This comes from an article that is more about the JFK assassination and attendant conspiracy theories than anything else, and no, there isn’t anything about sports in it at all. But it’s still really, really useful for sports fans because it reminds us of something really important: weird things happen sometimes, but they don’t usually mean anything.
The author, Steven Novella, is talking about anomalies, which is a more scientific term for “weird things,” but you know what I mean. And the point he makes, via examples like the dude with the umbrella at Dealey Plaza when Kennedy was shot and people who win the lottery twice, is that it’s a bad idea to try to assign meaning to stuff that is probably just random and ultimately meaningless, statistical noise.
He boils it down to a pithy quote that I am considering putting on a motivational poster, perhaps featuring a breaching whale or a guy climbing a rock in Yosemite or something:
The assumption that anomalies must be significant rather than random is an error in the understanding of statistics, a form of innumeracy.
This relates to baseball quite a bit, especially during the playoffs.
We have this habit — among some it’s practically a need — to assign significance to random or anomalous events. Ned Yost has a few ill-advised bunts work out for him? SMALL BALL IS THE NEW HOTNESS! Dominant players like Clayton Kershaw and Mike Trout struggle in the space of 2-3 games? THEY DON’T HAVE WHAT IT TAKES TO WIN IN OCTOBER! A scrappy middle infielder hits an improbable home run? EVERYONE UNDERESTIMATES SCRAPPY McSCRAPPERSTEIN, and HOW DARE YOU DISMISS HIM! We’ve seen this stuff time and time again.
Which isn’t to say that the anomalies aren’t worth talking about. Man, they are! They’re fun! When Ryan Vogelsong turns into Orel Hershiser in the playoffs or when Scrapy McScrapperstein turns into a one man wrecking crew it’s exciting. We should talk about that a lot because it shows you how amazing and cool sports can be and that no matter how much you read and consume, you’re never really going to be able to predict what happens. At least not everything.
But what we shouldn’t do is assign some deeper meaning to these anomalies. To not be content to say that the squeeze play was exciting, but that everyone who ever criticized such strategies is wrong. To not just marvel at how cool Scrappy McScrapperstein’s surprising homer was, but to claim it evidence that he’s way, way better than eight years worth of performance suggests. To not just shake our heads when a beast like Clayton Kershaw gets lit up, but to suggest that it’s some defect in his guts or character than led to it.
That kind of thing is baloney. That’s a function of that innumeracy Novella is talking about. Of our brains trying to find meaning when there really isn’t any. Sometimes — most of the time, I’d argue — the meaningless of it all is what makes baseball so great.