the team's salaries and performance by presenting them in evenly spaced lists on the two sides of the graph. Fry seems to recognize the problem with this approach on the salary side and therefore represents each team's salary by its line thickness as well as its position on the right side of the graph. The result is two visual representations of team salary that contradict each other: the Yankees' position on the right side of the graph inaccurately presents the teams a one evenly-spaced slot above the Red Sox, whereas the thickness of the line accurately but unintuitively reveals the huge gap between the top two teams. Combined with the deceptively even spacing of the team records on the left side, this flaw creates line slopes that can get seriously out of whack: at some points, one win or loss creates a deceptively large change in the slope of a team line, and the Yankees and Red Sox should be more obviously in their own leagues at the top of the salary side.

I've done enough web programming to know that my ideal graph would be vastly harder to program than Fry's already-complex one, so I understand his decisions; I just hope someone will surmount the technical hurdles to make an even better version of this.

I would also add a point of substance: it seems to me that team salaries in this context should include the costs and benefits of the luxury tax system. Which means that the Yankees are doing still worse.

In other words, Fry's graph makes the Yankees' season (to date--let's be clear) look disastrous, but it's actually much, much worse than it looks.