“The present is a fleeting moment, the past is no more; and our prospect of futurity is dark and doubtful. This day may possibly be my last; but the laws of probability, so true in general, so fallacious in particular, still allow about fifteen years.” - Edward Gibbon, Memoirs
In the 1650s Blaise Pascal, in a series of letters exchanged with Pierre de Fermat, began to see that laws could exist that, while not valid for any particular place and time, did accurately hold over the longer haul through the accumulation of events; thus was laid the foundation of probability theory. What he began is now commonplace for much of modern life, and most importantly for us, this includes how we look at baseball.
The fact that we can grasp intellectually the dichotomy between what is probable and what actually happens doesn’t make it any easier when we find ourselves on the short end of the stick.
Enter Diamondbacks outfielder Eric Byrnes. In yesterday’s pregame press conference he caused a minor stir with his comments indicating that he thought his team had actually outplayed the Rockies despite being down two games to none.
“I also don’t think the Rockies have outplayed us, because they haven’t. Not even close. They’ve had a little luck go their way. Definitely the ball has bounced in their direction. They’ve been the beneficiary of some calls. So when we look at that as a group, we look back on those first two games, we have not been outplayed. If anything, I think it’s the other way around.”
Predictably, several of the Rockies as well as Snakes manager Bob Melvin were asked to react to Byrnes’ comments. Melvin simply talked about the lack of timely hitting and let Byrnes comments stand with the statement that “as far as Eric goes he’s a good quote. I’ll leave it at that” while rookie Troy Tulowitzki focused only on the results:
“They may have outplayed us and in many ways maybe they have. The way I look at it is we’re up 2-0. And we come out every day and we come here to win games and that’s our main objective. And they can outplay us all four games. If we end up winning the series, I’ll be fine with that.”
With that serving as background Byrnes came to the plate with runners on first and second and nobody out in the top of the first. On the second pitch Byrnes lined an 88 mile per hour fastball from Josh Fogg back up the middle. But alas, the ghost of Pascal continued to look dimly on Arizona and the ball found its way into the glove of a surprised Fogg who would later say it was “one of those things that you–your glove’s sitting there and the ball ends up in it…it happened so fast you’re not really thinking”. With Chris Young wandering off second Fogg then instinctively whirled and threw to Kaz Matsui to complete the double play. As if that wasn’t enough, a few minutes later in the bottom of the first Matt Holliday went down and got a breaking ball from Livan Hernandez rocketing it towards the left field stands. Byrnes, in almost a dead run, seemingly forgot about the wall and crashed headlong into it as the ball landed over his head in the stands. And finally, he came to the plate in both the sixth and eighth innings with a runner on base and both times popped up to Matsui on pitches on the outer half. To paraphrase Bugs Bunny, “something tells me he shoulda stood in bed”.
Byrnes’ graphic illustration of the idea that probability is “so fallacious in particular” in the words of Gibbon wasn’t the half of it. In a kind of reversal of game of three of the division series against the Cubs, the Diamondbacks had five of their first ten runners reach base in the first three innings only to see each nascent rally killed by a double play. The latter two double plays were 4-6-3 twin killings; the first featuring a lovely pirouette by Tulowitzki. Those twin-killings upped the Rockies total in the series to six double plays turned in the three games. As evidenced by Tulowitzki’s turn, the Rockies are indeed good defensively but as the Cubs discovered, at times there’s no substitute for lady luck.
Ultimately of course the game turned on a single at bat with Hernandez facing Yorvit Torrealba in the bottom of the sixth inning with two runners aboard and two outs. After starting him with an 83 mph fastball and a 77 mph slider to run the count to 1-1, Hernandez pulled out his eephus-curve at 58 mph (the scoreboard in the stadium didn’t register most of the handful of slow breaking balls Hernandez threw) which caught Torrealba off-balance as home plate umpire Larry Vanover called it a strike despite it being approximately an inch off the plate. After two more called balls on first a fastball and then another slider at 76 mph, the count stood at 3-2.
Hoping to catch Torrealba one more time, Hernandez again lofted a 60 mph curve (the orange pitch above) which ended up about a half inch farther outside than the previous one and which Torrealba was able to just get his bat on and foul off. Finally, with Torrealba thinking he was going to go away again with soft stuff, Hernandez attempted to sneak a fastball inside (the blue pitch). But unfortunately for the Diamondbacks the 82 mph pitch ended up belt high on the inner half and Torrealba reacted by lining it over the left field fence.
Suspecting that had the tape of game three much less the series been rewound and replayed again and again the Diamondbacks don’t hit into three double plays and Torrealba doesn’t hit that homerun in most of those alternate outcomes is I’m sure of little comfort to Arizona and its fans. But for the baseball fan in general we should embrace that balance of probability and contingency, since it is one of the many things that make baseball such a great game.