Friday, October 31, 2008

By finishing off the Tampa Bay Rays in Wednesday night's rain-delayed World Series finale, Philadelphia Phillies' closer Brad Lidge achieved relief-pitcher perfection on the "Save" statistic.

Combining regular-season (41 games) and post-season (7 games) play, every time Lidge had the opportunity to protect a Phillies' lead at the end, he succeeded. He thus ended up a perfect 48-for-48 on save opportunities.

A few years ago as a member of the Houston Astros, the 6-foot-5 right-hander was so powerful at the end of games that the team's middle/set-up relievers knew that their job was to provide a "Bridge to Lidge." As noted in this article:

With Houston in 2004, [Lidge] averaged 15 strikeouts per nine innings. In the seven-game National League Championship Series loss to St. Louis, he held the Cardinals to one hit in his eight innings...

The Astros and Cardinals met again in the next year's NLCS, and when Houston was one out from the World Series, Lidge gave up a game-deciding homer to Albert Pujols. Houston won the pennant in the next game, but somehow, Lidge seemed to become better known for that Pujols homer than for all his good work.

For now, at least, it looks like the "Heartbreak Lidge" moniker he obtained in Houston will likely be a thing of the past.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

One week from tonight, two of college football's hottest teams (both undefeated) and most hot-handed quarterbacks will do battle when the University of Texas plays at Texas Tech.

The Red Raiders' Graham Harrell hit on 22 of his first 24 passes today, as Tech routed Kansas 63-21. The game was once tied 14-14 before the Red Raiders scored 49 straight points. The Jayhawks, fans will recall, won the Orange Bowl and finished as the No. 7-ranked team in the nation last season. Although clearly not as good this year, KU came into the game ranked 19th in the nation, thus serving as a quality opponent for Texas Tech.

The Longhorns' Colt McCoy has been similarly scintillating. As this article notes:

Through Texas' first six possessions Saturday [in a 28-24 win over previously unbeaten Oklahoma State], McCoy was ridiculously good. He led the Horns to four touchdowns and completed 30 of 33 passes including a school-record 18 straight at one point. Go back to last week's dissection of Missouri and McCoy was 59 of 65 (91 percent accuracy) across a span of 15 possessions, with a couple of drops and batted balls in there. On those drives Texas scored 77 points.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Inspired, presumably, by Boston's amazing comeback from a 7-0 deficit to win Game 5 of the American League Championship Series against Tampa Bay (although ultimately not the series), Tom Tango has just written a piece at Hardball Times probing the historical record of similar comebacks. Does evidence exist for comeback wins inspired by what the article calls "in-game momentum"?

Specifically, Tango identified games in which a team rallied from five or more runs down to tie a game, but not take the lead before the end of the inning. The idea is that the game would now have been back to square one -- dead even -- but one team would have had the momentum. Tango then investigated how often the latter team went on to win the game by scoring in a later inning, which might be seen as a sign of momentum on the part of the team that tied the game (or demoralization on the part of the team that squandered the lead).

Tango finds evidence that teams coming back from five or more runs have won games with a slightly greater frequency than that of teams coming back from smaller deficits (and thus with lesser momentum). However, he urges caution as follows:

...don't forget that we're talking extreme momentum here; in-game momentum in which the team scored five runs in an inning to tie the game. One must believe that the effect of momentum must be even less day-to-day.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Boston's postseason dominance over the California/Anaheim/Los Angeles Angels continued last night, with a 3-2 Red Sox victory to capture the first-round series, three games to one. According to a sidebar note with the above-linked article:

The Red Sox improved to 4-0 all-time against the Angels in postseason series, having beaten them in 1986, 2004, 2007, and 2008. Boston has also won 12 of the last 13 playoff games against Los Angeles.

The story begins, of course, with the 1986 American League Championship Series, in which the Red Sox, trailing three games to one, staged an unlikely comeback to take three straight and win the series, 4-3.

Boston then recorded 3-0 series sweeps against the Halos in 2004 and 2007, before winning 3-1 this year.

As I like to point out from time to time, streaks can arise from some combination of (a) sharp ability differences between the two competitors; (b) momentum and other psychological factors (though most statisticians are skeptical of this); and (c) random chance.

The idea that the Red Sox were substantially superior talentwise over the Angels -- for this year at least -- can be safely ruled out, as the Angels won eight out of the nine regular-season meetings between the teams.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Statistical research tends to show that athletes who have experienced consecutive successes (e.g., made baskets, hits in baseball) do not raise their probability of success on the next attempt, relative to their long-term baserates. For example, a long-term .50 basketball shooter will not be any more likely than .50 to make his or her next shot after making, say, three straight hoops. This runs contrary to the popular belief that the athlete is "hot" and therefore at an elevated rate of success. Another way of conveying the lack of a true "hot hand" is that athletes' instances of several successes in a row tend not to occur any more frequently than runs of several heads in a row (or tails in a row) from large numbers of coin tosses.

Despite most studies' lack of evidence for hot-handed performances beyond chance, however, I have never disputed that athletes may feel something special is going on during their runs of success. One type of perception, until recently (I thought) only in the realm of the anecdotal, is that relevant athletic stimuli (e.g., a basketball hoop, the baseball on the way from the pitcher) look larger or clearer than when the athlete is not in the midst of a streak.

An item from July on the "Nudge" blog, which I did not see until recently, cites evidence that successful athletes really do seem to see their targets as bigger.

The research in question is by Jessica Witt of Purdue University and colleagues, and is entitled "Putting to a bigger hole: Golf performance relates to perceived size" (published in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, June 2008). The above-linked Nudge posting provides a concise description of the study's details.

In looking up Dr. Witt's faculty website, I noticed that she had published a similar study (with Dennis Proffitt) with recreational softball players ("See the ball, hit the ball: Apparent ball size is correlated with batting average," Psychological Science, December 2005).

The story does not end there, however. In their softball article, Witt and Proffitt cite a study by Wesp et al. (2004, Perception & Psychophysics) that "demonstrated that dart-throwing ability affects perceived size of the target. Participants who hit the target with fewer attempts selected larger circles as matching the size of the target than participants who were not as successful" (p. 938).

My apologies for not noticing these studies earlier, but better late than never!