Statistics, Randomness and the World Series
The more I know about statistics, the more I despise sports.
I’m a big Dr. Deming fan. You remember Dr. W. Edwards Deming, right? He was a foremost statistician evangelist lecturing to manufacturing folks a few years ago. I was fortunate enough to see him in a lecture in Dearborn once. He did this cool thing with the audience. He asked ten volunteers to step up on the stage. He told them they were new employees in the Red Marble Company. The goal of the Red Marble Company was to… produce red marbles. Dr. Deming had this big bucket full of red and white marbles. He held the bucket up high, and each employee was asked to select ten marbles. The employees reached high into the bucket (sight unseen) and selected ten marbles. When all the employees got ten marbles, Dr. Deming did a tally on the number of red and white marbles selected by each employee. One lucky employee, Susan, produced 7 red marbles. Dr. Deming heaped lots of praise on Susan, gave her extra prizes and even a $$ bonus. Susan was so proud, she was beaming on stage. Then Dr. Deming went back to the tally results. One poor soul, Ernie, only produced 3 red marbles. Poor Ernie. No, really poor Ernie. Dr. Deming verbally abused the guy on stage, made him feel about one inch tall. “How could you do so poorly, look at what Susan has done?” This went on for sometime. You could actually see the guy cringe on stage. Everybody in the audience was quite uncomfortable with Ernie’s beat down.
But the message was CLEAR. The results of each employees marble selection were absolutely random. And it made zero sense to reward Susan and punish Ernie for what was clearly a series of random events. Woe is Management. Look at significant differences between employees, but account for randomization for exactly what it is.
And lets fast forward to game seven of the 2016 World Series. I don’t normally watch sports on TV, but this game seemed special. I’ve lived in both Cleveland and Chicago for at least five years each. I know how important a win like the World Series can be to each of those cities. The game was fun to watch, well played by two very awesome teams. It went ten innings, each of them on the edge of your seat exciting. And at the conclusion of that game, the winner would be declared World Series Champions. As I watched the game, complete with DVR with rewind, and presenters with paint on the screen strike box, I noticed there were many “questionable” calls made, that I’m not sure I agree with. There were numerous pitches that looked like strikes, but called as balls, and vice versa. I know one scoring runner from the Cubs took his base on a 3-2 count that I believed to be a strike that was called as a ball. There may have been one base runner event (out? not out?) that didn’t hold well to instant replay, but wasn’t reversed… I will say the questionable calls went in both directions, one time supporting the Cubs, and another supporting the Indians. Shit happens. If any one of those events had gone the other way, we could have had a different final result. They’d be celebrating in Cleveland instead of in Chicago.
Am I complaining about the umpire staff? No way. Tough job, and I certainly wouldn’t want the job. But when I step back and look at the game as a whole, these events seemed random. Random enough that it reminded me of the Dr. Deming Red Marble Company. Two great baseball teams, both with high hopes and aspirations… but with only one declared the winner. In my view, that win, at least on that game, was largely a coin flip. And that’s why I gotta say… The more I know about statistics, the more I despise sports.
Baseball photo courtesy of AP Photo/Charlie Riedel