The Phillies scoreless streak and the need to create stories

If you allow me to go all Tommy Bennett on you for a second, I’m about to get deep. As a history major, one of my favorite areas of history to study is the general understanding of historicism. As a people, we tend to crave for narratives to appease us. We long for meaning and purpose in everything we do. In history, we see that when major events are finished (i.e. the American Revolution), we tend to go back and look for specific catalysts or moments (i.e. the Boston Tea Party) to try and give purpose after the fact. One of my favorite all around scholars, Nassim Taleb, said the following in his book The Black Swan:

We love the tangible, the confirmation, the palpable, the real, the visible, the concrete, the known, the seen, the vivid, the visual, the social, the embedded, the emotional laden, the salient, the stereotypical, the moving, the theatrical, the romanced, the cosmetic, the official, the scholarly-sounding verbiage (b******t), the pompous Gaussian economist, the mathematicized crap, the pomp, the Academie Française, Harvard Business School, the Nobel Prize, dark business suits with white shirts and Ferragamo ties, the moving discourse, and the lurid. Most of all we favor the narrated.

Alas, we are not manufactured, in our current edition of the human race, to understand abstract matters — we need context. Randomness and uncertainty are abstractions. We respect what has happened, ignoring what could have happened. In other words, we are naturally shallow and superficial — and we do not know it. This is not a psychological problem; it comes from the main property of information. The dark side of the moon is harder to see; beaming light on it costs energy. In the same way, beaming light on the unseen is costly in both computational and mental effort.

We can also see this in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. Gladwell discusses a study in which participants were subconsciously prompted to an answer and then proceeded to make up alternate reasons for why they got the answer. Gladwell reminds us that:

We’re a bit too quick to come up with explanations for things we don’t really have an explanation for.

To baseball. Of course we can’t blame writers and announcers for attempting to make up storylines (it’s basically their job). We wouldn’t expect the World Series DVD for the 2004 Boston Red Sox to include the announcer saying, “And by a combination of variance, luck, and randomness, the Red Sox have come back from 3-0 to defeat the Yankees!” That doesn’t happen. Destiny happens.

But what’s wrong with this idea of “destiny?” Firstly, I think it takes away from the achievements accomplished. Being a “team of destiny” implies that it almost isn’t even your performance that matters; rather, you’ve been blessed by the gods and can do no wrong. But bad things could have happened to the 2004 Red Sox; give the front office credit for maximizing their probability of winning.

To the Phillies. This week the Mets swept the Phillies in three games…and shut them out in each one. Judging by the reactions from Twitter and the papers, this was a sign and a message. But how can one not see the randomness involved? If Ben Francisco’s fly ball is three feet higher against Takahashi, the Phillies score. If the Phillies get a single flyball with a man on third and less than two out, the Phillies score. Philadelphia’s ineptness wasn’t due to fate intervening; it was due to randomness. But the fans don’t take it that way. J.C. Bradbury wonderfully commented on this the other day:

Occasionally, these things happen in clumps (like the Braves losing nine games in a row), and fans are quick to respond with disdain and frustration. For example, the data below represent wins (w) and losses (l) in a 162-game season for a .500 team, generated randomly via a computer program (Stata code: generate x=round(uniform(),1)) . Note that this team actually finishes below .500 and has several streaks of wins and losses. In fact, there is an 18-game span where the team has two five-game losing streaks and one six-game losing streak while going 2-16. I imagine the sports pages would have a field day with this team as being one of the worst in baseball, when in fact it is an average team.

l l l l w w l l l w w w w l w w l l l w l w l l l l l w l l l l l w l l l l l l w w w l w w w w w w l w w w l w w w l w w l w w l w l l w w w l w w l l w w l w w w w l l w w w w w l l w w w l l l l w l l w l l l l l l w w w w l w l w w w w w w w l w w l l w w l w w l w w w l w l w l l w w w l w w l w w l w l w w l l l w l

Even though such runs are perfectly natural by random chance, fans often demand changes or they’ll turn away from the team. And such negative feelings can be contagious as they are spread far and wide. In old-media days, management might be able to reason with reporters and broadcasters to keep the mood light. But with the rise of the Internet, venting is impossible to control with spin jargon. In fact, managers and GMs are often mocked when they declare bad luck to be the culprit for poor play.

Because Bill Baer said it better than I can, let him wrap things up:

That the league’s best offense has been shut out in three out of their last four games has not sat well with most Phillies fans and talking heads. However, the storyline would be a lot different if the Phillies had squeezed just one run in each of those shut-outs. It’s not so much that the Phillies’ offense has been rendered impotent over the last week-plus, but that the label of being shut-out — three times — is a Scarlet letter.

Very apropros of Baer to compare the narrative dialogue surrounding the Phillies struggles to a book itself. Too often in life we long for answers to get us through. It’s time we actually appreciate the randomness in life, or at least baseball, because whether we like it or not, it’s there.

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Comments

  1. Red Sox Talk said...

    Totally agree with you, Pat. Thanks for the fun read. The media (and the fans to a lesser degree) need story lines to paint the season’s progress, a few games at a time.

    This is exactly why all kinds of streaks have always been such a big deal in baseball. To a statistician, it’s just the occurrence of a series of events with a relatively low probability, but it will show up here and there. To fans, it means so much more. I’m content to just be a fan sometimes, too. smile

  2. Penn State Clips said...

    In a similar vein, it always cracks me up when a team is said to “control its own destiny.”

    If it’s truly destiny, it can’t be controlled!

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