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Tuesday, November 8, 2016
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Today is the big day for American politics, the Presidential Election. There will be thousands if not millions of articles written over the next 48 hours about it. I will probably chip in my 2 cents at some point. But for now, in the early afternoon calm before the evening storm when the results start coming in, I’m going to zoom back a week or two and think about the World Series.

As you probably know, the 2016 World Series was quite dramatic, pitting two Cinderella teams that haven’t won a World Series for a long time; since 1948 for the American League Cleveland Indians, and since 1908 for the National League Chicago Cubs. Cleveland jumped off to a 3 win / 1 loss start, and it looked like the Series could finish up in game 5, surely by game 6. But no, the Cubs clawed their way back to an exciting extra-inning win in game 7.

After the fourth game, my friend Mary wrote to me with her theory that the Cubs would come back and the Series would go thru to a game 7. This no doubt reflected her faith in the Cubs, given that Mary is a life-long Chicago-lander. But Mary also thought that the financial powers behind Big Baseball would encourage teams to play as many World Series games as possible, to avoid 4 or 5 game routs so as to maximize the profits from tickets, media revenues, and memorabilia sales. Well, obviously her forecast that the Cubs would force a 7th game was on the money. But what about the overall theory that the World Series games are rigged so as to get in 6 or 7 games, versus 4 or 5, so as to maximize revenues for the capitalists who run the big-sports show in America?

My first instinct was to go back a number of years and get some statistics on the distribution of World Series according to number of games played. I picked 1960 as an arbitrary starting point, although it made some rough sense given that in the mid to late 1980s, TV and cable began exercising more and more influence over major league baseball, and the World Series was turned into a big sporting event. Back in the 1960’s, if I recall correctly from watching the NY Yankees in my youth, a World Series would be shown on a local TV network (WPIX channel 11 in New York for the Yankees), and perhaps the Saturday and Sunday games would also be televised on a “big 3” network (CBS, NBC or ABC). By the 1980s, however, every Series game became a big TV and cable event, and the local networks were pushed out of the action. Recall that ESPN started in late 1979 and grew tremendously in the 1980s, adding Major League Baseball to its coverage in 1990.

So, a 1960 to 2016 study would cover roughly half of the years of “little media” coverage, and the second half would happen under “big media” viewing. Here are the results — there were 56 World Series played over this time (recall that there was no Series in 1992 due to the baseball strike). Of those 56, 11 series went 4 games; 12 series went 5 games; 11 series went 6 games; and 22 went the full 7 games. The percent breakdowns are 19.6% for 4 games, 21.4% for 5 games, 19.6% for 6 games, and 39.3% for 7 games. Well, that clearly looks like a bias towards 7-game World Series !!!

But what should we expect statistically from the World Series, if the teams were roughly of equal talent? I think that there is good reason to expect that on average, the National League and American League champions have been fairly close in terms of athletic ability. Even before 1960, there were frequent player trades and manager changes across League lines. A manager from a National team would often be working for an American League team (or vice versa) a few seasons later, ditto for the players. And in 1997, interleague play between National and American teams during the regular season was started, re-enforcing the rough equality between leagues. Sure, there are years when one League’s champ is much better than the other League’s, but on average . . . I would bet on rough equality (although I’m not a baseball expert at all, so I probably shouldn’t make any money bets here!).

So if World Series teams were usually fairly close in ability, with some random years when one League or the other produced a really good or really bad League champ, would you then expect the distribution to be even, i.e. roughly 25% for each outcome (i.e. 4, 5, 6 or 7 games)? If you do expect rough equality, then the actual number of 7-game series is a real smoking gun (39.3% versus 25%). BUT, given rough equality in ability, there is actually good reason to expect that the longer series (6 or 7 games) should happen more frequently than shorter series (4 or 5 games). Again, I’m not much of a baseball fan, so I can’t explain this in detail. But it seems to me that equivalent teams will often fight it out to the end; the short series will only happen when there is a big random gap between the talents of the National and American champions.

I did a little bit of internet research on this, and I see that the real baseball statistics people have come up with probability expectations for World Series outcomes assuming rough talent equivalency. Here is their expected distribution: 4 games, 12.5%; 5 games, 25%; 6 games, 31.25%; and 7 games, 31.25%. If that is accurate, then what we have actually seen since 1960 is too many 4-game series, too few 5 and 6 game series, and a bit too many 7 game series. I don’t know if the differences could be considered “statistically significant”, as my abilities with statistical distribution analysis aren’t all that good anymore. I’ll have to leave that to younger brains. But roughly speaking, it looks like a possible bias towards either quick-kill or go-for-seven.

But let’s dig a little deeper — let’s arbitrarily split the 56 games into halves. Let’s have a look at the stats for 1960 thru 1987 and from 1988 to 2016, 28 games each (again recall the baseball strike in 1992). For the 60-87 period, when TV wasn’t such a big deal for the Series, the distribution was: 4 games, 10.7%; 5 games, 21.4%; 6 games, 17.9%; and 7 games, 53.6%. This shows a BIG bias towards 7 games! All of the other outcomes (4, 5 or 6 games) happen less than expected over this 28 year period, i.e. the good old days.

How about the new big-media days of 1988 to 2016? The distribution for that was: 4 games, 28.6%; 5 games, 21.4%; 6 games, 25%; and 7 games, 25%. Now we see a BIG unexpected bias towards 4 games, i.e. short World Series !!!! Long World Series happen a bit LESS than expected. What’s up with that???

First off, let me say that my analysis is rough and as I’ve already admitted, it is a bit arbitrary. If you started my numbers in 1962 or moved it back to 1957, the outcomes would wiggle around quite a bit. I haven’t done a “sensitivity analysis” to see if this trend holds up when you do that (again, I’ll leave that to some young sports stat genius). Admittedly, there was a run of 7-game Series between 1985 and 1987, and that would throw my results off a bit if you shift things by a year or two. However, I did take a look at World Series outcomes from 1950 thru 1959, i.e. the early TV days, and from 1940 to 1949, the pre-TV radio-only days. In the 40’s, you had 4 full series over 10 years, and in the 50s you saw 5 full series. I.e., 40% and 50% for 7 games !!!! Against that background, the 53.6% from 1960 thru 1987 seems relatively normal, and the big drop-off since 1988 seems a bit more odd.

So if anything, it seems as though baseball teams, when left to their own devices, biased their World Series play so as to go the full seven games! Maybe that’s just what players and coaches wanted to do as athletes — maybe they were warming up over the first three or four games, then got really serious and played really hard in the final games. If anything, it looks as though big media made some big changes to this philosophy (if there really was such an “athletic understanding” amidst the players and managers) when they moved in during the late 80’s. By the 1990’s and certainly by the 2000’s, with the expansion of the leagues and the longer process to select a league champion (recall that pre-World Series league playoffs didn’t exist before 1969, then expanded to both league and division playoffs in 1995), the World Series started cutting into the peak of the NFL football season and the start of the NBA basketball season.

So, if big media really is controlling the show and giving the teams directives on how they play the Series, they would consider the OVERALL sports revenue situation, not just Major League Baseball. Perhaps the big media corporations DON’T WANT TOO MANY sports going on at once — as that might dilute advertising revenues, given that there are just so many sports fans on any given night or weekend to watch a football, baseball or basketball game (with other diversions such as NASCAR racing, world soccer and extreme boxing also expanding and competing for prime viewing time). Thus, the possible bias towards shorter World Series.

So what about 2016? For baseball, this was an exceptional year. Because the Cubs were such a “Cinderella” team and Cleveland was not expected in the early season to make the playoffs, this year’s World Series got more national public interest than a usual year with repeat teams like the Yankees or Giants or Rangers or Cardinals. So perhaps the word from the boardroom was “let the teams do it their own way this year”, given the expanded audience they are attracting (which even included myself!). Perhaps 2016 is the exception that hints at a “keep-it-short” rule for the World Series in the era when baseball is just another component of the “entertainment industry”.

Again, though, I must admit that I am “way out of my league” when discussing baseball. I’m sure that some statistical guru or baseball expert can come along and pick my suspicions apart. I’m sure there are lots of changing things about baseball over the past 50 years that I’m not considering here. But it might be that Mary was right about the profit-maximization influence of big business on the World Series in modern times, but perhaps in the wrong direction for MOST of the time. The 2016 Series just happened to be the exception where a 7-game series actually did coincide with both the interests of athletes wanting to go all out, and with capitalists wanting all-out profitability. Thanks to Mary for some interesting food for thought!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:28 pm      

  1. Jim, I must admit it’s a relief to deal with a topic other than the elections; so “series” games it is; a definite relief.

    If I may, I’d like to clarify what my actual statement was to you about the World Series and “series games” in general. (I probably am wrong about this, but don’t hockey, basketball, football, soccer, etc., have some version of a “series” game at the end of their various seasons too?)

    While I did say, and you accurately quoted me re my “theory” of “series games”, I never once used the term “rigged” when it came to such series. “Rigged” never occurred to me. That makes me sound like Donald Trump; and I assuredly am not he; nor do I think the games are “rigged”. But I DO notice that, when games to the full “number” allotted, all kinds of people make a whole bunch more money than they do/would should there be only 3 or 4 “series” games.

    In addition, I am not a “life-long Cubs fan” even tho I am from Chicago. I have never followed any sport with anything that comes close to a “life-long” interest, concern, passion, or even vague notice of various sports teams, be they baseball (north and south/Cubs and White Sox), football, hockey, basketball, etc.

    I will admit to noticing individual PEOPLE who have special talents who play a particular game; it’s the person with the talent that interests me rather than the team as such and definitely it is not the game itself. To name a few men who played that I’ve noticed for their talent, and yes, I mean “talent” as in “talent” and not a substitute for their good looks:

    Walter Payton, of course, such a nice man; a football player with the nickname “Sweetness” is one I just can’t forget. Sad when he died. Michael Jordan with his balletic moves on the basketball floor, beautiful; but I did hear he got testy when other players didn’t play as he wanted them to. John Paxon (sp?) with his 3 pointers that never failed (that I knew of); again a joy to watch that ball make those 3 points every time. Jim McMahon who could throw a football pass like he was “plastic man” a cartoon character from back in the 1940s, I think; his arm would stretch to wherever he needed it to go; and Jim McMahon always reminded me of plastic man. He’d throw the ball in such a way that made it seem he placed it directly in the arms of whoever the ball was intended for. (Note here I don’t even know the name of the position of the person who “received” the ball; a “receiver” of some sort, I suppose?)

    That’s about all I know about the games; well, then there were the series that always blocked out what seemed like forever other things I wanted to hear or watch.

    I told my brother of my theory and he was shocked that I even considered such a thing! As would be my sister who definitely was a sports fan.

    I also respect your statistics; but when I see all those numbers coming, it might just as well be Russian writing as far as I’m concerned. (Don’t have a clue about Russian writing.) Way over my head.

    While I’m 100% sure that any kind of “tinkering” with the “series” outcome probably does not happen, I do notice the rush of people pouring thru various and sundry “things” to get “series” clothing and various souvenirs, to the point where clothing is printed for each side; the losing side’s clothing is sent to other countries to be sold for a pittance or given away free; yet the companies still make a fortune. Such items also have to be sold almost immediately as the buying public has a short memory. As I’ve heard recently in another situation: Euphoria fades fast; then what? (I find myself wondering if a T-Shirt that costs $35; probably would easily cost perhaps $2 to make [if that; maybe 50 cents] and the rest is profit. Maybe it’s just me; but it sets me to wondering, and my comment was meant as a “sets me to wondering” idea, that’s all.

    With media today influencing even the election of our president in the way it does (and have we recovered from that yet, no matter which side we were on? But I digress and back to “media influence”), all the while claiming it is simply reporting the news, I find myself “wondering” even more than usual.

    I’m sure you have proved statistically that I am wrong; but you know what they say about statistics: It’s possible to make them come out whatever way one wants them to come out. Am I wrong to use the recent elections and the various polls as an example? Maybe I am. But I plead in my defense (as I said above) that I do not know one bit about stats either. But again: Odd how some said one side would win and others said the other side would win: And low and behold: Both were right as the popular vote went one way and the electoral college vote went another way. Both ended up right in their own way.

    And most likely I’m off the track here. May I respectfully note again: I never used the word “rigged” in any sense. I simply said, it makes me wonder; and a person should be allowed to wonder (stats or not), not so? MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — November 11, 2016 @ 3:51 pm

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