Commentary

Tiger vs. The King

The most dominant season in 15 years? Sorry, it's not Fed or the 1998 Yanks.

Originally Published: May 1, 2013
By Peter Keating | ESPN The Magazine
Keating IlloChuck Anderson for ESPNThe stats revolution has accurately pinpointed value but has yet to define greatness.

OUR 15TH ANNIVERSARY is the perfect time to ask: Who's had the greatest season since The Mag launched in 1998?

To get an answer, we have to start by defining "great." And I must say, the stats revolution hasn't been very helpful in pinpointing greatness, as opposed to value. Wins Above Replacement (WAR), a concept now spreading from baseball to other sports, does a very good job of measuring how the market will price an athlete. But when we're evaluating all-timers, we don't really care how much more Albert Pujols is worth than some end-of-the-bench schmo; we want to know if he's so much better than his rivals that we should compare him with Willie Mays.

Greatness, in short, isn't about being better than a replacement -- it's about being better than excellent. It's about dominance.

Now, dominance is a tricky concept to measure, because declining dominance often indicates improving leaguewide play. No NBA player today could score 100 points in a game, the way Wilt Chamberlain did in 1962, because the average talent in pro basketball, even on the worst teams, has improved drastically over the past 50 years.

Further, some sports, due to their rules and arcane point systems, are easier to dominate statistically than others. Last year PGA Tour leader Rory McIlroy earned just over $8 million, 31 percent more than second-place Tiger Woods; Brad Keselowski won the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series with only 2 percent more points than Clint Bowyer. Is McIlroy really a 31 percent better golfer than Tiger, or Keselowski a 2 percent better driver than Bowyer?

Peter Keating is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, where he covers investigative and statistical subjects. He started writing "The Biz," a column looking at sports business from the fan's point of view, in 1999. He also coordinates the Magazine's annual "Ultimate Standings" project, which ranks all pro franchises according to how much they give back to fans. His work on concussions in football has earned awards from the Deadline Club, the New York Press Club and the Center for the Study of Sport in Society.