Praying to the Stats Gods

Heading into the second game of the NLDS, I considered it to be a must-win for the Birds. Giving the Cubs home field advantage for the rest of the series, along with having to face Arrieta in a crucial game three, make for an undoubtedly horrible set of circumstances for any team. The Cubs lineup is dangerous, and Arrieta has been practically untouchable since the All Star Break.

Couple all that with the fact that our lineup as a whole has been very boom-or-bust, and on the surface, I’d say that game two was as close to a must-win as it could have been for any team up 1-0.

In fact, despite being the eternal optimist that I am, I couldn’t even stop myself from shaking with rage during that second inning meltdown the other night. I mean, c’mon. We practically gave the game away during that frame.

Anyhow, in addition to being an optimist, I’m also obsessed with statistics -- and I don’t mean the kind you’d find on the back of a baseball card or over at Fan Graphs. I mean good old-fashioned statistics that you’d learn in the classroom. And because of the O.G. statistics (as well as a few other reasons), I actually kind of like our odds in Game 3.

Here’s why.

1. Jake Arrieta has been a beast. (Not the start you were expecting, I'm sure. I'll get there).

Arrieta hasn't allowed more than three runs in a game since June 16, and his success in the second half of the season has been well documented. He's been unbelievable, which is a big reason that the Cubs haven't even lost a start of his since July 25. For those that are keeping track, that is a span of 14 starts, including the Wild Card matchup against the Buccos. An incredible run. That can't be denied.

However, the Cubs aren't going to win his starts indefinitely. Whether Arrieta takes the loss or not, the Cubs bound to lose. And it might not be until next season, but I think it could be tomorrow. In fact, with the Cubs' 14th team win in a row in games started by Arrieta, there are only 31 pitchers EVER to have a longer streak of team wins than that. EVER.

Now consider that there have been thousands of pitchers to start games in the Major Leagues since 1914 (as far back as Baseball-Reference tracks regular season stats for their Play Index - highly recommended if you like spending your time studying baseball). The distribution of team win streaks for a given starter is not normal, but rather quite right skewed - as the highest win streaks, like Arrieta's, pull the average up despite the fact that the bulk of the distribution is probably much lower (although the Play Index limited me to the top 1100 win streaks, which still reached down only as far as seven games).

All of this is to say that achieving a team win streak of 15 games is incredibly unlikely (although, again, being unable to calculate an exact mean and standard deviation prevented me from calculating the percentage). Obviously, none of that has any impact on tomorrow's result. Of course it is much less likely to win 15 straight starts before the streak begins than when you're sitting on 14, but hey. The overall statistics suggest that the odds of the Cubs wining 15 consecutive starts by Arrieta are exceedingly unlikely.

2. The Cardinals lineup has been terrible - even despite seven runs in two games, which seems less anemic than it did at times during the regular season. However, with a BABIP of .175 through those two games, we've been extremely unlucky (but also haven't been making great contact, either). You could very reasonably expect this BABIP to rise over the next couple days.

However, over a small five game playoff series, the Cardinals offense won't necessarily pick up. The law of averages (through which I tend to derive my optimistic view of the Cardinals) applies to long term occurrences, so we could just have an unlucky week that leads to an ouster. But we were also shutout in our final three games of the regular season, and sort of limped into the playoffs - which is amazing to say about a 100-win club. So seriously, how can we continue to be that unlucky?


I was planning on writing more on this topic, including about Michael Wacha's recent results, but it's late, I have to study for midterms, and you all catch my drift. The overarching point of all of this is that, while I am certainly misusing statistics that are intended to examine long-term probability, Arrieta's team winning streak and the Cardinals recent trend of struggling on offense (more so than they normally do) will end eventually. So why not tomorrow?

Clearly, none of this will have any direct effect on Monday night's outcome, but I like to re-frame such scenarios like this: What if, on July 30, somebody asked you about the odds that the Cubs would win Jake Arrieta's start that night, as well as the following fourteen, which would culminate with an important Game 3 NLDS win over the Cards?

The odds of that then were surely lower than they are now, but my misguided use of statistics leads to an undying optimism surrounding this team that gives me hope for tomorrow. In the WC game against the Pirates, Arrieta looked shaky in the middle innings, the Bucs couldn't capitalize. I think this team can take advantage of their opportunities, though. And if we can beat Arrieta, the road ahead appears considerably easier, with Hammel said to be starting Game 4.

I'm optimistic, in some ways for the wrong reasons. But I'm optimistic, and you should be, too.