Friday, 17 October 2008

Baseball and Economics?

Thanks to Tim over at MLBTR, I've been introduced, of late, to the fine work of Atlanta economist J.C. Bradbury on his blog where he looks at things baseball from a unique point of view. Now, I confess, just the word "economics" tends to give me a bit of a headache and I can get out of my depth pretty easily, nevertheless, I am finding the column's that Bradbury has written to be often fascinating and definitely a refreshing change of pace from the usual mixture of emotion and cliched thinking that all blogs have to some degree .

The particular piece that provoked me to recomend the site is not, as you might assume, the one where he calculated that the Jays' reported offer to A.J. Burnett was very close to what his market value should, economically speaking, be. Rather, I was attracted to the referance to, and recomendation of, the book The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives which he relates to the game we love with the following anecdote:

Few things annoy me more than when people insist that an outcome must be attributable to some easily-identifiable cause. Life is full of randomness, why can’t people admit this? It may not satisfying answer, but it is frequently the correct answer.

A few weeks ago I was watching a baseball game, when a historically-bad relief pitcher entered the game. Instead of giving up a walk and a few hits, capped off with a homer, he recorded three straight outs. No doubt, this performance was well within the range of expected outcome for this pitcher: outs are common in baseball, and even the worst pitchers frequently record three straight outs. But, this couldn’t have been the answer to the announcer, oh no. “That extra side-work he’s been doing with the pitching coach must have paid off,” we were told.

Bradbury goes on to tell you a bit about the book including noting that the author uses some baseball examples to illustrate his point, but it's that first paragraph above that sums up something I have been saying, I think virtually alone, about the 2008 season: stuff happens.

There seems to be great sturm und drang among the Jays fan base about the fact that the Jays are stalled in the 80's and the Rays have blown past them into the ALCS, but the simple fact of the matter is, as unpalatable as it may be to those among us who want to analyze and define every result, is that almost the entire difference between the results of the Rays season and the result of the Jays season can be attributed, in my opinion, to randomness. Dumb Luck. Stuff happens. Use whatever phrase suits you. Yes, you can dig into the stats and presumably find some esoteric "hitting with a runner on third and two out after 8 PM on a Tuesday when humidity is over 70%" stat in which the Rays schooled the Jays, but in all the obvious ways you would compare two teams, there's very little difference - except in number of wins.
Random. Chance.

It sucks when that randomess cuts against you, it's fun when it cuts for you (and we see some of each all season long this year and every year game-by-game) but it's real, and it matters, and there is virtually nothing you can do about it. That's why I think the whole "OMG! we have gone X years without making the playoffs!!" panic is so much ill-advised drama. The multitude of things that can go wrong and keep a team out of the playoffs is so large that simply missing the playoffs, as a fact viewed in isolation, tells you almost nothing. Yet that kind of thinking can lead to paniced decisions. Thankfully most GM's have less tendency towards that sort of panic than fans do.

So, not for the first time and certainly not for the last, I will say this again - I'm NOT AT ALL worried that we are suddenly doomed to 4th place in a division with three powerful teams in front of us. I am still worried that two of those teams can buy there way out of any mistakes, but that's a different discussion. The Jays are not as far away as many seem to believe. i may be the only one willing to argue that point this winter but I have no intention of conceeding it.

Oh, and I'll be adding Bradbury's blog to our blog roll for my convenience and, I hope, yours.



The Southpaw said...

Semi, but not really, related: Variety has reported that there is a film version of "Moneyball" in the works and Brad Pitt mulling the role of Billy Beane. Something for everyone!


dave said...

Just because it is difficult to articulate a cause doesn't mean it should be considered random.

It goes both ways, I think. There are people who refuse to acknowledge someones hard work as a reason for their performance and just yell "fluke!" every time he does something positive and yes, there are people who try and connect every happening on the ball field to some major cause.

I would never blame a 4th place finish on luck, though. But I'm not too worked up about that finish either.

The Southpaw said...

Not all 4th place finishes are created equal, though. Some are not luck...some are.

Consider how well the Astros did this year relative to the run differential - that SCREAMS luck, IMO.


Ian H. said...

The Jays finished in 2nd place in 2007 with almost the exact same record as they finished in 4th place in 2008. So this whole "4th place finish" business is all nonsense. If you ain't first, you're last!

Ian H. said...

Sorry - my bad, it was 2006 not 2007.