Don’t overreact to short streaks

May 15, 2006 12:48 AM

Every baseball fan hears a familiar phrase in the first month or so of a new season. Some player is on a pace to hit 105 home runs this year. Maybe it’s 33 wins or 476 strikeouts or 283 hits. How often does that player actually achieve, or even come close to achieving the goal?

This year, we had Chris Shelton who had nine home runs after 13 games. He was on a pace to hit about 110 home runs. He’s hit one over the next 21 games, and is now on a pace to hit less than 50. Anyone out there think he’ll hit 50?

More recently, we have Albert Pujols who has 18 home runs after 34 games, which is pace to hit more than 80 home runs. How likely is he to actually do it?

Then there’s this guy who plays softball in the spring and summer. He’s batting .680 after six games. Can he keep his average this high all summer long?

For those of you who know baseball, you’re gut reaction is probably that Shelton has no chance of hitting even 50, the Albert Pujols is not likely to hit 80, but might, and there is NO way someone is going to hit .680 for a season (even in softball). But, why do you draw these conclusions?

There isn’t much history to look at for Chris Shelton. This is only his second full season, and he hit 18 home runs last year. You realize that there is SOME slight chance that he’s improved this much, but the likelihood of him more than doubling last year’s output is pretty slim.

More importantly, you saw him hit nine home runs in 13 games, followed by one home run in the next 21 games. You’ve simply seen the hot and cold streaks of a decent power hitter. Over the next few years, this guy is likely to go through these streaks and hit a pretty similar total of home runs year after year.

Albert Pujols on the other hand has been playing for 5 years and has consistently hit between 35 and 45 home runs each year. He’s not likely to jump to 80 home runs, but he hits them more consistently than Shelton, and thus the likelihood that he can keep up the pace is higher.

Then there’s our weekend warrior playing softball. Can he keep up the .680 pace? Well, his average over the last decade has been about .600 (hey”¦this is weekend softball, not the Major League!), so it really isn’t all that far fetched that he might hit .680 this year.

What does any of this have to do with gambling?

Many lessons can be learned from these situations. First of all, we have to keep in mind that humans are far less predictable than machines. Humans can improve or have their skills fall off, but machines (barring malfunctions) are far more consistent than humans. This doesn’t mean however, that there are not streaks. Ironically, though, their streaks are in some ways more predictable than human streaks. You can’t tell WHEN they will occur, but you can be sure they WILL occur.

What we learn from these anecdotal stories is that after all the streaks, that the longer you play, in the end the numbers will be right where they are supposed to be.

Chris Shelton may have hit 10 home runs in April, but at the end of the season, he’s likely to be at 20-25. Next season, he may hit two in April, but at the end of the season, he’s still likely to be at 20-25. Now, Shelton may improve or get hurt, but if a machine were to be programmed with his history, it will perform all the more consistently.

Next we learn that you have to know what to expect. Chris Shelton is not Albert Pujols. After 13 games, they may have both had 10 home runs, but most people would bet that Pujols would wind up with more home runs? Why? Because Pujols is the equivalent of a full-pay machine, while Shelton is a short-pay machine based on their past history (no disrespect to Mr. Shelton intended).

For a video poker machine, we don’t have to rely on past history, we can calculate its payback with absolute certainty. We know that just because we may get lucky one night on a short pay machine, in the long run, we’re better off with full-pay.

What about our softball player? We learn from him that we have to pay attention to the game we are playing. A .680 average in the Major League would be unheard of. In softball, it is not so far fetched. You can’t play all versions of video poker without learning the specific game you are playing. Four of a kind in jacks or better is a very good hand. In Deuces Wild, it is a mediocre hand.

As to whether or not he can hit .680 all summer long? I’ll let you know how I do when the season is over.