Baseball, April 7

Well, it seems I was not the only one to have a violent reaction to ESPN’s decision to have “Win Probability” on the screen in real time during their Opening Day games. I share with you now my touching text exchange with my PosCast partner and pal Michael Schur.

Me: I like the concept of win probability. I hate hate hate it on the broadcast. Am I crazy?

Michael: I mean … yes, but not because of this.

Win probability, as you know, gives you a play-by-play look at the chances in the moment for both teams. It begins, obviously, at 50–50. Each out, each hit, each walk, each wild pitch or stolen base or balk or pickoff, each run changes that probability. It is the key idea behind the statistic Win Probability Added, which adds up all the plays that a pitcher or hitter is involved with during the season.

I like the concept, use it all the time, think about it a lot.

So why do I — and apparently others — triple-hate it so much in real time? I have come up with three reasons. There are probably more.

1. The Hoth Asteroid Field

The beauty of win probability, I think, is that it tells a story about a game. When that game is over, you look at the win probability line graph that goes up and down and, if it’s a game you cared about, that line will represent your own highs and lows watching the game. Oh, look at this low point, remember how dire it seemed then! Wow, it’s amazing how steep that comeback line is, that was awesome.

Every baseball fan — every sports fan — generally knows the win probability while we are watching the game. I mean, if your team is down 7–1 in the seventh or 28–6 in the third quarter or 93–76 as the fourth quarter begins, you generally know. But you sure as heck don’t need to know EXACT WIN PROBABILITY in those moments. You can figure that out later.

Tom Tango brought out this wonderful gif to illustrate the point:

In so many ways, that says all that needs to be said. The Live Win Probability Box on the TV screen was like annoying C-3PO blabbing the odds into Han Solo’s ear. You talk about the odds AFTER you have made it through the asteroid field, never before and CERTAINLY not during.

2. Jinx. Buy me a Coke.

If you watch and listen to a lot of sports, you know that sports announcers talk about jinxology often … and in many, many different ways. They sometimes talk about how crazy it is that when you say a player made 23 or 27 or 33 straight free throws, he or she inevitably will inevitably miss the next one (“Oh, I jinxed him there”).

Color commentators sometimes mock play-by-play announcers for jinxing a player which leads to all sorts of jovial interplay (“Ha ha, I’m glad you said it, not me!”).

Play-by-play announcers sometimes moan about how ridiculous it is that fans think that they really have an effect on games (“I must be pretty powerful if I can break up a no-hitter with just my voice.”).

There are many, many variations of this — the no-hitter and perfect game jinx concept could probably fill up a full-semester psychology class — and while it’s all pretty goofy the truth is that it’s a part of sports as we observe it. You know it. I know it. We do move around, change seating positions, when our team isn’t scoring runs. We do wear lucky clothes. We do get ticked off when an announcer says something that sounds jinxy.

And the Win Probability Scoreboard is a big, fat JINX BOX right there on the screen. Do the fans of the winning team want to know their team is 97% sure of winning? ABSOLUTELY NOT.

And do the fans of the losing team want to know their team has only a 3% chance of winning? ABSOLUTELY NOT.

Which leads to …

3. Who is the Live Win Probability Box for, anyway?

My guess is that the inspiration for the Live Win Probability Box on television comes from poker. Win Probability in poker is pretty cool. One guy gets an Ace-King of spades. Another has a pair of nines. Who has the better chance of winning? How about after the flop when no ace or king comes up but there are two spades? They show you right there on the screen. That stuff is cool.

The reason that works so well is because most of us do not KNOW the win probability. The number on the screen enhances our understanding of what we are seeing.

But we all KNOW the general win probability of a game where a team is winning 4–1 in the sixth. Putting it up on the screen feels almost insulting to someone who cares about baseball. What, you think I don’t know that Tampa Bay has a 99% chance of winning with a five-run lead in the eighth? I can handle things, I’m smart — not like everybody says, like dumb, I’m SMART, and I want respect.

So, clearly the box is not for people who like baseball. It’s sure not for fans of the team with the higher percentage. It doesn’t really make things any better for fans with the lower percentage. I suppose it could be for mythical non-baseball fans who are checking in to the game for the very first time. In that way, the Live Win Probably Box is like the glowing puck, an idea that probably sounded good in a meeting room but is without an audience.


Twitter poll of the day:


Statcast™ thought of the day: Vince Velasquez’s fastball.

Philadelphia’s Vince Velasquez — and let me say for the record that “Vincent Velasquez” sounds way more regal — starts today against Washington. He had an interesting rookie year. He got off to that ridiculous start. He did not allow a run in his first two starts, and he struck out 25 in those 15 innings.

The rest of the way, his team went 9–13 in his starts, the league hit .280 and slugged .477 against him, he allowed 21 homers in those 22 starts, and so on. So not as good. And then he got hurt.

Velasquez has been an intriguing guy for a while now — he’s got this ridiculous, almost unhittable fastball. And nobody is entirely sure how he should use it. Is he a starter? A reliever? A closer? An Andrew Miller type super reliever? It’s all unclear still.

What is clear is that Velasquez’s four-seam fastball moves like Jagger (behold: the worst sort of pop-culture reference, not old enough to be kitschy, but just out of date enough to make the bearer look ancient). Last year, by Statcast™ numbers, Velasquez got a higher percentage of swings and misses on his four-seam fastball than any pitcher in baseball.

  1. Velasquez, 27.4%
  2. Justin Verlander, 27.1%
  3. Jake Odorizzi, 25%
  4. Jacob deGrom 24.7%
  5. Max Scherzer, 24%

I’m going to start posting the Win Scoreboard just once a week to give it a little drama. Well, I’m not sure “drama” is the word I’m looking for there, but yeah, I’m going to stop posting that every day.

Instead, you might pop over to MLB.com and read my story on why 21 teams missed on Mike Trout. Fun stuff in there, I think, including a great anti-Moneyball story from A’s general manager David Forst and a very interesting and descriptive analogy from the Cubs’ Theo Epstein.

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