When I began writing this piece 17 days ago on the first Thursday of March Madness, I had correctly predicted 10 of 12 NCAA basketball tournament games correctly, including both upsets. That’s an 83.3% success rate, which makes me sound pretty insightful and prescient if you don’t know any better. But my six-year-old daughter filled out her bracket with zero knowledge of basketball, only knowing that the teams with lower numbers next to them are better than the high-numbered teams but they don’t always win, and picking teams based on nicknames, and her record was also 10-2. And, what would someone’s record have been who selected all favorites? You guessed it, also 10-2. In other words, giving yourself too much credit for predicting most college basketball tournament games correctly on Day 1 is a little bit like a generally young and healthy person waking up in the morning and saying, “hey, I don’t have a cold today. I must be taking great care of myself. Go me!” While you didn’t do anything obviously wrong, it’s most accurate to say you just sort of glided into the most probable outcome which happened to be generally positive.
Sports have been an enormous influence on the trajectory of my entire life. If you total up the number of sporting events I have watched in my four decades on this planet, it is almost certainly in the five figures. Though several of my teachers during my childhood did not understand my love of sports and attempted to either belittle it or steer me away from it, I have worked in the sports industry ever since I graduated college. That’s going on 17 years. During that time I have researched sports statistics and history, written about and analyzed sports, and worked with customers in the sports media. On a few different occasions, I have even invented new statistics. None ever particularly saw a wide light of day, but the formulas worked. With all of that experience, you would assume I am an expert, that I can predict the outcomes of games and the success and failure of players and teams with much greater accuracy than the layperson. And, to a certain extent, you would be correct. I tend to win the fantasy football championships of between 15% and 20% of the leagues which I enter, which is about twice the expected rate of success in a 12-person league. I have won multiple March Madness office pools, which carry still smaller odds of success. If you were to ask me to break down an upcoming baseball or football or basketball game and predict the outcome, in most cases I could deliver you an in-depth, reasoned analysis and a good healthy stab at the outcome. Yet, despite all the years of experience and the tens of thousands of hours observing these wonderful games, that’s all it would be. A good healthy stab. It might be right. It probably has a slightly higher chance of proving accurate than the guess of Joe Blow on the street. But, you know what? Joe Blow will still outpredict me a large percentage of the time. And, you might be surprised to read this, but this very unpredictability is what makes sports irresistible.
When I first began working in sports in the summer of 2000, nobody had ever heard of baseball metrics like WAR or xERA or FIP or BABIP, which are now commonplace. For that matter, in the summer of 2000, you rarely even heard the term “metric” when it came to sports. Today, we are living in a different world. The company I work for tracks each team’s win probability continuously with each play of each game, and monitors and records every small movement of every player on an NBA basketball court. These innovations, too, are becoming commonplace.
Yet, despite all of those technological advances and statistical innovations, when it comes to predicting who will win one given game on one given day, we are scarcely any more accurate than an ink-stained sportswriter of the 1960’s who based everything on the eye test and only knew the handful of statistics that got printed in the 1960’s newspapers. And, this is just how it should be, just how it always will be. Because the beauty of sport, the true appeal of sport, does not lie in the ability to predict it. It lies in the fact that you cannot predict it, at least not consistently.
Now, some people are reading this right now and thinking, “Matt, you’re ridiculously wrong. Data shows that the sacrifice bunt is poor strategy. Teams should go for it more on 4th down. There’s no such thing as a clutch player. Etc, etc, etc….” And, in a way those people are correct, but they are correct in aggregate. Individual games are not played in aggregate. They are played one at a time. So, while the sacrifice bunt may cost teams runs over the long haul, that doesn’t mean it will cost the team runs in a given situation on a given day. And even if I may win my fantasy football league twice as often as the average person, there’s nonetheless a non-insignificant chance I will finish dead last this year.
As I return to this post to finish it 17 days later, it is the eve of baseball’s Opening Day and the Cubs and Cardinals are playing on ESPN on my TV eight feet away from me. Jon Lester is on the mound at Busch Stadium. This is a fitting backdrop for me to express my own love of sports. Like me, Jon Lester is a lymphoma survivor who emerged stronger after defeating the disease. Lester returned from his bout with lymphoma to win the clinching game of the 2007 World Series for my beloved Boston Red Sox. Less than four months following that victory, I was diagnosed. Shortly thereafter, tipped off by a couple of my colleagues at the office, Lester wrote me a short, hand-signed letter encouraging me in my own fight.
The story gets better still. In 2013, I trained to run a half marathon in St. Louis in late October. As luck and/or fate would have it, the Red Sox and Cardinals reached the World Series that fall and wound up in St. Louis at the very same time. Unabashed Boston sports fan that I am, I had no choice but to run the half marathon while wearing a Red Sox shirt and hat, and carrying a figurine of David Ortiz in my pocket (a “pocket Papi”). I got showered with good-natured boos on the course by Cardinals fans, and I egged on those fans and soaked up the boos. As many athletes in the past have attested, getting booed can be even more rewarding than getting cheered, because while cheers can be a Pavlovian response of a sort, getting booed always means that the fans care.
I do not believe I have ever run better overall than I did that October day in 2013, when I cruised through St. Louis and set a half marathon personal record that still stands. Then, the following day, my brother Ben – who had taken me to my first baseball game 30 years and one month prior at Fenway Park – caught a flight from Boston to St. Louis toting a couple of ridiculous fake beards (this was the year when the Red Sox all grew beards).
Ben and I sat down the first-base line at Busch Stadium wearing our Red Sox hats and fake beards that night and cheered ourselves hoarse as (yep) Jon Lester outdueled Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright in a 3-1 win, sending the Red Sox back to Boston with a 3-2 series lead. Two nights later, back at Fenway, the Sox wrapped up their third World Series title in 10 years.
Ben cheered me on the course last April when I ran my first Boston Marathon, and he will be there again in two weeks when I run my second. I like my chances to run stronger this year than last, but all the logic and preparation in the world only produces probability. You still need to show up and have things go your way on the course or the court or the playing field on that particular day.
The legendary Boston sportswriter Bob Ryan – like myself a lover of statistics who nonetheless acknowledges their predictive limitations – has written several columns along similar lines in recent years. In the immediate aftermath of the Patriots’ remarkable comeback to defeat the Falcons in Super Bowl 51 earlier this year, he summed it up the greatness of sports with the following tweet:
And, yes, I do pity those who do not appreciate sports, who have not been able to see and enjoy what has enriched my life so greatly. Sports played an integral role not merely in entertaining me, but in teaching me statistics, probability, logic, physics, geography, psychology, economics… and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Sports is the ultimate in entertainment because it unfolds live, organically. For all its problems off the field – and there are many – at its best, one sporting event is still capable of invoking as wide a range of emotions and inflection points within three harmless hours as anything ever devised by mankind. Sports, when played at their highest level, can inspire like little else and, for a brief period, bring people from varied races, classes, and political persuasions all together for a singular cause. We need that today as much as ever.
Best of all, try as we might, we cannot truly predict sports. For what it’s worth, I foresee a rematch of last year’s World Series with the Indians prevailing this time and Corey Kluber taking home the MVP trophy, but what do I know?
Go Red Sox.