The Baseball Experts Got It Wrong

We should treat "expert" predictions with the skepticism they deserve.


Enjoying the World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals?

Almost as entertaining is looking back at the pre-season predictions of the baseball "experts."

ESPN bills itself as "the worldwide leader in sports," and it's a rare media success story these days, flush enough with cash to hire Nate Silver away from The New York Times. Back in March, the ESPN web site published the predictions of 43 baseball "experts" on the 2013 season. The experts included some former players such as Nomar Garciaparra and Curt Schilling, along with longtime baseball journalists such as Buster Olney and Tim Kurkjian.

Not a single one of ESPN's 43 predictions had either the Red Sox or the Cardinals in the World Series.

Sports Illustrated magazine, home of the world-famous swimsuit issue, offered its own team of seven experts, with their own predictions. "SI.com's baseball experts fill you in on everything you need to get ready for 2013," the magazine promised.  Alas, not a single one of Sports Illustrated's seven "baseball experts" picked either the Red Sox or the Cardinals to make it to the World Series.

The Baseball America Web site has its own team of ten editors, with their own predictions. Not a single one of them picked the Red Sox to go to the World Series, and only one of them, Jim Callis, called the Cardinals.

So, of the 60 baseball "experts" in total, not a single one of them picked the Red Sox to win the American League pennant. Only one of the 60 picked the Cardinals to win the National League pennant.

You would have been better off throwing darts at a dartboard than you would have been listening to the baseball "experts." The Wall Street Journal used to demonstrate this in a regular column in which stocks picked by throwing darts randomly often outperformed the selections of Wall Street professionals who were even more highly compensated than ESPN journalists.

Complex systems are hard to predict.

That doesn't mean we should ignore all experts. But it does mean we should routinely treat their predictions with the skepticism they deserve. This goes for predictions from experts preferred by the political left, who warn that the sea level rise from global warming is going to leave us all under water, and for predictions from experts preferred by the political right, who warn that the future cost of entitlement programs is going to leave us all under water.

It doesn't mean we shouldn't plan for the future, whether on entitlements, or the threat of global warming. But what planning we do should take into account the possibility that the experts will be wrong.

It's not just a point about baseball; it's a point about humility in forecasting and the implications for public policy. If you listened to the baseball "experts," maybe you made the mistake of not buying season tickets to the Red Sox or the Cardinals this year, or buying them for some other team that ended up losing. That wouldn't have been a huge mistake, in the great scheme of things. At least compared to other expert-led or –advised ventures that have gone awry.

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  1. What about Recovery Summer? Now that was a prediction!

  2. I had the Cards in the Series in my preseason predictions. I also had the Sox in last place in the East. Random results are random.

    Regardless of how this series ends up, I have a tough time believing that the Sox are going to be anywhere near this good next year; everything broke right for them this year just like everything broke wrong last year. Depending on how the offseason goes I'd expect 85-90 wins and a dogfight for the division.

    1. What are you, fucking retarded? The Red Sox only brought Jimmy V in to blame for their fuckups and create a closeness in the clubhouse they had missed over the previous year. Not only that, they took the best manager in the division not named Maddon and their pitching was healthy before the season started.

      That said, I had the Tigers and the Reds in my World Series pick.

      1. Damn, wish I didn't have class so I could defend. Instead, dingleberry response:

        Really, you're going with "it was all the manager and clubhouse closeness!"? Come on, that's ridiculous. Yes, Farrell is a huge upgrade over Bobby V. But the only significant injury they had was Buchholz (who was better in 108 IP last year than in 270 over the previous two); Lackey had his best season in 5 years and Drew his best in 3; Saltalamacchia, Nava, Mike fucking Carp, and a 38 year-old Uehara had career years, and they even got tons of offense in limited time out of Iglesias (a guy with no track record of hitting) and Lavarnway (classic quadruple-A player).

        Feel free to think it's all going to happen again, but I don't think it's likely. This is a solid team that performed at the upper end of its range; it's not a crowd that's a lock to come back.

  3. Chaotic systems and black swans. The Cardinals advanced through the NLDS only because a rookie who wasn't even on the roster at the All-Star Break managed to beat the Pirates in a 2-1 game. They advance to the World Series because they twice beat the best starting pitcher in the world, who held an even greater advantage over them due to handedness. They lost last night's game because a 32-year-old platoon scrub overcame long odds to beat a same-handed groundball specialist.

    Accurate forecasting when n=1 is an impossibility.

    1. Accurate forecasting when n=1 is an impossibility.

      So I take it that when it comes to climate, n=1?

      1. Climate, the U.S. economy, you name it.

        1. When it comes to predicting the US economy (or the climate, for that matter) predictive accuracy is simply a "good to have". The objective function being optimized is the compensation of the predictor.

  4. For comparison, if they all randomly selected a team, every possible team would have gotten 4 votes. Which is precisely as it has been with economics; the experts are worse than no prediction at all. And then there's the 97 expert climate models of the IPCC...

  5. The same could apply for hockey as well. EA Sports made the prediction for the 2014 NHL simulation Stanley Cup champions in their game: St. Louis Blues

    Yeah.... they was right on 2010 (Chicago), missed by that much in 2011(the predicted Vancouver Canucks as Stanley Cup champions, however Boston won against Vancouver), completelely off the track for 2012 (LA Kings, EA predicted Pittsburgh) and 2013(Chicago, EA predicted NY Rangers).

    1. The Blues are the Chicago Cubs of hockey. They will find a way to lose in the playoffs, no matter how much talent they have.

  6. Ira couldn't be more right about "expert" predictions. But it seems he's either being coy, or has completely missed the point of his very own observation.

    Which is: if complex systems are this hard to predict (let alone design, or implement), where do we get off threatening each other with prison or worse, if one of us refuses to behave in a manner compliant with those predictions?

    Sure, it would suck getting stuck with a pair of Nationals season tickets if you'd chosen to listen to the mutton-headed "experts". But it was a choice, after all. And the penalty was relatively absorbable.

    But supposing there were legislation that mandated that we all had to purchase either Washington Nationals season or Detroit Tigers season tickets (the two teams that almost all of these vapid talking-heads seemed to be in love with at the start of the season), or face a tax penalty, fine, or imprisonment?

    Yet, this is the world we live in, right now. Imbeciles insisting they know what's best for everyone everywhere, regardless of the complexity, consistently making everything worse for everyone everywhere, and then threatening the rest of us with fines or prison, for daring to point it out to them.

    This is because politics and politicians (much like sports "experts") aren't interested in solving complex social problems, much less understanding them. No. What they want, is simply a means of granting themselves the moral excuse to violently act out the fear and rage of not understanding.

    1. "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary." -- H.L. Mencken

  7. The only more egregious example of idiocy in the world of sports "experts" is their willingness to put as many SEC teams in the preseason polls as possible, thus inflating their position when they manage to beat each other while playing piss-poor competition outside of the conference while deriding people for doing the same.

    I fucking hate the SEC. I fucking hate the sportswriters love for the SEC. I fucking hate fans of Kentucky and Vandy glomming onto Alabama's glory. I fucking hate the "S.E.C." chant. And I motherfucking HATE how those cockbags refuse to schedule an OOC game north of the Mason-Dixon line or any OOC game against a decent opponent other than FSU past September.

    1. Hey man, you're being kind of vague on what you hate.

    2. It was pretty sweet when the Oregon fans were chanting "S-E-C" as they crushed Tennessee, who turned out to be not that bad, at least compared to Georgia and South Carolina.

    3. I live in SEC land and I can't stand it.

  8. This just in: you can't predict the future.

    If I could predict the future, I'd be rich enough to buy this magazine and fire Ira for writing such a silly article.

    1. Marty McFly could have with his Sports Almanac.

      1. Actually, no. The sports Almanac predicted the Miami Marlins, who didn't exist at the time, would win the 2013 World Series!

  9. What I can't believe is how so many sports pundits can watch Will Middlebrooks trying to intentionally trip the St.Louis runner at third, and conclude that it wasn't intentional, and then blame the rule because it doesn't matter if it was intentional or not. Must be East Coast bias.

    1. The media hand-wringing over a textbook call is just Trayvoning for clicks. I have a hard time deciding whether politics or sports brings out more idiocy in otherwise rational human beings.

      Would've been nice to see someone pinch-run for Craig, but I suppose Matheny was afraid of burning anyone a-tall just in case the game turned out to be a 18-inning classic. Good thing Craig is still able to limp around.

    2. My friend is a Mass. liberal Boston hard core sports fan. He was irrational in his anger. He went off on middle America, Joyce, the dumb rule and all that. He felt the ump shoulda let that go given the significance of the game but I disagree. And yeah, I saw the legs go up. Middlebrooks knew what he was doing. He tried but got called on it.

      I tried to explain the reverse side of it. How was it fair to St. Louis to have a run taken away that way? That call had to be made.

      Intent is for psychics.

      It's the same in soccer. If a player handles the ball in the box it's a penalty. Period.

  10. Complex systems are indeed hard to predict, but to equate the imperfectly human contingencies of the baseball season with generally accepted climate science is pointlessly ideological ... and that's its only logic. Just as we can confidently assert that no team with a starting rotation ERA over 6.00 will make the World Series, we can be pretty certain that the (wait for it...) fact-based consensus of the vast majority of qualified climate scientists is broadly accurate and, over the long term, broadly predictive. Being unable to predict specific climate events -- like being unable to predict a pickoff play that ends a Series game -- is not an argument that scales up very well.

    1. When the climate models are also 100% wrong over a 17-year period, you re-write them based on different assumptions.



      1. I was interested to parse that otherwise unhelpful link back to Judith Curry's home page, and to do some studying up on her. One thing she seems to acknowledge is that rightness or wrongness of any current climate model or theory will be borne out only in the fullness of time, which is not (it appears) a stance attractive to BigT. Another thing that seems clear is that as a scholar rather than a polemicist she would refrain from calling a poster an "idiot" (pace BigT), especially when that poster took pains to use qualifiers such as "consensus" and "broadly" in their initial post.

        1. "scientists (including C.G.B.) in the haematology and oncology department at the biotechnology firm Amgen...tried to confirm published findings related to...Fifty-three papers [that] were deemed 'landmark' studies...scientific findings were confirmed in only 6 (11%) cases."

          These were pre-clinical cancer studies. The have a much higher level of scrutiny than peer-reviewed journal papers.

          Further, "Various factors contribute to the problem. Statistical mistakes are widespread. The peer reviewers who evaluate papers before journals commit to publishing them are much worse at spotting mistakes than they or others appreciate. Professional pressure, competition and ambition push scientists to publish more quickly than would be wise. A career structure which lays great stress on publishing copious papers exacerbates all these problems."



    2. ... we can be pretty certain that the (wait for it...) fact-based consensus of the vast majority of qualified climate scientists is broadly accurate and, over the long term, broadly predictive.

      If that is the case, then what, in your opinion, are the falsifiable claims made by qualified climate scientists over the past generation that, had they been falsified, would have rendered the various claims of climate scientists null?

      It's telling that the "scientific" claims that draw so much political attention--whether we're speaking of climate or Keynesian economics--never meet the Popperian criteria for testability or falsifiability. Rationalizations for widespread error run wild, but never accurate predictions.

      It's almost as if these scientific claims are as "broadly accurate" as a meteorologist who attempts to predict what the weather in Dayton will be like a year from today.

  11. Fuck the "experts." Sabermetrics at least gives you a model you can work with.

  12. Of course the "experts" get their predictions wrong. Sports is entertainment, and sports works as entertainment precisely because it is composed of complex unpredictable systems. The element of chance is what provides the drama. Moreover, pointing fingers at "experts" because they got things wrong is laughably naive. The media provides these experts and pundits to us because they know that consumers enjoy feeling superior to the "so-called experts", that's part of the game.

  13. The best strategy for picking sports is to listen to all the pre-game shows, take the "expert" consensus, and go the other way. I've increased my winning odds to 50%, barely covers the juice, that's WINNING in my book!

  14. my friend's aunt makes $73/hr on the computer. She has been without a job for 10 months but last month her pay was $14848 just working on the computer for a few hours. view it


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