AP Hockey Story of the Day: October 31

Yesterday I discussed a great piece on Bill James written by Joe Posnanski, somebody I read consistently and try to emulate much of my more conceptual writing after. But Joe blogged today about the most discussed play of Wednesday’s Game 7 of the World Series and made a point that I vehemently disagree with. Here’s the story.

Here’s the relevant passage:

“But my point is this: You don’t get a second choice in real life. You choose once and that’s it. And the reveal — you chose poorly — becomes the reality. And so when you look back at something that didn’t work, you now know that anything else, even the stupidest possible choice, MIGHT have worked. The only thing we know for an absolute fact is that the choice made failed.

In this case, we know how the World Series ended. It ended with Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner entirely overmatching Royals catcher Salvador Perez, who hit a foul pop-up to end the game. That’s what happened, and it is unchangeable and, so, in the end, unjustifiable. If given the option to go back in time, the one thing you KNOW WILL NOT WORK is to let Perez hit.

It always entertains me when some coach or manager makes a move that doesn’t work and then grumps, “if I was given that exact same situation again, I’d do it again.” No you wouldn’t. It didn’t work. You’re telling me if time was reversed, and another chance was given, that Grady Little wouldn’t pull Pedro? Don Denkinger wouldn’t call Jorge Orta out? The Portland Trailblazers wouldn’t take Michael Jordan or Kevin Durant?” (bolding my own)

The bolded passage is the one I have a problem with. Sure, you know the decision to hold Gordon didn’t work out. But sport, like life, is probabilistic. There is a set percent chance that the next batter, Salvador Perez, would have found a way to drive Gordon in from third. We don’t know exactly what that percentage is – we never could – but we can make an estimate of it based on Perez’ batting numbers, Bumgarner’s pitching numbers, park effects, defense, etc. The specific percentage isn’t important, for this argument, but the point is it exists. Going into the decision of whether to send Gordon home or not, the third base coach has to have a vague idea of a) the percent chance of Gordon making it home safely, and b) the percent chance of Perez driving in the runner on third. In theory, if “a” is greater than “b”, you send the runner. Of course, the third base coach, Mike Jirschele, couldn’t possibly have calculated all that in a split second, but that’s the advantage of being an experienced third base coach (something that analytics folk often don’t recognize). When you are put in situations like that over and over, your instincts get better and better, and more often than not just on feel you’ll make the right call. Now it’s also possible that Jirschele didn’t take Perez into account at all, that he simply said, “is there a greater than 50% chance that Gordon makes it home right here?” and decided that the answer was no. That would mean leaving critical information out of the equation, which isn’t ideal, but would still rely on that baseball sense and experience.

But back to probabilities. Posnanski’s assertion is that you could replay that situation hundreds of times, and each time Perez would make an out and the game would be over, making the decision to hold Gordon wrong in a vacuum. But that’s just not how sports work. Say that Perez’s chance to get a hit off Bumgarner there was .200. It’s not unrealistic, after all, Bumgarner was dealing. That means that 1/5 of the time, holding the runner, the Royals would have tied the game.

Now let’s get back to Posnanski’s statement: “If given the option to go back in time, the one thing you KNOW WILL NOT WORK is to let Perez hit.” But you don’t know that. In fact, you approximate the chance at 20%. Even if somebody gave you a look into a future and showed you a vision of Perez popping up, that would only be one potential reality. In one out of every four others, Perez would drive the runner home. So it’s flawed thinking.

If a football coach goes for it on 4th and 1 needing a touchdown and doesn’t get it that doesn’t make it the wrong call. If a hockey coach pulls his goalie on the power play down a goal with a minute left and the other team scores, that doesn’t make it the wrong call. You can’t judge the result because results are variable; process is not. If the aforementioned probability “a” had been higher than “b”, then over a long series of similar situations, Jirschele would have come out on top. We know in the playoffs there aren’t really iterated games, but that doesn’t make probabilistic modeling any less valid.

We don’t really know whether or not the Royals made the right call – although there is certainly evidence from many that it was the right one – but we do know that the result of the game isn’t the judge of that. The result only muddies the process.

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