Tigers mess with superstition


photo illustration by Samara Pearlstein

Baseball superstition dictates that, following their 20-hit, 16-run outing against the Yanks, the Tigers should have been unable to hit anything at all in this game. The purported view here is that batters tire after hitting a lot, or else they grow overconfident and get smacked back down to earth the next time they head out all swaggering.

Of course there’s also the view that there is a certain number of hits allotted to a team by the baseball gods and when they use up a bunch of them at once, that’s it– they’ve used those hits up– so they’ll hit a lot less the next time out. It’s some sort of strange baseballian cosmic system of checks and balances. It is, of course, completely and utterly insane. My point is that the first view is equally crazy.

(It’s also worth noting that some people say they hold view A, but really, deep down, in their hearts, mean view B. These are often the same kinds of people who think that all baseball management positions should be held by good old semi-retired baseball men instead of people who might be wildly competent but have the misfortune of having never played baseball professionally.)

Because I believe this hypothesis (that the two views are equally crazy), I did a little easy but boring experiment. I went through the season and looked at how many hits the Tigers were scoring in each game. For the purposes of the experiment I considered 10 or more hits in a game to be “big”, and 15 or more hits per game to be “superbig”. If the standard baseball superstition is true, then “big” games should be followed by very unbig games– just a couple of hits, and usually losses. If my view of things is true, there shouldn’t be anything statistically interesting about games following “big” games– they should be about equally “big” and unbig, about equally wins and losses.

Here’s what I found:

Of the 132 games played so far, 70 are “big” and 17 of those 70 are “superbig”. The Tigers, so far this season, are getting 10 or more hits 53% of the time. This is one heck of an offense.

When the Tigers had a “big” game, 46% of the games immediately after would also be “big”. There was also a 46% likelihood of a game following a “big” game being a win, regardless of the number of hits (in addition to the “big” games that followed “big” games and were wins, there were 8 times this season where a “big” game was followed by an unbig game, with less than 10 hits, and the Tigers still won). When the Tigers hit 10 or more runs, almost 50% of the time they go on to win the next game they play… that doesn’t bode well for old superstition.

Does this change with the “superbig” games? The problem here is that there’s obviously a much smaller sample size to look at, since the Tigers have only had 17 “superbig” games (where they had 15 or more hits) so far (with two of them in the last two days!). Eight of the “superbig” games are immediately followed by at least “big” games. That means that 47% of the time, when the Tigers have 15 or more hits in a game, there is a 47% likelihood that they will have at least 10 in the follow-up game.

You’ll notice that all of these numbers are hovering right around 50%, and I’d bet that the more games you looked at (the bigger your sample size got), the closer to 50% they would get.

What does this mean?

Well, it means I get to pet my hypothesis on the head: baseball superstition is just superstition, nothing more. The Tigers are just as likely to follow a “big” game up with another “big” game as they are to follow it up with a cruddy two-hit outing, and they’re about as likely to win after a “big” game as they are likely to lose.

Now, you’ll notice that I was only looking at hits here, not runs. Runs were not necessarily tied to the number of hits, which is what we saw in last night’s game, where the Tigs managed to bang out 16 hits but only got 3 runs and a loss to show for it. This is not baseball superstition slapping the Tigers in the face for daring to defy it, though. Unfortunately for us, if the Tigers have a 46% chance of winning a game following a “big” game, that means they have a 54% chance of losing it, even with another mega-hit performance. Statistically speakin’, this game wasn’t so weird at all. It was pretty much what you could expect.

Now, can we PLEASE lay this myth of multi-hit games sapping a team’s strength to rest once and for all? The best way to do that, Tigers, would be to keep getting tons of hits in these games, one right after the other…. pretty please?

(This is why I don’t do number-licious posts. I actually FELL ASLEEP in the middle of writing/researching this last night. Which is why it’s getting posted at 10 in the morning the next day. I’ll leave the numbers to those more facile with them next time ’round.)

6 responses to “Tigers mess with superstition

  1. My mind is swimming. Yours must be mush.

  2. You should write them more often! It’s just numerical enough to be backed by SCIENCE, but not so obscure that I can’t understand it.
    So why do you think it is that it FEELS like big games are usually followed by let-down games, if that’s not actually true? I mean, I’m guessing there’s got to be something to that, since it’s so universal and persistent.

  3. Larry, yeah, but then again that’s not so different from my usual state of mind. :)
    PfP, I would guess that it has something to do with what makes an impression on our memories. A string of games where the Tigers are hitting a ton just seems like a winning streak. A great big hit-fest followed immediately by a let-down game stands out more in our minds; it’s way more traumatic for a fan. So that’s what we remember more, and that skews our view of it. It probably seems that way even if you logically know the odds are even.

  4. I would say this would still be a let down game, if not for the hits but the outcome.
    Other than that, I feel like I need to feverishly take notes on your entry because their might be a pop quiz!

  5. I say it all goes to the fact that the human mind tends to reject randomization. This came up with the explosion of iPods in the pockets of Americans, and I believe there was an article in either the NY Times or the Wall Street Journal about how this guy was convinced his iPod preferred Steely Dan. He actually took his iPod to some geeks over at Apple, and they tested and tested and tested the thing… The randomizer was working perfectly. It’s the human mind that tries to establish patterns. Therefore, a team inexplicably can’t hit against Zack Greinke and what we assume to be bad Royals bullpen pitchers? Well, that’s because they hit *too much* the previous 2 games. It’s really just randomization, but it’s the human mind that attempts to put an explanation on it. I’d bet even when Ted Williams hit .406 or when Ty Cobb hit .420 in 1911, there were some 0-for-4’s sprinkled in there somewhere. And it probably wasn’t because they were tired from their 4-for-4’s the previous day.

  6. Oh yeah, tiff, for sure it was still a let-down.
    Jeff, that’s true too. Our brains are set up to make and see patterns. It’s basically the same thing I was saying, just from a different angle… the human mind remembering more traumatic or ‘memorable’ outcomes more readily and giving them mental priority over more random outcomes is the same deal.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s