OCT 19, 2009 5:03am ET

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The Demise of the 2009 Boston Red Sox: Super-Crunching Takes a Drunkard's Walk

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Sunday, October 11 was the end of bye week for the Chicago Bears, so I spent the day channel-surfing among a welter of televised football and playoff baseball games, most of which I found not too interesting. Mid-afternoon, I happened on the late innings of the Angels-Red Sox playoff game from Boston and decided to watch it to conclusion. Down two to none in the best of five series, the Red Sox took a 6-4 lead into the ninth inning, turning control over to impenetrable closer Jonathan Papelbon, who hadn't allowed a run in 26 postseason innings. The Angels, within one strike of defeat on three occasions, somehow managed a miracle rally, scoring 3 runs to take the lead 7-6, then holding off the Red Sox in the bottom of the ninth for the victory to complete the shocking sweep. Later, New England's beloved football Patriots lost in overtime to the Denver Broncos. I can only imagine the angst of Hub sports fans Sunday night and Monday. What aspects of the Red Sox will be identified as the “cause” of this year's demise? My bet is the failure to sign then free agent Mark Teixeira to a $150M contract. Worse, Teixeira is now working his magic for the hated New York Yankees.

Ever since 2004, when the Red Sox rallied from three games down to beat the Yankees for the American League championship and then swept  the Cardinals  in the World Series, the Red Sox have been New England's academic darlings, “champions” of the data-driven, predictive analytics approach to running a baseball team. I wish I had a dollar for every book, scholarly article, student paper or blog touting the unique wisdom of Red Sox evidence-based baseball. Mentioned early in Ian Ayres' Super Crunchers, and a centerpiece of Tom Davenport's Competing on Analytics book and HBR article, the Red Sox approach to managing a baseball team by the numbers is now important study in both baseball boardrooms and MBA classes. Even the coolly analytical writers for Baseball Prospectus jumped on the Red Sox bandwagon with their book Mind Game, How the Boston Red Sox Got Smart, Won a World Series, and Created a New Blueprint for Winning. The title tells all you need to know.

I love Boston. It's one of my favorite places to visit from late Spring through the Fall. I can't say I'm such a big fan of Boston sports teams, however. More than anything, unfortunately, my problem is envy at the success of the Red Sox, Patriots and Celtics – as Chicagoans can appreciate. But almost as much, it's the over-interpretation and seeming superiority surrounding Beantown team successes that I find a bit much. It's as if Boston victories have a higher meaning than than those of other cities, representing a metaphor for the success of sports as business – a formula for winning that generalizes to life. Were evidence-based, data-driven and super-crunching business management practices invented by Boston sports teams?  I'm convinced many New Englanders would answer yes.

By no means am I diminishing the accomplishments of the Red Sox, nor am I minimizing the value of evidence-based baseball. Indeed, I've been a big fan of Sabermetrics founder, baseball analytics nonesuch, and current Red Sox consultant Bill James, for 25 years. I also grudgingly admire the skills of  Red Sox wunderkind, General Manager Theo Epstein. The Red Sox record over the last 6 years speaks for itself. Since 2004, they've almost certainly been the best team in baseball, averaging 94 wins in the regular season, making the playoffs all but once, winning World Series championships in 2004 and 2007. 

And doing it with panache. 2004 was the miracle ACL where the Sox finally beat the Yankees, streaking to four straight wins after being down 0-3. They likewise came back from a deep deficit (1-3) in 2007 against the Cleveland Indians. Indeed, so sure was I that the Indians would close out the Sox and go to the World Series in 2007, I started a draft of this column then! 

The Red Sox are certainly exemplars of the data and analytic team-building methodology touted by Michael Lewis in Moneyball, the chronicles of the Oakland A's success under maverick GM Billy Beane. Call it Moneyball, evidenced-based baseball, or baseball analytics, the Red Sox, like the A's, were the vanguard. Of course, the financially successful Red Sox have a big budget advantage over the frugal A's, able to retain their home-grown talent and attract free agents, where the A's can only dream “what if”.

My beef with the interpretation of recent Red Sox winnings is that strategies that've keyed their success are offered as ironclad (and timeless) laws of nature rather than as evidence of simple statistical relationships at a point in time. And it always seems the arguments proving team success are retrospective – after big victories -- not predictive into the future. We all know that statistical relationships are imprecise, with significant random elements. They're also dynamic, evolving with the game. Baseball isn't physics.

The Drunkard's Walk uses baseball analogies freely, but in quite a different direction – to demonstrate that we often obsess on finding cause and effect explanations for what are in fact random events. Author Leonard Mlodinow shows convincingly using simple probability arithmetic that the best teams can easily lose in a short series. Could that be the case here? Or is Jonathan Papelbon washed up at 28? Had the Angels swept the Red Sox in a mid-season, three game series would it have been news outside Boston? Or is timing everything? What will become of the current Red Sox “dynasty” if the Yankees win it all this year, re-assuming their accustomed position on top of the baseball world? And if the Yankees win, will recent baseball history be rewritten, the period between the last time they were in the World Series (2001) and last year deemed a random blip of Gotham non-success?

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Comments (3)
Steve,

Great points and I'm glad to see you took the time to highlight my beloved Red Sox. As we are both AL East die-hards, it's interesting to watch two different paradigms of baseball success in the BoSox and the Yanks.

I agree with you that the Red Sox do have a bit of a financial advantate over the A's, but as you also pointed out, James and Epstein make a great team in finding the right "fit" for the $. That's the big key. There's a certain personality of the new age Red Sox that they to seem to be seeding with both home-grown and "bought" talent.

Campy

Posted by Eric C | Monday, October 19 2009 at 1:46PM ET
Steve,

I am glad that my Info-Mgmt.com article, "Baseball Analytics

Posted by Gary C | Monday, October 19 2009 at 5:03PM ET
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