Now batting: randomness. Part 4: Takeaways

cointossLike many of my posts, this series was inspired by a conversation with some of Yuppity’s very own this summer. I had two main motivations for writing it.

1) To quantify my intuition that randomness plays a bigger role in baseball than in any other sport, and that trying to select the best team through a 5 or 7-game series is crazy.

2) To show that random variation plays a significant role in determining winners and losers in a seemingly meritocratic setting such as a professional sports league.

And I learned a few things in the process. Most notably, that football and basketball are great games (unfortunately, the greatness of NFL football is masked by such a short season). The design of the games allows better teams to reliably beat worse teams. Chess is a similarly great game: good chess players beat bad chess players. The same cannot be said about baseball or coin flipping.

Writing this also forced me to think about whether or not fans care how much randomness determines the outcome of their favourite league. Maybe what makes a sport enjoyable for fans is the fact that anything can happen. Maybe we don’t want the sports that we avidly follow to be good at selecting the best teams. I’m okay with that notion, but the sports purist in me feels that when so much is riding on winning a game or series, it would be nice if that game or series were determined as little by randomness as possible.

Furthermore, in sports, I feel that fans, management, and players themselves are often ‘fooled by randomness’. We think that outcomes can be mostly attributed to something that the players and coaches have control over; and we need to be careful about that way of thinking. It taints our perspectives in other areas outside of sports as well.

Next time someone gives you a detailed explanation about why team X won the championship or why stock Y’s price doubled, just remember that randomness played a role in determining the outcome. Some coins come up heads more often than others.

3 thoughts on “Now batting: randomness. Part 4: Takeaways

  1. Great series (no pun intended)! Interesting approach and it definitely goes along with intuition. A good lesson to follow a hunch and work out the details. Even if your analysis isn’t perfect it definitely highlights your point.

    Keep in mind, from a consumer/league perspective the degree of randomness may play a role in fanfare. For example, baseball may be a more widespread liked game because regular teams have better chances of winning than basketball or football. Also, because innings are split up fans may consider these mini-wins a component of keeping the game interesting (whereas a quarter doesn’t have as much weight, mostly because it is time dependent).

    I think sports with a good mix of luck and skill are the most popular because they offer weaker teams a chance to win, but they also at times support preconceived notions about skill. Games highly reliant on skill (track and field, tennis) are overall less liked because they are more predictable.

    1. Truth. A ‘good’ game in the sense that it allows better teams to beat worse teams is not necessarily a ‘good’ game as far as fans are concerned. Unpredictability is exciting!

  2. Great article! However, another explanation for the seemingly high randomness in baseball is that teams learn about each other’s playing better over time and hence the observed high with-in variance.

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