Thursday, October 23, 2014

Do you know what...

...humans want? Answers. The more definitive, the better. Do you know what humans hate? Nuance.

Why are we here? What is the purpose of life? What follows this? Don't tell me you don't know!

In sports, for example, we like to play games, seasons and championships. That's the only way, after all, to determine who exactly is the best team. Last year, the Seattle Seahawks defeated the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl, 43-8. Clearly, they were the best team in the NFL.

Or were they? I've often wondered how effective our system of play really is. Were the Seahawks the best team for the entire season, or just at the end? Were they really that much better than the Broncos? Would they beat Denver ten out of ten times? Nine out of ten? And how many times would they beat them by such a lop-sided score?

Seasons are long -- months long. And often the team that starts out is very different from the team that finishes. There are injuries, trades and players often go in streaks -- some start strong right out of the gate while others come on with a vengeance at the end. Ask yourself: is the best team really the best team, or just the one that gets hot in the postseason? Do these championships really determine anything? Or is the winner just the one that outscored the loser on a particular day?

Finally, I read a piece yesterday that addressed many of these questions I'd been having about sports. Neil Paine writes in FiveThirtyEight, "So What If These Aren’t The Two Best Teams In Baseball?" (my emphasis):

The 2014 World Series begins Tuesday night, featuring a pair of unlikely combatants in the 89-win Kansas City Royals and the 88-win San Francisco Giants.

How unlikely? The Royals rank as the third-most unexpected pennant winner since 1969 — trailing only the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays and 2006 Detroit Tigers — according to our Weighted Average Loss Total metric. And while the Giants have won a pair of championships in the last five seasons, their cumulative record over the past two seasons has barely cracked .500.

Daniel Meyer of Beyond the Box Score ... notes that Major League Baseball’s regular season (not even the playoffs, which are almost universally regarded as a crapshoot, but the 162-game regular season) is too short to definitively allow the best team to stand out from the pack. Even if MLB expanded to a schedule of 1,000 games per team (!!), the true best team in baseball would have less than a 54 percent chance of producing the regular season’s best record.

So there you have it -- sports don't necessarily determine the best team after all. We don't get a clear black and white answer; the universe comes in shades of gray. Deal with it.

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