Random Chance and DiMaggio's Streak

In my last post, I looked at how random chance plays a role in making us believe players can "get in the zone" and go on "hot streaks" when in reality, their probabilities of future success never changes. When I was reading through one of my sources for that post, I came across something that made me think of a concept Andrew brought up in class on Tuesday and I thought I would share it here:

Steven Strogatz, a professor of applied math at Cornell, set up a study to see just how unlikely Joe DiMaggio's record 56-game hitting streak (which has been described as just about impossible).

Strogatz used historical baseball statistics to create a computer simulation of the entire history of baseball. He ran the simulation 10,000 times and recorded the longest game hit-streak.

As you can see here, DiMaggio's streak isn't nearly as unlikely as we may think. The observed streak length varied from 39 to 109 games. All in all, in 42% of his simulated universes, DiMaggio's streak was at least matched. This is similar to Andrew's car crash example. Individually, the chances of any one of us being injured or killed in a bad car crash is very small. But over the next three years, it is likely that one of the people in our classroom will have. Similarly, the chance of any one baseball player achieving a hit in 56 consecutive games is astronomically small (there's a reason why it's the record!). However, in the long history of baseball, it is actually fairly common for a player to go on a lucky streak of that length. In another 200 years, we will probably see another DiMaggio-like streak. Just don't hold your breath for it to come from your favorite player next season.

I don't know enough about "Monte Carlo" simulations to do a proper critical analysis, but I am skeptical that you can capture every aspect of a baseball season in a computer. There are effects about how good the opposing pitcher you face is on any given day, your ability of hitting certain pitches, ballpark size, and the human element of knowing you are nearing a record and "choking" under the pressure. So call me a little skeptical of the exact results he achieved, but it is still a fun exercise in statistics.

So what do you think? Are streaks like Joe's less impressive in your eyes now?

I think that streaks, perfect games, no-hitters etc. etc. are just things that happen in the sport. I don't think they are statistically possible to plan out because everything has to line up. The crowd has influence with their noise, the opposing pitcher has to throw the pitch in the right spot, your reaction time to the pitch must be accurate, the fielding has to be done clean and on time or just butchered, the wind, the light, the seams, the grip to throw the pitch. Everything. Just look at Crush Davis’ homerun totals for this year. This was the year people learned his name because of the long ball, but when he was Texas’ first basemen, he couldn’t hit the ball. He was traded from the team because he was not a consistent bat in the lineup for Texas. And look at him now, he led MLB in HRs this regular season. It just has to be right timing, right mind set, right chance. Here is an article on what Chris had to say about his performance in 2008-09 and how it just wasn’t the right time.

I'm a die-hard Yankee fan, so Joe's streak is still impressive to me. Still, I think that your blog post and the study was an interesting look at statistics. I wouldn't be surprised if someone matched or beat Joe's streak one day, but I don't think we'll see it in our lifetime. I would, however, like to see someone beat the single-season HR record. That would be even more exciting, I think.

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