Thursday, January 24, 2013

Against All Odds


By Tom Fee

Defensive Specialist's note: Due to technical issues with the Deep in the Hole super computer, this article comes a day late - apologies


Not sure about you, but I’m always glued to coolstandings.com pretty much from day one of any MLB season.

It might be because I’m a probability nerd, but it’s always amazing to see how teams consistently defy the odds and reach the playoffs out of no-where.

Who can forget Boston’s 2011 epic collapse? On the 3rd of September 2011 Cool Standings gave the Red Sox a 99.6% chance of making the playoffs thanks to their nine game lead over Tampa Bay with only a month to play. Even after an unlikely comeback to tie with the Sox, the Rays looked done in a must win game 162, facing a 7-0 deficit in the 7th inning to the Yankees while the Red Sox held a late 3-2 over the Orioles.

Against all odds, the Rays pulled back the most unlikely comeback, within the most unlikely comeback.

  • The Red Sox had just a 0.3 percent chance of failing to make the playoffs on Sept. 3
  • The Rays had just a 0.3 percent chance of coming back after trailing 7-0 with two innings to play.
  • The Red Sox had only about a 2 percent chance of losing their game against Baltimore, when the Orioles were down to their last strike.
  • The Rays had about a 2 percent chance of winning in the bottom of the 9th, with Johnson also down to his last strike.

Multiply those four probabilities together, and you get a combined probability of about one chance in 278 million of all these events coming together in quite this way.

With that, the ABL’s number-crunchers face a tough task of putting five teams into three places for the coming weekend. No percentage odds exist on the ABL website, and the reason behind this is that it’s actually quite time consuming to calculate, especially when considering tiebreaker scenarios! But with little much of a life (ie. A boring job) I’ve managed to perform a feat almost as impressive as the Ray’s 2011 comeback and present two scenarios for you to consider.

Not being an employee of Fan Graphs or Cool Standings, I am not actually aware of how these odds are calculated. A decent approximation would be to assume each game is equivalent to a coin flip, or a 50% chance to go either way. Since the league’s best sides sit on a 57% winning percentage, I thought this wouldn’t be too bad.

In each series there is a possibility of 5 results ie:
Home Sweep
Away Sweep
Split
3-1 Win to Home Side
3-1 win to the away side

For out three series this weekend we are given five different possibilities, leaving us with 35 = 125 possible different scenarios to consider at the end of the season.

Running these possibilities though my computer program and giving each team a 50% chance of winning spits out the following playoff chances:

Sydney
98%
Canberra
97%
Brisbane
84%
Perth
16%
Adelaide
5%

Being a Heat fan, I wasn’t too pleased with the 16% chance of having the ability to defend the Claxton Shield in the playoffs, so I thought I would use each team’s current win/loss records to skew the results. After all, Brisbane faces a much tougher task in facing Sydney away from home than the Heat have facing the cellar dwellers Melbourne Aces on their home patch.

Canberra
98%
Sydney
98%
Brisbane
77%
Perth
24%
Adelaide
3%

While I find a 24% chance a bit more palatable, it doesn’t tell the full story. Since I can’t tell my computer “by the way, Travis Blackley is pitching this weekend, and the Heat’s win loss record is skewed by the fact they were in form at the start of the season but currently resemble the Red Sox circa September 2011.”

Either way, even if I take a middle ground and give the Heat a 20% chance of winning, it’s still quite a few million times more likely than the Rays 2011 comeback, so I might as well book my flight over east for the Championship Series now!

Other interesting tid-bits:
  • There is a 0.39% chance of a 4 way tie for first, with Perth, Canberra, Brisbane and Sydney on 25 games each. In this scenario the ABL will utilise tiebreakers and declare Brisbane to take first place and Perth to be eliminated.

MEL
0
PER
4
CAN
1
ADE
3
BRI
3
SYD
1

  • Canberra holds the all-important tiebreaker over Sydney thanks to their controversial bang-bang play at the plate in the 12th inning on Sunday. To the eye the play looked out, but slo-mo replays suggest the foot *might* have been off the bag. Sydney certainly didn’t think so, and losing the tiebreaker gives Canberra a much better chance of taking first and hosting the ABLCS.

The moment the ball was caught. With the bases loaded, all Sox catcher Geoffrey Klein needs to do is put his foot on the plate!

Instead Klein mistakenly goes for the tag! Ryan Stovall beats the tag (which is irrelevant), but perhaps was enough to confuse the umpire on his call of whether Klein got his foot on the plate in time.

  • The ABL’s tiebreaker rules favour teams who do well against the top teams and punish teams who fail. Thanks to Canberra being the most likely top-ranked team, the Heat lose almost any tiebreak scenario thanks to their 2-6 record against the Cavalry, while the Bandits win almost every tiebreaker thanks to their 7-4 record against the Cavs.
  • The ABL’s tiebreaker rules are kind of ridiculous but necessary with a tight schedule preventing one-game playoffs. The in some cases the tiebreaker ruling will punish or reward teams based on results of games that had absolutely no bearing on that specific team. There is a 0.39% chance of the below results occurring and will result in a deadlock for the first five places.

MEL
1
PER
3
CAN
0
ADE
4
BRI
3
SYD
1

Brisbane 25 Wins
Sydney 25 Wins
Canberra 24 Wins
Perth 24 Wins
Adelaide 24 Wins

Brisbane and Sydney cannot be separated at the top thanks to a tied season record of four wins each. Instead top place will be determined by who has the best record against the 3rd place team – which cannot be determined due to a 3-way tie for 3rd!

Taking the season records between Canberra, Perth and Adelaide we get

Canberra 9-7
Perth 9-10
Adelaide 9-10

With Canberra taking the tiebreaker for 3rd with their superior record against Perth and Adelaide, Brisbane is deemed to be the host of the ABL Championship Series over Sydney thanks to their superior record against Canberra who had the better records against Perth and Adelaide!

Confused? We are - but we shouldn’t be. We thought the last season’s 4-way tie debacle was bad enough, but this season’s could be just as confusing. Fortunately the punished teams from last year (Brisbane & Canberra) look to gain the most in the tiebreakers this year. With the top three teams going through in a six team division, it seems that the past two years are not an aberration, and calculating hundreds of different scenarios during the final week will become some kind of late-January tradition.

Flawed system or not, expect some agonisingly close baseball over this weekend, and don’t blame the commentators when they get confused!


Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Dope


As you can probably imagine, the Defensive Specialist was shrouded in performance enhancing drug speculation throughout his stellar career – it’s difficult for mere mortals to see spectacular physical tools and sustained excellence on the field and not suspect the use of performance enhancing drugs.  The Defensive Specialist could only ever answer – “it’s all natural” (and then promptly raise his shirt and flex the 8 pack abdominal set up). 

On the 9th of January, the BBWAA (Baseball Writers Association of America) decided that despite a ballot stuffed with at least 8 legitimate Hall of Fame worthy candidates, no one was deserving of enshrinement in 2013. This shutout was even more flabbergasting because only 2 men on the ballot had either been caught using or admitted to using performance enhancing drugs (Rafael Palmeiro and Mark McGwire). In fact, McGwire’s use of PED’s came at a time when they weren’t outlawed in the sport.  In effect, the rest of the ballot was shut out because they were suspected of drug use: guilty until proven innocent. 

Numerous writers have made great points about the Hall of Fame process (The DS particularly liked this piece) but Old Hoss Rayburn (who operates a wildly amusing twitter feed) put it best with this nugget:

“It was nice to hear from journalists who earned Pulitzers for their hard-hitting Steroid Era reporting opine on the HoF vote”.

In other words, the BBWAA are punishing ball players by not letting them into the Hall of Fame when the same writers said and did nothing to expose drug use when it was rampant.

Seven days later, we’re getting ready to learn the true (or as much of the truth that his legal and public relations teams are prepared for you to hear) story behind Lance Armstrong’s performance enhancing drug usage.

Where’s your old pal going with this? Quite simply, why are we surprised?

Top-flight athletes have been seeking a competitive edge ever since, well ever since competition was invented. The strong survive and in this day and age the strong get paid! What continually stuns the Defensive Specialist is journalists and old timers coming out and saying that the cheats shouldn’t be recognised for the achievements. Delve into the Hall of Fame a little deeper and you’ll find players who doctored baseballs and admitted to amphetamine use. Aren’t both of those performance enhancers? Cheating has taken place since Jesus was a lad!

As long as the media and the fans worship at the altar of athletes, these competitors will look for any edge to get to the top and stay there.

The Defensive Specialist would love for baseball and sport in general to be drug free, but how can we expect athletes to not push the limits when so much money is at stake? Advances in equipment and rehabilitation (Kobe Bryant having blood work completed in Germany to aid his knees!) has seen performance levels increase across most sports.

We’re also dealing with a sub section of humanity geared differently than your average Joe from a mental perspective. Everyone has heard the stories of what a maniacal competitor Michel Jordan was. He would use any advantage to beat his opponent (the DS is not suggesting MJ used PED’s) Top flight athletes are more often than not mentally predisposed to winning or beating their opponent. It comes as no shock to the Defensive Specialist that people wired this way would look to PED’s as a means to win or compete.

The Defensive Specialist is in no way condoning drug use. What the Defensive Specialist is condoning is understanding. Top flight athletes will look for advantages - not all will cheat – but all will look for ways to win and stay on top. Lets try and understand that and act less surprised and outraged when those that cheat are caught.