Category Archives: Sports

The Baseball Playoffs are a Crapshoot, but Having 100 Wins Doesn’t Hurt

The Cubs wound up the regular season with the best record in baseball: 103 wins (out of only 161 games, due to a rain-out that went down as a tie). Does this guarantee that the Cubs will win it all this year? No. In fact, if you read Slate, “having such a record is nearly a kiss of death.”


The premise of the piece seems that winning 100 games actually hurts you in the playoffs, as does having the best regular season record. What follows from that assertion would be an exercise in p-hacking, if any of the supporting evidence were statistically significant. Instead, it is exactly the sort of exercise in anecdotal misinterpretation that statistics were invented to avoid.

It is certainly true that having the best record in the regular season does not guarantee postseason success. Baseball is a game where any team can beat any other on a given day. Typically, only one or two teams win more than 60% of their games over the course of the regular season, and winning 55% will usually get you into the playoffs. When these teams play each other in a best-of-five or best-of-seven series, the odds of the “better” team coming out on top are not much different from a coin toss.

But does it hurt you? Let’s see what stats Slate musters to support the argument. They restrict their analysis to the 21 years from 1995 through 2015, when the playoffs have had the current wildcard structure. During that time:

• No National League team has won 100 regular-season games and won the World Series. The only team in baseball to achieve the feat is the New York Yankees, in 1998 and 2009. Only two 100-win National League teams have even reached the Series.

Okay, during that time period six National League teams and eight American League teams have won at least 100 regular season games. If each playoff was a 50/50 coin toss, each of those teams would have a one in eight chance of winning the world series. So, the expected number of NL wins would be 0.75, and the expected number of AL wins would be 1.0. The NL falls slightly below expectation (0/6), but not significantly so. The AL exceeds expectation (2/8), as does the combined NL-AL record (2/14).

No team other than the aforementioned 1998 and 2009 Yankees has posted the outright best record in baseball and won the World Series. Boston won the Series in 2007 and 2013 after tying for baseball’s best record.

In five of the 21 years, there was a tie for the best record in baseball. So, in the 16 years with a single best record, that team won the world series twice. Again, coin toss would give you a one in eight chance, so 2/16 is right in line with expectations. In the five years with a tie, there’s a one in four chance that one of those two teams will win, so the expected number of wins would be 1.25, less than the 2/5 Red Sox wins.

Last year, Kansas City became the seventh team of the wild-card era to post the best record in its league (excluding Boston’s tie in 2007) and win the World Series. In that same span, six wild-card teams have won the Series.

Well, if it’s a coin toss, the team with the best record would have the same odds of winning as the wildcard (or the two wildcards combined, in the extra-expanded playoff structure in place since 2012). So, pretty much what you would expect.

• The top National League team in the regular season hasn’t won the World Series since the Atlanta Braves did it in 1995.

This is the first statistic that seems to deviate at all from expectation. In 21 years, if the top NL team had a one in eight chance of winning the World Series each year, you would expect 21/8 World Series wins. That is, more than two, but fewer than three. And one is less than two, right? Well, the probability that you would have zero wins in 21 years is about 6%. The probability that you would have one win is about 18%.

The standard way to ask this question is to say, “What is the probability that the observed value would deviate by this much or more from expectation”.  That probability, in this case, is about 24%. So, not really all that unlikely at all.

Or, in sciencey terms, p=0.24, and we fail to reject the null hypothesis that having the best record in the National League gives you less than a one in eight chance of winning the World Series.

Plus, it’s a bit weird to cherry-pick the top NL team. After all, we were just told that Kansas City was the seventh team to win the World Series after posting the best record in its league. The six cases besides 1995 Atlanta are all from the AL (and exclude the 2007 Red Sox, who tied with Cleveland for the best record).

So what would happen if we asked the analogous AL question. Well, of the 19 years when there was a single top record in the AL, six of those teams went on to win the World Series. The chances of at least six teams doing that, given 1/8 odds, is about 2.5%.

Now, we can’t really read anything into that result, since it is one of a number of statistical tests we did here, so any multiple-tests correction would eliminate the significance of the results. But if we had asked the question about top AL records in isolation, notice that it would have supported the conclusion that having a good regular-season record helps, rather than hurts, your playoff chances.

I wonder why they didn’t include that analysis . . .


The NY Jets Almost Make Me Want to Watch Football

So, I’ve never really been a big Football fan (“American Football” for our international readers). But, as a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, if I were to start following Football, I’ve found my team in the New York Jets.

Check out this awesome play from this week’s Jets game. Jets QB Mark Sanchez tries to carry the ball up the middle, but runs smack into the rear end of one of his offensive linemen, who then falls over backwards and winds up sitting on him. During the collision, Sanchez fumbles the ball, which is returned for a Patriots touchdown.

The official story seems to be that Sanchez was sliding. I’ve watched this several times, and it really looks more like he was just not paying attention to where he was going. It’s like watching pee-wee league, but with 250-pound toddlers (i.e., awesome).

(The NFL has pulled this video)

Here’s the GIF version of the money shot from Deadspin. I could watch this all day long.

All. Day. Long.

Rough Day for Liberal Tigers Fans

So, remember how there was this election? And how there was this guy Nate Silver who said that Obama was going to win the election? But the all the conservatives everywhere were like “Nuh-uh!” because they weren’t going to just listen to some “blogger” who was using his “math” and “statistics” to pursue his gay agenda of using mind control to hand over the United States over to the one-world government and forcibly relocating all of the suburbanites? I mean, what about the conventional wisdom of Peggy Noonan’s friends?

Remember how he then became the darling of everyone on the left, who were all able to embrace his analyses while patting themselves on the back for being reality based? Because, in this case, reality did, in fact have a liberal bias that was, in fact, more extreme than that of the liberal-bias machine of the Main Stream Media. (Someone should come up with a clever, dismissive name for them, maybe “Lame Stream Media”! Ooh, I like that!)

Remember how part of you wondered what would have happened if the statistical analyses of Nate Silver (or the equally awesome – but much funnier – Sam Wang) had pointed towards a Romney victory? Would conservatives have embraced the hard-nosed, numbers-based approach? Would liberals have set up hysterical unskewing sites?

Well, here’s our chance to find out.

We need to collect together all the people who were Obama supporters and Nate Silver fans, and who are also Detroit Tigers fans. We then need to see what they have to say about the column that Silver wrote yesterday.

In it, Silver lays out, with his typical clarity, the case that Miguel Cabrera does not deserve to be the American League MVP, despite his being the first triple-crown winner since the debut of Laugh-In. Rather, on purely statistical grounds, the MVP should go to Mike Trout of the California Angels Anaheim Angels Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Purely based on his performance as a batter, Trout provided greater added value to his team than Cabrera did to his. Beyond that, Trout was a huge asset both as a fielder and as a baserunner. Cabrera, by contrast, provided a net negative contribution to his team in fielding and baserunning.

Really, the only argument in Cabrera’s favor is that he won the triple crown. The triple crown! That’s a real achievement, and he should be rewarded for it. But should he be rewarded with the MVP? Or should that go to the most valuable player? If we apply the conventional meanings of the words “most,” “valuable,” and “player,” the MVP should go to Trout.

Maybe we could come up with something else to honor Cabrera’s extraordinary accomplishment in earning the triple crown. How about, I don’t know, the triple crown? (Last three words said extra loud, slack-jawed, and condescendingly.)

I’m just saying. If you spent October laughing at Karl Rove and Dick Morris (and who didn’t, really), but think that Cabrera should win the MVP, you’re not a realist. You’re a partisan who happens to have been on the right side of reality in the election, but who is now on the wrong side of reality in baseball.

The Psychology of that one line in Call Me Maybe

So, like, I heard this song the other day. It was by this indie band called “Carly Rae Jepsen.” You’ve probably never heard of them.

Actually *removes hipster glasses* while most of the appeal of “Call Me Maybe,” the song that dominated the summer of 2012, comes from its earnest simplicity, there is one line in the lyrics that has some real texture to it:

Before you came into my life, I missed you so bad

This line captures something universal and not at all trivial, the way that our memories of past emotions are reshaped by our current knowledge.

The thing is, we tend to think of ourselves as objective observers. We trust that our perceptions bear a one-to-one correspondence to the world around us. But the information that actually makes it from the outside world into our brains is much more limited and impressionistic. Our brains construct most of the details based on expectations about how the world works.

As William Wordsworth, the Carly Rae Jepsen of his time, wrote:

                            Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye and ear, both what they half-create,
And what perceive;

While this perceiving-and-creating is a good description of our perceptions, it is even more true of our memories. When we attempt to recall how we felt about something in the past, it might feel like we are accessing internal CCTV footage, what we are actually doing is more like reconstructing those feelings on the basis of crayon sketch by a drunk three year old.

For those of you without drunk three year olds at home, what I mean is that there are a lot of details that need to be filled in. In the case of memories, one of the places we go for these details is our understanding of the world in the present.

Here’s an example. In one psychology study (citation below), participants were asked to predict how they would feel if their team lost the Superbowl, and they were all like, “OH MY GOD THAT WOULD BE THE END OF THE WORLD!!!!11!1!!!” But then, when their team actually did lose the Superbowl, they were like, “Whatevs, dude.”

That’s maybe not too surprising, but the interesting thing is that when these people were asked to recall how they predicted that they would feel, they tended to remember feeling like it would not have been that big a deal. That is, their recollection of their emotional state in the past was anchored to their emotional state in the present.

Similar results were found for studies on the 2008 presidential election, satisfaction from completing a major purchase, and how much they would enjoy eating jellybeans, depending on the order in which jellybeans of different flavors were eaten.

While “recall of predicted hedonic sequence” sounds like a totally awesome study, in a hookers-on-mars-with-three-boobs sort of way, this study was actually about eating jellybeans.

In “Call Me Maybe,” there are a couple of different ways to interpret the line “Before you came into my life I missed you so bad.” One possibility is that Carly Rae is, in fact, a time traveler from the future. At the age of twenty four, she met her one true soulmate. Unfortunately, he was ninety-six years old and was unable to keep up with her sexually. So, she traveled back to the year 2009, and then waited for her ripped-jeans Adonis to show up in her life on that hot and windy night.

A second possibility is that her emotional state after having met this guy colored her recollection of her emotional state in the time before she met him.

Here’s that video of the US Olympic Swim Team lip-syncing “Call Me Maybe.” While you’re watching it, I want you to try to remember how invested you were in the outcome of the Olympics back in July and August. Then notice how little you care about the Olympics in retrospect. Now, recognize that while you think you were all, “Olympics, Schmolympics!” at the time, you were actually all “USA! USA! That Ryan Lochte boy seems nice!”

Don’t you feel dumb?

Don’t own it? Here it is on iTunes.  Buy It!!icon

Meyvis, T., Ratner, R. K., & Levav, J. (2010). Why Don’t We Learn to Accurately Forecast Feelings? How Misremembering Our Predictions Blinds us to Past Forecasting Errors. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 139 (4), 579-589 : 10.1037/A0020285

The two-athlete rule is the way sports work

So, if you’ve been following the olympics at all, you’ve no doubt been exposed to the outrage at the fact that Jordyn Wieber won’t be competing for the United States in the all-around gymnastics final. If you haven’t been following that closely, here’s the recap.

Yesterday featured the qualification round in women’s gymnastics. One point of this round is to determine which 24 athletes will compete in the all-around final. Basically, it is the 24 with the highest scores, but there is a cap of two athletes per country. The US gymnasts Gabrielle Douglas, Alexandra Raisman, and Jordyn Wieber finished second, third, and fourth. Because of the two-person cap, only Douglas and Raisman will be competing in the final. Obviously, given the rules, it was clear in advance that only two of the three could make it to the finals. What was surprising was the fact that the one left out wound up being Wieber, who was the 2011 world champion.

The (American) announcers at the venue started voicing their outrage at the two-gymnast rule, saying how ridiculous it was for the fourth-place finisher not to place in the top twenty-four, etc., etc.  This was followed by Bob Costas sitting down with Béla Károlyi to voice their outrage, with Costas scoffing at the ridiculousness of having a sport where you let anyone besides the best compete in the finals. Slate calls the rule “indefensible.”

Maybe I’m in the minority here, but it seems to me that this is pretty much how the olympics works. It also happens to be the way that most American sports work. The fact that we have divisions in baseball, basketball, football, etc. leads to exactly this sort of situation. In fact, prior to the introduction of the wildcard, this sort of thing happened all the time, where the two best baseball teams in the league would happen to be in the same division, so only one got to go to the playoffs. In fact, the outrage over this type of situation is exactly what prompted the creation of the wildcard in baseball (well, that and the desire for more playoff revenues). Now, I don’t know whether Bob Costas would be just as outraged as when, say, the best team in the NL Central is worse than the third-place team in the NL East, but I can’t say that I’ve ever heard him calling for the elimination of the division structure.

I think there are a couple of things going on here. First, the olympics represents two different, but related, competitions. Obviously, it is a competition among the best athletes in the world. At the same time, it is a competition among nations. If you want to have the best athletes in the world duke it out quotas or limits based on nationality, fine. What you have then, I believe, is something more like the world championships, which happen every year (I think), and are cared about by precisely no one outside of the gymnastics community. People care about the olympics in no small part because you have various nations sending their best, and pitting them against each other. Yes, the two-athlete cap in the gymnastics all-around final seems harsh, but I think it is inextricably tied up with the whole idea of what the olympics is.

The other thing is the tension between the desire to see the “best” athletes rewarded, and the sense that, in order to make a competition special, you require athletes to perform on a certain day. Clearly, much of the handwringing here is about the fact that Jordyn Wieber was supposed to be the best American. Presumably you can argue that, in a time-averaged sense, she is. But what are we supposed to do? We could say that Wieber is clearly really good, and deserves to be in the final. But, then, there’s really no point in having the competition. Why not just rank the athletes based on their track record and hand out the medals?

Basically, what fans (and TV executives) want is a nail-biting competition with huge stakes. Well, the way you do that is you collect some of the best competitors together, and then make them perform under pressure. You set up some rules to determine who is in and who is out, then you reset everything to zero and make the best prove it. If there is no chance for the favorite to fail, you really don’t have a sport.

The privileging of geographic diversity might be particularly salient in the olympics, but it is a critical feature of most professional sports, the world cup, and pretty much all of the sporting events that anyone cares about. You could argue that the World Series in baseball would be a more honest championship if it were simply a competition between the two teams with the best regular-season records. Maybe it would, but it would lose much of the charm and appeal of being the showdown between the American League and National League champions. Also, a huge number of games in the regular season would no longer matter.

There’s a sort of zero-sum game whenever you set up any sort of championship. The only way to increase the number of meaningful competitions is to increase the stochasticity in the system. If you’re going to have the qualification round at all in olympic gymnastics, you’ve got to have the two-person-per-country cap in place, or something like it. Yes, there are people arguing it should be three, as it was prior to 2004, but this actually more exciting and dramatic.

So, yes, this situation sucks for Jordyn Wieber, and for the fans who care a lot about the American medal count. But the bigger picture is this: the fact that it is possible for the reigning world champion to come in fourth and not make the 24-person finals is exactly what makes the olympics worth watching.

Now we know what a Nittany Lion is

So, if you’re like me, you’ve always sort of wondered what a Nittany Lion is. For a while, I thought it involved crochet somehow, but I guess maybe that would be a Knittany Lion. For years, it remained shrouded in mystery, at least, if you’re like me, and did not actually care enough to check Wikipedia.

But then this week we learned that for the past ten years, or possibly longer, numerous officials at Penn State have been involved in protecting and enabling a serial child rapist. And then, when Penn State’s football coach was fired for his involvement in protecting and enabling a serial child rapist, the school’s students rioted. I think we now have our answer:

Best URL for sharing:
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Update: via Justin Stapleton on Google+, from now on the Honey Badger will be known as the Nittany Badger

Fucking Do Something

So, there are many situations in the world that are morally ambiguous. Prior to this week, I would not have assumed that this was one of them:

“Gee, there’s a man raping a child. Should I go over there, beat the shit out of him, rescue the child, and call the police? Or should I go home, call my dad, tell my boss, see that nothing happens, and then, you know, pal around with the child rapist for the next ten years?”

I find it incredibly depressing to learn that there are people out there who would say, well, on the one hand, there’s kids being raped, but on the other hand, FOOTBALL!!!

If you or someone you know is too stupid and/or morally bankrupt to know what the right thing to do is in these situations (or, apparently, is currently a student at Penn State), here is a handy-dandy flow chart to help you out, courtesy of adulting (which details how to be an adult):

UPDATE: Everything on is awesome, by the way.

What would baseball’s poet laureate actually be like?

So, apparently, there’s this guy, Tom Martin, who has been tweeting haikus about the Milwaukee Brewers (@brew_haiku). According to the Times baseball blog, Bats (via the Poetry Foundation), Martin is lobbying to become baseball’s poet laureate:

Tom Martin texts haikus about Brewers games on Twitter, and he wants to be baseball’s poet laureate, a role that has been vacant since, well, forever. (The late, great Dan Quisenberry wrote some pretty good poetry, but never earned the national superstardom and universal acclaim that comes with the title of poet laureate.) Martin’s verses celebrate the joys and sorrow of following the Brewers. Joys, from Sunday: “At Miller Park now/ready to go with game two/packed house is rocking!” Sorrows, from Wednesday: “It’s tough to win when/we can’t keep the ball in yard/see you on Friday.” It is as if Dick Stockton were calling a game, only concisely. 

Martin would be willing to work for no money, taking his compensation in the form of booze, just like any good poet. However, even this alco-altruistic stance is not consistent with baseball’s actual economics. The fact is, if baseball were to have a poet laureate, not only would the poet not get paid, they would have to pay baseball for “promotional consideration.” This would ultimately wind up with the poet laureate position being held by some multi-national corporation.

Which means that the haikus written by baseball’s poet laureate would look something like this:

Poet Laureate Citibank Group:

          Step up to the plate!
     Open a checking account,
          you’ll hit a home run!

Poet Laureate Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America:

          Steroids can be safe
     and effective. Unleash
          your inner champion!

Poet Laureate Bank of America:

          B of A, leading
     the league in stolen “bases,”
          by which we mean homes.

Poet Laureate Goldman Sachs:

          Slide into second
     quarter earnings with our new
          accounting methods!

Poet Laureate Novartis, makers of Ex-Lax:

          Try our new bunt cakes!
     Is your last meal “stuck on third”?
          Drop one in the grass!