The World Is So-o-o Random!

Oct 22, 2014

Today’s USA Today story about last night’s World Series game (GO GIANTS!) includes an interesting graphic, showing the success of “wild card” teams since they were first included in Major League Baseball’s postseason playoffs in 1995. 2014 is the first year that two wild card teams have faced off in the World Series – yes, a major-league record!!! – so a wild card team is certain to win the World Series, the sixth time that has occurred.

Six times in 20 years. Only one-fourth of the teams are wild cards, and yet wild cards win one-third of the time. Does this mean that wild card teams have a better chance of winning the World Series than division champions? Of course not. After a 162-game regular season, the playoffs are reduced to five- and seven-game series, where much can happen. And, as baseball fans say much too often, it’s a round ball and a round bat.

So much of life is random, and not just baseball. Or at least complicated beyond human comprehension, which is pretty much the same thing as random. And yet, we humans believe there must be a reason for what has happened, and then explain that reason to others. Every day the stock market goes up (or down), and journalists and pundits attribute that to one or more of the gazillions of good (or bad) things that happened that day. Why don’t they just say, “Well, the stock market behaved randomly again today”?

Now, I ask you: Will the emergence of big data make our understanding of human behavior better or worse? Are you sure?

As an aside, baseball lends itself beautifully to numbers and just generally keeping track of stuff. For example, before he gave up a home run yesterday, Madison Bumgarner had pitched 32 2/3 consecutive scoreless postseason innings on the road, a major-league record. And game 3 of the NLDS series between the Giants and the Washington Nationals went 18 innings and mind-numbing 6 hours, 23 minutes, another – yes! – major-league postseason record. Oh, and Brandon Crawford’s grand slam homer in the Giants’ Wild Card Game against the Pittsburgh Pirates was the first by a shortstop in postseason play. Ever. In 111 years of postseason play. You’ve gotta love a sport like that. So does big data.

“Painting with Numbers” is my effort to get people to focus on making numbers understandable. I welcome your feedback and your favorite examples. Follow me on twitter at @RandallBolten.

Purchase your copy of painting with numbers today