The Drunkards Walk is a book by Leonard Mlodinow which examines the ubiquity of randomness in all things human. As our annual celebration of randomness, The World Series, is now underway another look at the random seems worth an at bat. Baseball is a game where the “best” team often loses to a “weaker” team. It’s rare when a baseball team wins more than 60% of its games. Consider the two teams contesting for the Series.
During the regular season, Detroit won 88 games and lost 74 for a 54% win average. If they were a high school student they’d flunk even in the most permissive school district. San Francisco did a little better - 94 wins vs 68 losses for a 58% win factor, still another flunk.
They’re going to play a series of the best four of seven. It’s obvious to even the most numerically challenged dyslexic reader that the outcome of this widely matched event is no different from a coin toss. For the better team, if it’s even possible to know which is the better team, to have a statistically significant chance of winning the championship the series would have to be best of 300 or more games. In fact the whole 162 game season is a coin toss. The 1954 Cleveland Indians had the best record in modern baseball history. They won 111 games and lost 43. How’d they do in the World Series? They lost four straight to the NY Giants.
This doesn’t mean that it’s not fun and that watching the World Series won’t be exciting and full of memorable moments. As far as the fans are concerned that the whole thing is an elaborate exercise in randomness is irrelevant. But the reactions of journalists and the baseball teams’ management should be informed. It’s not surprising that if one has a college degree and can’t get into another profession that he drifts into journalism. And once there if you can’t do very well at the usual tasks that you find yourself at the sports desk (or covering music). So when you listen to the breathless and intense discussion of why one team lost and the other one won because the winner wanted it more or because the second baseman got hot or because one manager out thought the other, remember that the winner of a coin toss didn’t win because he wanted it more or because he was better at coin tossing. He won because someone had to win.
Thing get even worse when management makes multi-million dollar decisions based on the outcome of a seven game series or even worse the five game series that starts baseball’s playoff season. Joe Torre, probably baseball’s best manager, got fired by the NY Yankees because he lost a few playoff series, even though he had won many earlier. For the full details about the subject see Mr Mlodinow’s delightful plunge into randomness.
Addendum: The Giants won the Series 4 games to 0. Giants general manager Brian Sabean said: ”Our guys had a date with destiny.” Their rendezvous was not with destiny but rather Fortuna.