What stats can’t tell us about baseball or life

As Yale accepted another class of students this week, I thought back to when I was an applicant, and to my college essay. I remembered again that I’m here thanks to 500 words I wrote about baseball statistics. In my essay, I detailed how my appreciation for statistical analysis had helped me grow and what statistics had taught me about the world. I began the essay with what I thought was a powerful hook: Baseball stats had shown me the meaning of life.

A specific formula, I claimed, showed me that life is highly predictable — to a point. When I became fascinated by baseball statistics, I realized that numbers could predict with great accuracy what a player or a team will do in the future, but only on the macro level. Any individual at bat or game will remain in the realm of chance and momentary, individual decisions. This formula, which generates the runs-created statistic, specifically illustrates this belief. The statistic can predict the number of runs a baseball team will score over the course of a season nearly perfectly, almost always within a 5-percent margin. But that’s the best it can do. The margin will never get any smaller, since the power of luck and individual qualities cannot be made any smaller.

I drew parallels to life off the diamond. Speaking of my discovery, and feeling no shame in hyperbole, I wrote: “The power of statistics doesn’t stop with baseball. From financial markets and political maneuvers to climate change and medical studies, numbers seemed to govern events in all fields of life. But as I was about to turn my life over to cold mathematical forces, I realized there was something missing in those hollow figures. It had been right in front of me; I simply hadn’t noticed.”

I’ll save you from embarrassment by paraphrasing the rest: I was really annoying when I was little, I tried to change my behavior and become a better person, I began learning about Buddhism in high school and dug it for a while, I later came to love baseball statistics and — boom! — I discovered the power and limitations of free will. All of this was tied together by a single statistic: runs created. Runs created the perfect encapsulation of my realization. Although it is a statistical formula, it explained my philosophy of life as a high-school senior, or at least one who wanted to get into college. I claimed that my life to that point had illustrated that although much is guided by strong forces we can’t control, important decisions remain in our hands and what we make of ourselves depends on how we handle those decisions.

I wrote it then, but I don’t know whether I buy it now.

I watched the Mets play the Marlins on opening day this week and felt my annual burst of rejuvenation. The sport, I saw once more, is so beautiful that I couldn’t believe I had lived through an off-season without it. But it’s more than just entertaining, artistic or inspirational — it’s philosophical.

When the Marlins’ shortstop ran down a blooper headed to left field and stopped the Mets from scoring two runs in the first inning, I wished the ball had fallen for a hit. And I wondered about Carlos Delgado, the player who hit the ball. Should he have been disappointed? I’m sure he was, since he didn’t get the runs in. But had the ball landed beyond the shortstop’s glove and the runners come home to score, should he have been proud? The difference would have been inches in the ball’s trajectory, and fractions of an inch on his swing. Later in the game, Jose Reyes hit a ball that bounced out of the diving center fielder’s glove, picking up a single and driving in a run. Should Reyes have been proud of his hit? Had Reyes really succeeded and Delgado really failed?

Really, can we define success and failure differently when the division between the two is so small? I’m skeptical of creating a false divide, but if Delgado’s ball is not scored an out and Reyes’ a hit, the entire statistical system I have come to trust is lost.

Baseball isn’t alone in its philosophical quality. All sports rely on factors that can’t be predicted. As I claimed in my college essay, individuals have the power to shape their futures in ways small and large through the decisions they make. But chance, of course, plays a large role, too. And, as I saw on Opening Day, the actions of others affect each of us.

The longer I follow sports, the less I understand life. Although I once thought my favorite sport, and the numbers it generates, could help me figure it all out, I’ve given up hope of that. There are lessons there, I know, but I struggle to believe them. I have less faith in numbers than I once did, but what does that say about me?

Maybe nothing more than that I’m happy now watching a game and seeing only the game. After all, that’s ok, too. I have permission.

This week Bill James, the statistician and baseball genius who invented runs created, answered questions from readers on The New York Times Web site. When he was asked whether his work with numbers had taken the fun out of a summer day at a ballpark, his response was both philosophical and down to earth: “Does looking at pretty women prevent one from experiencing love? Life is complicated. Your efforts to compartmentalize it are lame and useless.”

Pete Martin is a sophomore in Morse College. His column appears every Thursday.

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