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October 20, 2004

Can Of Corn

What You'd Expect?

by Dayn Perry

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So we're going seven in the ALCS.

This is the 26th time a team has been down 3-0 in a post-season series, but it's the first time such a series has been pushed to the full seven games. That's certainly surprising, but I don't think it's quite the mortal shock it's being made out to be. The 3-0 deficit has been overly mythologized in the past, and it's certainly being overly mythologized in the here and now.

Ever since the Red Sox lost Game Three in inglorious fashion, you've no doubt heard ad nauseum that no team in Major League Baseball has ever overcome a 3-0 deficit. That much is incontrovertible, but that it will eventually happen is a given. This year's Sox and Yankees models are fairly evenly matched; I think most of us can agree upon that. So think of each game in this series as a coin flip. That's not to say the outcome is random, but it is to say that one outcome is, roughly speaking, as likely as its opposite. Simple probability (even simple enough for this humanities-trained chimp to understand) tells us that, under these circumstances, there's a 6.25% chance that one of the 50-50 outcomes will happen four consecutive times. So there's roughly a 6.25% chance that a team will come back to win a seven-game series when it's down 3-0 to a team of similar ability.

We've had 25 three-oh leads before this year's ALCS, and no one's turned the trick yet. But is that so out of step with what we'd expect? Think of it in other terms. Say a "true" .063 hitter (we'll call him Bob Buhl) goes on a 0-for-25 cold streak. Wouldn't be all that shocking from a probability standpoint. That's all that's going on in baseball, at least in the case of commensurate opponents. At 0.0625 probability, we'd expect a 0-3 comeback every 16 series. That hasn't happened, although if you throw out teams that are plainly distinct in terms of talent levels, then we may be right on target.

That the Red Sox lost three straight and then won three straight has no bearing on this fact: the winner of tonight's game will win the series. Call it "things I learned the hard way by playing roulette before I'd taken a stats class." No matter how many times it lands on black, it doesn't make more or less likely to land on red the next time. I realize these are human beings we're talking about and that these trends don't occur in a psychological vacuum. But if you've been able to plot "momentum" and "psychic calm" in this series, please send me the Excel sheet. The 3-0 comeback has happened in the NBA, and it's happened in the NHL. It's a matter of time before it happens in baseball. Maybe a matter of very little time.

If the Red Sox lose tonight, it's another addition to their litany of disappointments, and it's another off-season "whining point" for Ben Affleck and his ilk. If the Red Sox win, George Steinbrenner will almost surely drop an organizational daisy-cutter on the Yankee offices at 161st and River and in Tampa. Either way, sign me up for a duck tour of the carnage.

Now on to some brief random LCS musings...

  • The blown-save rule isn't quite as pointless and misleading as the save rule, but, by golly, it's close. After Game Five of the ALCS, much was made of the fact that the impregnable Mariano Rivera had blown two saves--two playoff saves no less--in the span of 24 hours. But it strains credulity to fault Rivera for his outing Monday night.

    In the eighth inning of the game in question, Rivera entered the game with no outs and runners on first and third. According to our way-nifty Expect Runs Matrix, such a base-out state, on average, results in 1.854 on the board. Rivera inherited these circumstances, allowed the runner from third to score on a Jason Varitek sac fly, and then resumed pitching a perfect frame. Blown save. If he shaves 0.854 off his opponent's expected runs each time out, he's the best reliever in the annals of the game. In Game Five, for doing the same thing, he gets a blown save and purveys to the sporting fourth estate a thoroughly misleading story line.

  • From the "I'm just sayin'" department …
    
    Hitter           Last Three Seasons vs. RHP
    J. Mabry           .271/.343/.481
    R. Sanders         .260/.318/.488
    
    

    Not a staggering difference, but this needs to be a strict platoon at this point. Sanders is the better defender, but I'd still have Mabry in the lineup whenever a right-hander's on the mound for the opposition.

  • I've seen about five games at Minute Maid Park, and it's a tremendous place to watch a ballgame. In general, however, I'm not a fan. Here's why:

    First, the dimensions are squarely against the rules of stadium construction, according to Major League Baseball. The left-field foul pole is a mere 315 feet from home plate, and the left field wall rises only 21 feet above the playing surface. This point was hammered home in Game Four when Albert Pujols, in what looked like an infield pop-up fungo swing from a corpulent first base coach, drove one almost to the warning track. Why is this OK? Imagine that: Selective rules enforcement from the Selig administration.

    Second, why introduce more opportunity for umpire error with the ground rules regarding batted balls that hit the roof? The house rules stipulate that if a ball hits the roof over foul territory, it's foul no matter where it lands. If it hits the ball in fair territory, it's fair. One glance at the closed roof reveals that there's no discernable indication of what's foul and fair. It's not wise to leave this to chance. The umpires need to apply their full attention to mangling the strike zone beyond recognition.

    Third, the 20-degree incline that is "Tal's Hill" in center field is a bad idea. I know it vaguely harkens back to the days of yore, but it's an injury risk. I can almost hear the handlers of Carlos Beltran gasping when the free-agent-to-be climbs the hill with eyes to the sky.

  • It's perhaps unwise to read too much into one-season split trends, but it is hard to ignore this home-road numbers for Matt Morris, the Cardinals' starter for Game Six of the NLCS:
    
                    IP          Runs/Game
    Home          112.1           3.85
    Road           89.2           6.83
    
    

    As I intimated, that may be a single-year fluke, but it's not worth risking it when the stakes are this high. Kudos to Tony La Russa for shuffling the rotation so that Morris gets two home starts in the NLCS.

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