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Monday, December 13, 2010

Guest Blogging: Kevin Chen

Today I am presenting Kevin Chen, my great friend, as my blog's first guest blogger. Kevin is very opinionated and we often banter about everything, ranging from politics to pop culture. Now he is finally making some of his thoughts public. His first post is on one of our favorite subjects: sports.

You Can't Buy Luck

By Kevin Chen

As the Yankees, Red Sox and other high-spending teams continue their shopping spree in the off-season, it is interesting to ponder: given how much the Yankees outspend other teams, how come they don’t win the World Series every year? Or, at least every other year? And how come the Red Sox, the second highest-spending team, don’t win the majority of times that the Yankees don’t? The answer is simple but not very sophisticated: luck is a bigger determinant in the outcome of any baseball game than in most other popular sports.

Luck, or randomness, is a major part of any baseball game because unlike most other sports, the rules of baseball do not reward “progressive accuracy” – the general idea that the closer you get to doing something exactly right, the more you should be rewarded. The clearest example of progressive accuracy is taking a test. Let’s say the perfect score is 100 and there are 100 questions on the test. If you miss 20 questions, you will get an 80, which is a B-. If you miss only 5 questions, you will get a 95, which is an A, which is better than a B-. In sports, things are not this clear-cut, but still, logic dictates that one wants to set up the rules such that the same principle applies. In basketball, if you shoot a ball perfectly accurate, the ball will travel through the rim touching nothing but net, and in this case you will score 100% of the time. But, if you shoot it slightly off, the ball may barely touch the rim, but the less off you are, the lighter the ball will contact the rim, and the greater the chance you will score rather than have the ball “rim out”. This isn’t a perfect correlation – sometimes you can get a lucky bounce off the rim and score even when you’re way off, and other times your ball will barely graze the inside of the rim and somehow still bounce out (those agonizing “half way down and out” shots). This is luck at work. Still, in most cases, progressive accuracy is rewarded – you will score more often if you shoot the ball more accurately – meaning the closer your ball travels to the center of the basket, the greater the chance you will score.

Now, let’s look like one of the most fundamental aspects of baseball – hitting. This is where progressive accuracy is thrown off. Most of the time, the goal of the batter is to hit the ball as squarely and solidly as possible. But, if you don’t hit the ball perfectly squarely or solidly – it’s a home run when you hit it perfectly – the element of luck runs amuck in determining the outcome. Let’s look at some of the possible outcomes, from the wildest miss to the perfect hit (home run). If you miss the ball completely, it’s strike and maybe a strikeout. If you barely touch the ball, it’s either a strike or a do-over (with two strikes). So far, progressive accuracy is rewarded. But, if you do slightly better and hit the ball somewhat better than barely touching, chances are you will make an out – instead of being so off that the ball flies out of play and therefore you get another chance, you hit the ball accurately enough for it to land in the field of play, but not accurately enough for it to be a hit. Here, progressive accuracy is completely off. Then, if you hit the ball even better, you will improve your odds of getting a hit, but even here, you can potentially hit into a double-play. Most double-plays are very solidly struck balls that just happened to be hit at a specific fielder, and instead of being rewarded for making solid contact, the batter receives the worst possible outcome – worse than if he had completely missed the ball, and worse than if he had barely hit the ball. One can argue that the double-play ball was simply not hit accurately enough because if it had been truly accurate, it would have traveled between fielders rather than at someone. While this is theoretically true, no one even at the Major League level can realistically claim to be so accurate that he can intentionally aim a hit, say, slightly to the right or left of a specific fielder. The most a hitter can realistically try to do is make solid contact (except in the case of a bunt or a sac fly, but those are exceptions), and generally try to pull the ball or hit it the opposite way. As for exactly where that ball lands when you try to pull or go the opposite way – whether it is directly at the second baseman or two feet to his left/right – that is not just a realistic level of precision.

In essence, going back to the example of a test, what we’ve got in baseball is the following equivalent. If you get it perfectly right, you score 100 points (hit a home run) – no problem there. But, as you start to miss questions by varying degrees, the outcomes become murky. If you miss 10 points, instead of always getting an A-, there is a chance that you will end up with a C, or even an F, and if you miss 40 points, instead of a D, you may get to retake the test (but you’re stuck with a C or F if you miss 10 points). It’s not hard to see how in this system, the best students will not necessarily get the best grades because grades are not perfectly correlated with how well one does in tests.

By the same token, under a similar system, the best baseball teams will not win as often as the best basketball or football teams, as luck and randomness are greater factors in baseball than in those sports due to rules that do not reward progressive accuracy. In football or basketball, can you imagine an outcome where the two teams that made the championship final (Giants and Rangers) had a smaller combined payroll than a team that lost in the semifinal (Yankees) and a team that didn’t even make the playoffs (Red Sox)? That is only possible in baseball because you can’t buy sheer old dumb luck.

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