Saturday, July 15, 2006

The Rockies are coming

And it looks like we may be catching them at exactly the right time.

Remember the Nationals last year? Many surprise first-half teams don't sustain their success over 162 games.

The opposite is also true. Sometimes a bad team performs horribly in the first half, then less horribly in the second half, enabling its management, with the help a skilled staff of PR spinmeisters, to claim that the improvement is the result not of a shift in capricious good fortune, but of design. Those who don't watch carefully--the vast majority of the customers of this enterprise--are inclined to believe the spin. This explains the tendency to believe that one- and two-month periods of apparent success (i.e., high batting average) by speedy, free-swinging center fielders during the waning days of a baseball season (A. Brown, T. Redman, C. Duffy) represent just cause for optimism in the subsequent season. It also explains the inevitable disappointment that results when reality confronts fantasy the following April, May, and June.

Because luck and random chance regularly affect the outcomes of individual games, excellence can be inferred only by looking at a number of outcomes that is sufficiently high to normalize the distribution of good and bad luck. 162 is a number that works pretty well in baseball. It's possible that a team that wins 80 games by winning 30 in the first half and 50 in the second half may be no more entitled to optimism than a team that wins 50 in the first half and 30 in the second half.

That this pattern is not widely understood offers a ripe opportunity for exploitation by Marketing. There is nothing particularly wrong with that. There is something wrong, though, when the management team itself regularly gets fooled by small sample sizes and makes decisions accordingly. Observation of the Pirates management during the McClatchy years indicates that that is exactly what has happened.


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