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A series of unfortunate events

Posted by Andrew Mooney  October 3, 2011 08:00 AM

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There’s no sport in which numbers and statistics matter more than baseball. Virtually every action a player performs on the diamond is recorded, crunched, and spit out; in aggregate, this set of statistics constitutes much of a player’s on-field identity. What's been accomplished in the past gives us an expectation of the future.

But sports have a funny way of reminding us that, at their base, they are activities carried out by humans, not computers; and those humans are subject to very human failures and emotions. Like panic, for instance.

On Sept. 3, a Red Sox win over the Rangers boosted their record to 84-54. They held a 9-game lead on the Rays in the wild card and trailed the Yankees by a half game in the AL East. That day, coolstandings.com assigned them a 99.6 percent chance of making the playoffs, the highest point they would reach all season.

Allowing for some regression to the mean, their expected winning percentage for the rest of the season, according to Baseball Prospectus, was .576, which would have brought them to a 98-63 record entering their Sept. 28 meeting with the Orioles. Instead, the Red Sox stood at 90-71. They had gone 6-17 since their playoff odds peak; given their winning percentage to that point, we would expect that poor of a stretch to occur about 0.2 percent of the time.

We all saw what unfolded. The rotation collapsed like a tent in a hurricane – the starters’ ERA in September was a preposterous 7.08, the highest total in a month in franchise history, and they averaged a mere 4.2 innings per start. The overworked bullpen coughed up a number of leads, led by Daniel Bard and his 10.64 September ERA. The defense didn’t help – over one stretch, the Sox committed 16 errors in 11 games.

All this led to the series of unholy improbables that converged Wednesday night. Trailing 7-0 in the bottom of the eighth, the Rays' chances of victory stood at 0.3 percent. In the bottom of the ninth, with two outs and nobody on, the Red Sox held a 95.3 chance of winning. They were 77-0 in games in which they led after the eighth inning. Down to their last out in the ninth, the Rays trotted out a guy batting .108.

You know the rest.

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Since the first modern World Series in 1903, 386 teams have attained a 99 percent chance or greater of making the playoffs. The Red Sox now hold the ignominious distinction as the sixth team in this group to miss the postseason.

Call it lack of chemistry, call it fate, call it whatever you want; I’ll call it human error. Statistics would never have predicted a sequence of events like the ones of September.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Stats Driven is powered by David Sabino, who over the last two decades has been a source of statistical analysis on the pages of Sports Illustrated, New York Times, and Chicago Tribune. David has written about all seven recent Boston-area championships for Sports Illustrated Presents commemorative issues, was the creator of such long time features as SI’s Player Value Ranking, NBA Player Rating and long running fantasy football and baseball columns.

He has also authored or made contributions to many books, including the Sports Illustrated’s 100 Fenway: A Fascinating First Century.

Now living in Marblehead, he’s focusing his attention on the Boston sports scene, specifically delving into the numbers affecting the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins, with the goal of informing and entertaining real fans. You can follow him on Twitter at @SabinoSports.

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