Former front-office analyst and now stats professor at Smith College Ben Baumer has a paper out, with cowriters Michael J. Lopez of Skidmore College and Gregory J. Matthews of Loyola University Chicago, that hopes to answer a question we’ve all thought about when our favorite team loses: how often does the best team win in a given sport? How much of our pain can we explain away with luck? The answers contain multitudes.
Their paper, which clearly attacks the main problems in answering the question, can be difficult for a layman to understand. But the basic genius in their approach may be using the betting line to judge team strength. That number allows them to compare different sports with different scoring systems and different amounts of team games.
After testing the line and finding it was a good estimate of team strength separately in each league, the analysts had to figure out the home-field advantage in each sport, the parity between teams, and then the estimated season-to-season and week-to-week variability.
Guess what: baseball had the smallest home-field advantage, with every baseball park scoring below every other sports’ locations other than the Rockies, who have a bigger home-field advantage than four hockey teams. Baseball also had the most parity and the smallest variability week to week and season to season.
So you might have guessed their conclusion — baseball is, indeed, the sport with the most amount of luck involved. The teams are packed in the closest, they have the smallest advantages from their parks, and the so the games are closest to coin flips among the sports. (Note: per Baumer et al., CDF denotes “cumulative distribution function… of 1000 simulated game-level probabilities in each league.”)
This, of course, has ramifications for running a team, ramifications we’ve probably seen recently. The combination of the added Wild Cards and all this parity has led to teams diving for the middle. The Cubs and Dodgers aside, most teams seem content to build a team with a true-talent win total in the mid-80s and hope the balls bounce their way in a given year.
You’ve seen evidence here of these sorts of things. When Dave Cameron wrote that losing on purpose was a bad idea because team projections can easily be off by 10 or more wins, when Billy Beane says “sometimes good things happen,” when the Braves sign Sean Rodriguez — that’s when you know that baseball itself knows how closely packed in the teams are.
But what does this mean for us as fans? That’s less clear, because luck means different things in different situations. When it comes to losses, luck absolves our team of guilt. And though parity and loss absolution are probably good things for the average fan — your team has the chance to win in any given game, and if it loses, you don’t have to feel so bad — it does break down on the extremes.
If every game was truly a coin toss, we wouldn’t want to watch, would we? There would be no meaning. We’d be watching the plinko chips bounce their way down to some random destination. Front offices would have no reason to build good teams, talent would be randomly distributed and randomly expressed, I’d guess. We’d be watching blips on a screen.
The absurdity of that language probably gives us a clue that we aren’t anywhere near that point in baseball. The Cubs had a great team and they won a bunch of games. They still lost 60-plus games, and that’s great. That’s a testament to the game’s parity — best in sports, apparently.