Monday, April 03, 2006

Key to winning in the Ivies: Just Get Lucky?

A little too punch-drunk after Columbia's weekend split put the Lions atop the Gehrig Division, the Columbia Spectator today makes a suspect (read: wrong) argument about the nature of the Ivy baseball season. Arguing that Columbia might be able to ride "some good luck" into contention this year, Jon Kamran invokes the so-called "randomness" of the Major League Baseball playoffs--how else could Billy Beane's 'Moneyball' approach not have yet yielded any World Series trophies?--to illustrate a similar chaos theory in the Ivy League regular season. Because the Ivy season is so short, Kamran opines, it makes for a free-for-all that does not necessarily reward "true ability," but is instead susceptible to outside factors, such as luck. Here is the key (read: most wrong) passage:

The Ivy baseball season follows that same small sample size. Only 20 games long, it brings the same element of luck that plagued Beane’s teams in the playoffs to conference play.

Think about it this way. A ball drops 10 feet too short of the fence, and three men are left on base in a one run game. Maybe there was a little more of a headwind than usual just for that one moment. That little headwind just completely changed the game.

Or say a shortstop commits an error with several men on base—the same error he would have made with no men on base. Once again, just a bit of bad luck, but it leads to several runs on the scoreboard.

Couple that with the inconsistencies of youth, and the Ivy baseball season has an undeniable element of luck to it—which could leave the Lou Gehrig division race wide open.

Now, let's review a list of the Lou Gehrig Division winners from the nine seasons prior to last year:

1996 Princeton
1997 Princeton
1998 Princeton
1999 Princeton
2000 Princeton
2001 Princeton
2002 Princeton
2003 Princeton
2004 Princeton

In other words, the Lou Gehrig Division is the NL East of the Ivy League. Either Princeton coach Scott Bradley is the luckiest man in Ivy League athletics, or luck has little to do with winning in this conference.

Here's where Karman is off: yes, the small sample size of the Ivy baseball season may be responsible for minor discrepancies, such as disproportionately inflating or deflating an individual player's statistics. A hot streak can turn a solid player into an all-Ivy honoree, just as a brief slump can banish a projected starter to the bench (hello, Tom Stack-Babich). But the standings are nowhere near as susceptible to this randomness effect. Why? Because the setup of the schedule--by far the most compact series format in college baseball, squeezing four games into two weekend days--does a good job of ironing out any irregularities and turning the Ivy League into as true of a meritocracy as possible. In the Ivy League's format, a team that relies on just one or two stud pitchers--or on a lineup keyed by just one or two sluggers--is usually exposed by Sunday afternoon. It's the team with pitching depth, that executes the fundamentals most consistently, that wins out. Luck may propel a team to one or two wins in a given weekend, but going .500 has never been enough to play for the league championship. Every dog--or Columbia Lion--may have its day, but you need to take three of four to win in the Ivy League, and that demands more than a good headwind or a couple well-placed Texas leaguers.

The Gehrig division may be, as Kamran says, "wide open" this year. But if it is, it's parity, not luck, that accounts for the balance. And I'll still take Princeton to win the division.

Happy Major League Opening Day, everyone.

1 comment:

mb said...

Aw, cut 'em some slack. Their football and basketball programs are what they are, and the poor sods don't even win fencing anymore. Let Columbia and their crazy dreams be.