Synopsis: Baseball fans are bonkers about statistics. But even the craziest ones know that you still have to play the game to see what happens.
Welcome back to Fenway Park on a brisk April night here in Boston where the wind is blowing in over the Green Monster and we are on the verge of history. Red Sox catcher Rich Gedman calling a gem of a game for his young pitcher and keeping our stats guys in the truck busy looking up all kinds of records tonight.
His Red Sox hurler started the game by striking out six batters through the first three innings and blowing through this Seattle lineup like an angry Nor'easter. Had it not been for Mariners' shortstop Spike Owen's lazy single in the fourth, we'd be talking about a no-hit bid. Instead, we've flirted with the record books in other ways including the all-time consecutive strikeout record, broken up by that same pesky Spike Owen. And now the Major League record for strikeouts seems ready to fall. Yep, hardly your average night at the ballpark. Top of the ninth now, and in steps the left fielder Phil Bradley.
"Phil Bradley? Seriously bud, I know you are career .290 hitter. Not bad Phil, but off to a slow start this season, eh? Batting just .230 this spring. And 0 for 3 tonight. That won't help the stat line one bit. They must be nuts in that dugout of yours. I mean, have you had a homerun in either of the Reagan administrations? Have you run out of pinch hitters on that bench?"
Bradley said nothing and patiently watched as Gedman's pitcher wound, delivered, and missed high with his first offering. Then the batter stepped out of the box, stretching a bit to release the tension.
"Yep, better get loose. Long walk back to the dugout, could pull something on a night like this," Gedman gloated. He had a bachelor's degree in bull and a master's in mind games. And all his skill was on display. Plus, it was April 29th and frigging freezing in Fenway.
But the next pitch missed as well and suddenly it was two balls and no strikes. The score was 3–1, and the truth was the Mariners didn't need a homerun. They needed a baserunner. If someone could get on base, it would bring the Designated Hitter, Gorman Thomas, to the plate with a chance to tie the game with one swing of the bat. Thomas had led the league in strikeouts a couple of times, statistics which Gedman had shared with him during his at bat, back in the seventh inning. Thomas had listened, smiled, and then launched a souvenir into the stands, reminding Gedman as he crossed home plate that he'd also led the league in Home Runs. Twice.
Phil Bradley knew what he had to do to get the game into Thomas's hands. That might finally put a cork in the Red Sox catcher. So, Bradley patiently took the next pitch as well, trying to work the count and earn a walk. It thumped home for a strike.
Gedman tossed the ball back to his pitcher and said earnestly: "Phil, why don't we salvage a little something positive out of this? Let's get you in the record books, too. What do you say? No need to be a hero after all." Bradley sighed then stepped in and watched the next pitch as well, again a fastball for a called strike.
"That's it Phil, nice night to be a spectator. Just relax and watch the game. Maybe we can get you a bag of peanuts and a beer." Now, the count at 2–2, the fans came to their feet and made all the noise they could, sensing a record about to fall. It was early in the season and the empty seats outnumbered the paid customers by a two-to-one margin. But they had all moved to surround the infield and they made enough noise to set the hair on the back of Gedman's neck on end. This is what you lived for as a baseball player. One moment, a record on the line, history in the making.
Bradley stepped into the batter's box slowly, deliberately. He feels it too, Gedman thought, good. The Red Sox pitcher went into his windup and the crowd came to its feet. Gedman saw the ball, perfect and white silhouetted against night sky as it left his hand, hurling toward home plate. Then it was gone. Gone? Did he hit it out? Maybe we really are cursed. But, again, Bradley hadn't swung. With adrenaline pulsing though his body, Gedman hadn't noticed the ball as it pounded into his mitt with a muffled thump, for strike three.
And there it is, number twenty! Phil Bradley struck out without a single swing of the bat and there is a new Major League Baseball record for strikeouts. Roger Clemens has done it! And so has Rich Gedman, setting the MLB record for put outs by a catcher.
But imagine if Gedman or Clemens had a record-breaking game called off after three innings and the rest of it statistically determined by the trends of the first third of the game. It would have drastically changed the box score. Clemens would have thrown a perfect game as he didn't give up a hit until the fourth inning, but the strikeout and putout records would have stayed at nineteen. Or would they have? Perhaps, since it was only April 29th, the statisticians would try to account for seasonal differences between spring games and summer ones. Perhaps early season strikeouts were worth more because they came before everyone was in full game shape? Or maybe they were worth less as the ball was less lively in cold conditions. Or maybe the wind was a factor that needed incorporating into the stats? Or maybe strikeouts for Boston pitchers were worth more because it had been centuries (okay, just decades…a lot of them) since they won a World Series?
Yes, it sounds ridiculous, but investors live with this kind of trash talk every day. Many economic statistics are published based on the presumption that one-third of the data is enough to predict all of it. For instance, Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the market value of goods and services produced within the country, is used to measure our overall economic growth or contraction. Three estimates are provided each quarter for GDP, and we just got the advance estimate last week containing data for the first month while the other two are inferred using statistical means. If you didn't like the number, don't worry, it will be revised several times. And don't get me started on the seasonal adjustments which have artificially driven down Q1 GDP since at least 2010.
In the US, GDP averages about a 3% rate of growth, or used to. Revisions of up to 1.5% are common, or as much as half of the original number. So, GDP is both closely watched and subject to significant changes, not a great combination. Like Gedman and his pitcher, the economy may have gotten better as the game went on. Or it may have gotten worse. Quite often we have no idea based solely on statistical sampling.
What's an investor to do? Relax, be a spectator, maybe even have a beer and a snack, but do not act irrationally based on such "information." Let's go back up to the booth for recap:
Folks, before you swing for the fences, check with a teammate and make the right call together about which signals are worth your attention. If you want to avoid having to work extra innings toward your financial goals, avoid rookie mistakes.
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