prospectus day

curve ball

I was looking forward to reading Jim Albert and Jay Bennett's book Curve Ball: Baseball, Statistics, and the Role of Chance in the Game, for the obvious reason that the subtitle is right up my alley. Sad to say I found it hard going ... while it's promoted as a book for the layperson, it's really got hard core stat stuff in there, and I confess I didn't follow it all. Dare I say it's a book that's better experienced via a detailed, intelligent review that explains all the important stuff in a short space?

And no, this won't be that review, but I can tell you what the main point is, and what is the part about baseball I found most enlightening. The main point is that chance plays a bigger role in baseball than most of us realize. If you flip a coin once, you call heads and the toss is tails, you'll feel unlucky, and you'll know it was only chance that made you lose. If you flip a coin a million times, it will come pretty darned close to 50/50 heads/tails. If you flip it ten times, though, you just might see eight tails ... flip it a hundred times and you might see 75 tails. It takes those million tosses to reach the point when chance is overwhelmed by the number of opportunities.

Well, non-fans might think that every baseball game is a million minutes long, but in fact, the total number of opportunities for something to happen in baseball isn't as great as we think. A hitter who plays almost every day will come to the plate maybe 650 times in a season ... if he does this for ten years, he'll get to maybe 6500 appearances. Over the course of ten years, he'll have enough opportunities to give you a good sense of his abilities, but over the course of one season, chance might make him produce markedly better or worse than normal. The fewer the number of opportunities, the more chance will intrude, so that even Barry Bonds will have a week where he only gets a couple of hits. In that week, Barry Bonds is still Barry Bonds ... chance wreaks havoc on his production.

Which leads to the other thing I found interesting. Fans have a tendency to look at a guy's batting average in June and say "he's a .300 hitter," when what they should say is "he's hitting .300." Those are not the same statements. If he hits .300 for 15 years, then you can say with some accuracy that he's a .300 hitter, but but if he hits .300 for two months, chance is mucking the figures, and he hasn't proven to be a .300 hitter but is merely hitting .300. If you can wrap your brain around the difference between the two statements ".300 hitter" and "hitting .300," you'll have a sense of how big a role chance plays in baseball.

And please don't blame Albert and Bennett for my botching of their theories.