Friday, June 17, 2011

Numbers and the Old Ball Game

Andrew Ferguson on the statistics of baseball:

I won’t bore you with the details, but Futterman and another statistician have demonstrated to their satisfaction that teams with losing records on June 1 rarely go on to win enough games to make the playoffs at season’s end. The odds that the losers will reverse direction and become winners are one in ten. This revelation, if that’s the word for it, comes on the heels of new statistics about the count in the batter’s box, reported by the great baseball writer Thomas Boswell. Statistics show that once a batter has two strikes, his chances of getting a hit fall to near zero. The average big league batter facing a count of 0-2 has a batting average of .156. “Don’t slumber through a game thinking, ‘This bum’ll never get a hit,’ ” Boswell wrote. “Oh yes he may. As long as he hasn’t got two strikes yet.”


Dan Richwine said...

“I won’t bore you with the details” huh? What’s the old saying about where the devil lays?

Those who follow the "science" of baseball numbers is full of logical fallacies, and tend to over-idealize concepts they believe are true. A friend of mine accuses them of wanting "a platonic baseball heaven" to watch games in, where everything is perfectly predictable and plays by the rules of their formulas. As someone who spent a very large amount of time and energy understanding the approach and conclusions of the "sabermetric" community, I can say without hesitation that you should take statements from even the wisest of them with a grain of salt. Statements made by casual fans of statistics should be taken with a truckload.

To take one very obvious fallacy, looking at all the past instances where teams had a losing record by June 1 ignores the specifics of any given situation. A team may have a losing record because they are a truly bad team. Or maybe they had a lot of injuries of their star players, who are now coming back. Or maybe they played extremely tough teams and their schedule is about to get easier. Or maybe a dozen other things which will make the rest of the season totally different than those of teams in the past.

To simply throw your hands up and say "Uncle!" is yielding to such fallacies without a fight. As someone who works with numbers, statistics, projections, and suchlike for a living, I know very well the limitations of them, and I think the overselling of their abilities and veracity has been a large mistake, both in baseball and in business.

Michael Wade said...


Many apologies for the belated response to a great comment. From now on, you will be my "go to" guy on baseball stats.