Based on Balls
Andrew Ferguson on what statistics don't show
Jun 20, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 38 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
If I were smarter than I am I might be able to argue myself into believing that there’s hope for the Washington Nationals. If I were more realistic than I am I would define “hope” downward to mean merely the possibility, however remote, that the team could win almost as many games as they lose this year. But I’m dumb and unrealistic enough to know this is a foolish fantasy: The Nats are cellar dwellers, doomed to defeat, this year and probably next.
I know the Nats are doomed this year not only because of the team’s pathetic play—as I write, they’re tied for the worst team batting average in baseball—but also because of a recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Matthew Futterman. In the long, sordid history of journalistic party-poopery, Futterman’s article will stand as a landmark. “Contradicting some of baseball’s most cherished clichés,” said the headline, “statistics show that your team’s fate may well be sealed by June 1.”
There are so many things I dislike about that sentence I scarcely know where to begin. Is there a phrase in the English language that has ushered in more baloney than “statistics show”? Maybe “studies show,” but that’s the only one. I gather headline writers at the Journal have never heard of Mark Twain, or if they have they’re dismissing his famous line about “lies, damn lies, and statistics” as just another cliché. They hate cliché, these wised-up guys. They’re cliché killers. The premise of the headline is that statistics (science and cold dispassionate reason) are the solvent that destroys clichés (sentimentality and wishful thinking). Another thing I dislike about the headline is that it might be right.
I won’t bore you with the details, but Futterman and another statistician have demonstrated to their satisfaction that teams with losing records on June 1 rarely go on to win enough games to make the playoffs at season’s end. The odds that the losers will reverse direction and become winners are one in ten. This revelation, if that’s the word for it, comes on the heels of new statistics about the count in the batter’s box, reported by the great baseball writer Thomas Boswell. Statistics show that once a batter has two strikes, his chances of getting a hit fall to near zero. The average big league batter facing a count of 0-2 has a batting average of .156. “Don’t slumber through a game thinking, ‘This bum’ll never get a hit,’ ” Boswell wrote. “Oh yes he may. As long as he hasn’t got two strikes yet.”
Reading this, I thought: “Why bother with the third strike, then?” People complain that baseball games are too long already. Imagine how much brisker the pace would be if we just acknowledged the statistically obvious and ordered the batter back to the dugout after two strikes, since he wasn’t going to get on base anyway. A batter with two strikes who insists on a third strike is just wasting his time and ours.
People complain about the length of the baseball season too. The commissioner could rationalize the process by eliminating all losing teams on June 1—just tell them to pack the gear, roll out the tarp, warehouse the hot dogs till next season. We already know they’re not going to make the playoffs; and if they don’t like it, well, show them the numbers. The numbers don’t lie. In eight weeks we could knead the stats again and make another cut. The whole season could be wrapped up by Labor Day. Hell, why not Memorial Day, once our statisticians learn to slice the numbers finely enough? In time we will reach perfection: Statisticians can tease out the probabilities from the first game of the season, eliminating the need to play past April 1. Some day, as the science of numbers continues to improve its predictive powers, we won’t have to play the game at all.
There’s no such thing as bad knowledge, of course, but not everything is worth knowing. It’s an acute distinction, now that our smartest people have succumbed to Science, including social sciences, as the ultimate explainer and predictor of human experience. For a scientific true believer, in the full bloom of his pride, a mystery is just a puzzle that hasn’t been solved yet. But it will be soon enough, once reality can be reduced to its constituent parts. The word mystery not so long ago had a humbler meaning, to denote aspects of life that were by their very nature unexplainable, beyond the reach of reason and the soundings of science. Love was a mystery, and so was the Trinity—so were charity, the wellsprings of art, the origins of self, the admiration the French feel for Jerry Lewis.
I liked living in a world where mystery held a permanent place. As far as I knew, damn near anything could happen. The frog might turn into a prince. A horse might sprout wings. The Nationals might get hot down the stretch and finish above .500.