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Baseball's Math Ridden Magic

Oct 28, 2019

Popular science wrote a really intersting article on math in baseball.

"While culture and history play their roles in making baseball a more occult sport than others, so do statistics and numbers.

In baseball, an obscene number of outcomes are left up to chance. Teams play a lot of games—162 over the six-month-long regular season—and there are, on average, 142 pitches in a game. That’s around 23,000 pitches a year, a large enough sample size for countless unpredictable plays to occur.

Plus, baseball stadiums are wildly different from one another. They aren't standardized like the 100 yards of football fields or the 10-foot rims on basketball courts. Ballparks are all different shapes and sizes; they harbor historic ivy that eats balls up and have fans that scoop pop flies from outfielders' gloves. Coors Field in Denver is known as a hitters' paradise because balls fly much farther in high altitudes. (Physicist Robert Adair calculated that a ball that flies 400 feet at sea level would fly 420 feet at Coors Field in his book, The Physics of Baseball.) A tiny smudge of dirt on a ball could alter its aerodynamics and turn a pitch into a strike. All of those factors separate an out from a homer, a win from a loss.

Baseball statisticians try to wrangle all of these uncertainties into equations that make the sport more predictable—and profitable. Like a biologist using data to disprove creationism, statisticians often show that the magic of baseball can be boiled down to a science. There's even a specific branch of baseball-dedicated statistics called Sabermetrics, which is how we got figures like slugging and on base percentage.

But no matter how tight the math is, there will always be a tiny sliver of gray area where something extraordinary can happen. In those moments, we see a ball roll between Bill Buckner's legs. We see David Bote hit a walk-off grand slam. We see the heavens open wide in a World Series Game 7 and provide a life-changing delay for Cubs fans around the planet. (During that pause, right fielder Jason Heyward gave an impassioned speech that turned the tide in the club's favor in extra innings.) These are the instances in which baseball defies all reason. They're when curses are born and ultimately, broken."

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