It seems almost beneath mention that the Orioles had a comparatively large 4.7% chance of beating the BoSox when Chris Davis came to the plate last night in the ninth with two out and no one on. It would take a statistician of the quality of a Nate Silver to calculate the odds-defying chance that the Red Sox would miss the playoffs and that the Sox and Yanks would both lose last night’s game. If all three of these events were independent of each other (and I don’t think that they are), the odds against what we witnessed last night would be something like 1,750,000-1 – and I haven’t even tried to factor in the odds against what happened this month and last night to the Atlanta Braves.
(YIKES! While I wrote this, Nate Silver did calculate the odds. As I predicted, I got the odds wrong. According to Silver, the odds of what we witnessed last night were actually 278,000,000 to one. Thanks to David in the comments for the correction. Gee, and I thought that my number was off the scale. So I’ll compromise for the moment and post the odds against what we saw last night at 2 hundred million to one against.)
Allow me to state the obvious: two hundred million to one are very long odds. This is not like betting on a longshot to win the Kentucky Derby. It’s more like betting that no horse will finish the race. The odds are much better than you or I will make a double-eagle in golf or be struck by lightning in
a given year a given week; even Han Solo thought that Luke Skywalker had a better chance than this to blow up the first Death Star.
Two hundred million to one are the kind of odds that should cause us to wonder about more than the improbability of what we saw last night. It should cause us to wonder about the odds-makers.
I am a sabermetrics kind of guy. I don’t necessarily understand all of the advanced statistics the way I should, but I appreciate that sabermetrics has brought us a depth of understanding how baseball games are won and lost. But we proponents of sabermetrics should not get too arrogant. There is a chaos to the game of baseball that I think is widely underestimated. If you’re familiar with the concept of the “butterfly effect”, it would seem like the publication of an arrogant headline in a March edition of the Boston Herald can “cause” Carl Crawford to miss a diving effort to catch a Robert Andino line drive in September.
If chaos theory is not your thing, then let’s use a different word to describe what happened last night: luck. When you and I think about luck, we tend to think of a bad break that went against (or in favor of) a particular team, like when Don Denkinger blew the call at first base in game 6 of the 1985 World Series. But when the numbers guys think about luck, they think differently; they think about any deviation from expected performance, regardless of the cause. And baseball is a highly unpredictable game.
Of course, after the fact the pundits will try to rationally explain what happened to the 2011 Red Sox in terms of cause and effect. You’ll read that the 2011 Red Sox were brought down by injuries to their third baseman and starting pitchers. Read these explanations carefully and critically. Ask yourself how injuries to Dice-K and Buchholz, injuries that occurred months ago, could have caused a swoon effect that did not manifest itself until a few weeks ago. Also consider another team that suffered injuries this year to its third baseman and starting rotation – your New York Yankees. Finally, ask yourself whether what happened to the Red Sox was so catastrophic that it can explain a collapse that was a two million to one shot. The Red Sox’s injuries were not themselves a two million to one shot. We don’t have explanations for two million to one occurrences in baseball, which is another way of saying that the 2011 Red Sox were an historically unlucky team.
We have a day off from baseball to pause and reflect. The game of baseball, a game that I love, a game in which I have invested a good portion of my life, is a wild and bat-guano crazy game. It is a game where two million to one shots finish first way more often than once in every two million opportunities. You have to be at least a little bit lucky to win, and sometimes (more often than we might think) a good team like the 2011 Red Sox is going to get very unlucky and lose. And that kind of bad luck is coming eventually (probably sooner than we’d expect) to a team that you care about.
Consider this to be your “rational guide” for the upcoming playoffs. For the Yankees to win, they’ll need to be both lucky and good, and to my best understanding, it’s more important to be lucky than good. Keep this in mind when you read mainstream media narratives that focus on a team’s grit, momentum and other such nonsense.
Good luck to you and to whatever team it might be where you’ve made your emotional investment!