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Friday, August 2, 2013

Why the Giants Shouldn't Panic

In early May I noted that in the world of sports we often mistakenly see patterns in random events and interpret them in terms of cause and effect when there is none ("Randomness and Winning (and Losing) Streaks"). A team will go on a 5-game losing streak, and fans start asking what's wrong when, in fact, there's probably nothing wrong. Randomness has simply played a role. For example, a basketball team, which typically makes 50% of its shots, can have a series of games where an unusual number of shots roll in and out, and consequently they lose a number of games in a row. Or a baseball team suffers through a losing streak when it keeps hitting line drives that are caught, while the other teams' bloops all fall in. Add in a key injury or two, and a mild slump can turn into a season-ending one.

To illustrate, consider the following graph. It plots the possible distribution of wins for a professional baseball team that wins, on average, 90 games a season. As it shows the number of possible wins in a given season for such a team ranges from 59 to 112 although the probability of the two extremes is exceedingly low (0.01% -- that's 1 in 10,000). Nevertheless, there's still just under at 10% chance (9.21%) that the team will finish at or below .500 ball for the season (i.e., they will win 81 games or less). And if this were to occur, the fans and the owners would probably be asking, "What Went Wrong?", when it's possible that nothing went wrong, except that the team had a really, really bad run of luck.

Which brings us to the Giants and why they and their owners and their fans shouldn't panic. Most are wondering what went wrong. Indeed, Giants GM Brian Sabean recently remarked,
We're all going to have to take a step back and a deep breath and find out what went wrong, why it went wrong, who we want to go forward with and how we add from the outside.
Chances are, however, all that went wrong was simply a run of poor play and bad luck, illustrated and compounded by the injuries to two of the Giants key players, outfielder Angel Pagan and pitcher Ryan Vogelsong. In fact, if the Giants were able to put together a nice run and sneak into the playoffs this year, they could end up surprising a lot of people since by that time, Pagan and Vogelsong would be back in the line-up.

To Sabean's credit, he didn't panic and make a mid-year deal like the one he did two years ago that brought Carlos Beltran to the Giants for half of a season and sent one of its top prospects (pitcher Zach Wheeler) to the Mets. Going forward, the key will be for him to adopt the same approach. This isn't to say that a tweak here or there wouldn't be good for the team. And since the cost of signing all of the Giants' free agents may be too high, they could be forced to sign a new pitcher or two. Nevertheless, there's no reason for Sabean and the Giants to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

PS: Before Pagan was hurt, the Giants were 27-22 and averaging 4.5 runs per game. Since his injury, they are 22-39 and averaging only 3.3 runs per game.

PSS: For more on the nature of randomness, winning, and losing, see the earlier post noted above ("Randomness and Winning (and Losing) Streaks").

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