Thursday, June 26, 2008

One of the key issues in hot-hand research is whether, when a team (or individual) exhibits a stretch of strong performance, the result is due to random variation on the team's ordinary performance level or, instead, represents a substantive rise in the term's underlying playing ability. Stated differently, an inherently .500 team might play at a .700 clip due to random fluctuation, like a coin coming up heads several times in a row due to chance. Or, the team might really have improved its true ability level to one characteristic of a .700 team (see Albert and Bennett's 2001 book Curve Ball for further discussion).

Although I don't have any definitive analysis at the moment, Fresno State's rise from being the No. 89-ranked college baseball team entering the post-season (as per the RPI) to winning the NCAA national championship in last night's decisive victory over Georgia, just seems to be too momentous to attribute to random variation.

According to this Baseball America column in the immediate aftermatch of the College World Series, "Statistically, Fresno's the biggest upset winner in CWS history, perhaps all of college sports history."

To dramatize the point, a report on ESPN this morning noted that another underdog that had captured the nation's imagination, George Mason University's 2006 men's final four basketball team, had an RPI all the way up at 26 (also confirmed here).

After finishing the regular season with a 33-27 record (21-11 in the Western Athletic Conference), Fresno State proceeded to go 4-0 in the WAC tournament, 3-1 in an NCAA regional hosted by highly regarded Long Beach State, 2-1 at highly ranked Arizona State in the super-regionals, and 5-2 in the College World Series; one CWS loss occurred in pool play, and the other in the two-out-of-three title round (game-by-game log). All told, playing against many of the nation's top teams, Fresno State went 14-4 in the post-season.

In addition to some top-shelf pitching, Fresno State showed robust offensive production, scoring a CWS record-tying 62 runs.

In conclusion, based on a first glance, Fresno State appears to be a team that lifted its underlying level of ability, perhaps moreso than any other team in recent sports history!

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