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Baseball: making meaning out of unexpected outcomes

Baseball: making meaning out of unexpected outcomes

The day after the most incredible day of baseball in memory, members of the Church of Baseball are trying to make meaning out of the unexpected.

Wednesday saw two of the most historic collapses and one of the most remarkable comebacks in the modern era come together in the space of a few hours. What does one make of this?

Nate Silver uses statistics then makes a divine pronouncement:

The following is not mathematically rigorous, since the events of yesterday evening were contingent upon one another in various ways. But just for fun, let’s put all of them together in sequence:

The Red Sox had just a 0.3 percent chance of failing to make the playoffs on Sept. 3.

The Rays had just a 0.3 percent chance of coming back after trailing 7-0 with two innings to play.

The Red Sox had only about a 2 percent chance of losing their game against Baltimore, when the Orioles were down to their last strike.

The Rays had about a 2 percent chance of winning in the bottom of the 9th, with Johnson also down to his last strike.

Multiply those four probabilities together, and you get a combined probability of about one chance in 278 million of all these events coming together in quite this way.

When confronted with numbers like these, you have to start to ask a few questions, statistical and existential…..

…Perhaps the baseball that unfolded on Wednesday evening — which also featured a dramatic and season-ending collapse by the Atlanta Braves — was God’s way of telling Bud Selig that baseball ought not add an extra wild card, which would have rendered yesterday’s games relatively meaningless.

An article published the night before the Great Choke Fest, says that researchers–looking at data from major soccer tournaments–suggest that a sports team’s history of failure can impact the performance of player even if he or she did not participate in the failing teams.

In poignantly predictable baseball news, the Chicago Cubs have once again failed to reach the postseason. Some fans speak of the team as being cursed, while others dismiss that notion as an excuse for poor play or bad management.

After all, they ask, why would the failure of one group of guys in, say, 1969 (when they famously collapsed in September) or 1984 (when they just missed becoming National League champions) have any impact on an entirely different group of players in 2011?

Well, a new study of soccer tournaments finds a team’s history of failure can hurt the performances of its players — including those who weren’t part of the losing effort. This suggests a team’s propensity to choke in high-pressure situations may become self-perpetuating.

“This paper demonstrates, for the first time I believe, that sports teams’ historical outcomes seem to affect individual players’ present-day performances, even for players who were not personally part of the teams’ history,” said Geir Jordet of the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences.

In short, having a better team on paper proved less important than the confidence-boosting knowledge that your team has had prior success in this crucial situation.

On the other hand, as Mets fan David Gibson says the RNS blog, one can simply believe in miracles.


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This suggests a team’s propensity to choke in high-pressure situations may become self-perpetuating.

Until 1 November 2010, I would have completely believed this. Now, my San Francisco Giants are, once again, watching the play-offs from the couch…

…but we’ll always have last year. 🙂

JC Fisher

[FWIW, I’m pulling (mildly) for the Brewers this post-season.]

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