Thursday, October 18, 2007

Cause and effect

A couple days ago, during Game 4 of the American League Championship Series, Fox color man Tim McCarver fell into a sports-commentary fallacy that's been annoying me for some time. McCarver was discussing the bottom of the fifth inning, in which the Indians scored seven runs. The 7-0 lead they built was more than enough to withstand the back-to-back-to-back home runs that the Red Sox would hit in the top of the sixth. The bottom of the fifth went down like this:
  • Casey Blake homers. CLE 1, BOS 0. Outs: 0.
  • Franklin Gutierrez singles.
  • Kelly Shoppach is hit by a pitch; Gutierrez advances to second
  • Grady Sizemore hits into a fielder's choice. Shoppach is out at second. Gutierrez advances to third. Sizemore is safe at first. CLE 1, BOS 0. Outs: 1.
  • With runners at the corners, Asdrubal Cabrera hits a shot up the middle. Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield knocks the ball down with his glove but can't catch it. Had Wakefield caught it, or let it gone through to the second baseman, there would have been an easy double play, and the inning would have been over. Instead, Cabrera legs it out for an infield single. Sizemore advances to second, and Gutierrez scores.CLE 2, BOS 0. Outs: 1.
  • Travis Hafner strikes out. CLE 2, BOS 0. Outs: 2.
  • Victor Martinez singles. Sizemore scores, Cabrera advances to second. CLE 3, BOS 0. Outs: 2.
  • Jhonny Peralta hits a three-run home run. CLE 6, BOS 0. Outs: 2.
  • Kenny Lofton singles, then steals second.
  • Blake singles. Lofton scores. CLE 7, BOS 0. Outs: 2.
  • Gutierrez walks. Blake goes to second.
  • Shoppach strikes out. CLE 7, BOS 0. Outs: 3.

Later, after the Sox scored three runs in the sixth, McCarver looked back on the ball that Cabrera hit. If Wakefield doesn't knock the ball down, he said, Cleveland would have been out of the inning with only one run instead of seven, and the Red Sox would have ended up leading 3-1.

Or maybe not. While the Indians were putting together that seven-run inning -- which also included a time-consuming pitching change by Boston -- Cleveland starting pitcher Paul Byrd had to sit in the dugout for more than a half-hour, his arm getting cold and his rhythm deteriorating. When Byrd finally came out in the top of the sixth, he didn't have any of the stuff that had blanked the Sox for five innings, and he served up home runs to Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz. He was pulled for reliever Jensen Lewis, who then gave up the third home run to Manny Ramirez (who, after he hit the ball, threw up his arms in triumph, having ... pulled his team to ... within four; quite the cause for celebration).

Had the Indians' fifth inning ended on Cabrera's at-bat, Byrd's arm never would have grown cold. Further, if he'd been working with only a 1-0 lead rather than a seven-run cushion, he would have approached Youkilis and Ortiz entirely differently, less reluctant to challenge them with heat right over the plate and more willing to nibble at the edges. Boston may have never hit those home runs. And as the game progressed, the Indians would have played entirely differently -- focusing on grinding out insurance runs rather than eating up outs.

I don't want to pick on McCarver -- am I the only one who doesn't mind him? -- because all announcers do this: They assume that the game flows in an entirely linear fashion, that events in the ninth inning or fourth quarter are somehow independent of events in the first inning or first quarter. How many times have you been watching a football game, and it's tied at the two-minute warning, and one team is trying to score, and the announcer (think Dan Dierdorf) says, "How BIG is that missed field goal in the second quarter NOW?" Sure, it's big. Missed scoring chances always are. But there is absolutely no way of knowing how the game would have unfolded had the field goal been successful. So much of sports -- particularly football -- is situational. Play-calling, defensve schemes, clock management -- they're all heavily influenced by the score.

It's funny, because announcers love to bag on coaches when they go for a two-point conversion too early in the game. "You never know what's going to happen between now and the end of the fourth quarter," they say, and they're usually right. And yet those same announcers will look back at the end of a game and assume that the previous 30 minutes of clock time would have played out precisely the same regardless of the score. In other words, they assume that effect is entirely independent of cause.

Announcers, of course, aren't the only ones to fall into this trap. Fans do it all the time, as do franchises. Show me a football team that hangs goat horns on its kicker for missing one field goal, and I'll show you a team that's going nowhere. Because good teams have the mindset that if everyone was doing his job, the game wouldn't have been close enough that the entire thing was riding on one guy's foot -- whether the kick came in the first tem minutes or the last two. (Now, if the guy misses kick after kick ... then, yeah, get rid of him. Remember how the Colts got rid of Mike Vanderjagt? It wasn't because he missed the tying field goal against the Steelers in the playoffs. It's because they had lost faith in him to perform in the clutch, and that lack of faith affected the way the team played the entire game. So the Colts went out and got Adam Vinatieri. He's not perfect -- he has missed three field goals in Super Bowls -- but he instills enough faith in his teammates that they can play their game without worrying about him letting them down.)

Sports fans can be disappointed when their teams fail early, late or somewhere in the middle. But if the game is tied in the fourth quarter, then that's when they'll lose it, not in the first.

1 comment:

Rich Lanthier said...

Amazing isn't it? Unfortunately most do not appreciate the logic you nicely lay out and instead ream the guy who struck out in the second inning, or the kicker who dinged a 30 yarder FG in the third quarter...