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Re-Thinking the Best Shot Hypothesis

January 1, 2021
               Re-Thinking The Best Shot Hypothesis


              During a Kansas University basketball game, we often hear it said that KU always gets the other team’s best shot, because everybody wants to beat KU.   You hear the same thing about the Yankees, the Dodgers, the Red Sox, Celtics, Patriots, Chiefs, Packers, Duke, Carolina, Kentucky. . . any franchise that is perceived as a powerhouse, people will say that.  But is it true?

              I polled my Twitter audience on the issue.  58% of respondents said they didn’t believe that there was any such effect—an interesting finding, that 58% of people believe that something they have been told hundreds of times by a sports announcer is just complete nonsense.  A month ago, I would have voted with the majority, but I’ve changed my mind here. 

              I had been wavering on the issue, anyway, but what flipped me over was this.  I play in a Ballpark League, as you may know; Ballpark is a table baseball game.  In our case we play a 42-game imitation of a 162-game schedule.  We are playing the 1980 season, and I have an outfielder, Gary Woods, who hits .377—that is, he has a card which should produce a .377 average—but, since he played only 14 games in 1980, plus 5 games pinch hitting, he can play only 4 games, plus 2 games pinch hitting, in our 42-game schedule.

              So I was playing the league leading team in the next series, and I pulled Woods—who had not played a game all season—off the inactive roster to play in the next series.  Also, I rested my #1 and #2 starters, pulling them out of the previous series, so they could pitch against the league leaders.   Not only did I do this, but everyone in the league does it; it’s just routine procedure. 

              Well, but if I do this, why should I doubt that real teams do similar things?  

              It is easier to do this in Ballpark than in real life.  In real life, you don’t have some player who hits .377 but only plays in a few games, and you can figure out when to stick him into the lineup.  In real life, there are consequences to messing with your starting rotation. But that is details; we’re talking principles.  If I do these things, to stack the lineup against the best opponent, why should I doubt that real-life teams do the same thing, albeit in different ways?

              So I’ve joined the minority here.  I think it’s a real effect, at some level, that the perennial champions always get the best shot from everybody they play. 



COMMENTS (16 Comments, most recent shown first)

Marc Schneider
The Yankee players probably were happier to play under Houk than under Keene but I don't think there is necessarily a correlation with the record. Bad teams have hot streaks all the time. They weren't going to play .167 ball all year. It seems more likely that they simply went through a period of better play that probably would have happened anyway.
2:12 PM Jan 8th
FINE -- but you still need to explain the Yanks' 11-3 start when Houk took over.
You're offering an explanation for why they did so awfully under Keane, but it doesn't relate to the next part.

(I offered a unitary hypothesis that explains the entire universe.) :-)
2:14 PM Jan 3rd
Just a wild guess here, in response to marisfan’s Houk/Keene question. Perhaps a lot of players, worried about demotion to Columbus, make a concerted effort to impress the new boss. They get to bed on time, drink less, take extra batting practice, maybe hustle a little more. These are the kinds of habits you fall out of when you’re losing and you hate the manager.
10:09 AM Jan 3rd

The Phillies-and-Steve-Carlton thing of 1972, indirectly but IMO pretty much so, demonstrates the existence of the principle -- in baseball.
Unless you would think this was just chance, which I'd say would be a huge stretch to think.

Carlton was 27-9. A common thought, much said, was "imagine what it would have been with a good team."

Bill did a thing on this. I don't remember at all when it would have been, whether in an Abstract in the '80's or in an article here. But I remember the finding.
Astonishingly, what Bill found was that with an average team rather than with a historically awful team, his expected record would have been (something like; I might be off by 1 on the wins or losses, but not by more) 24-12.

That means that this awful team played better than average in their Carlton games, and I'd say it suggests strongly that they somewhat 'saved themselves' in the non-Carlton games, and went all-out -- more than all-out -- in the Carlton games.
And, that they were 'better than themselves' in the Carlton games, through not only the full effort but also through being so "up" and so "psyched."

I remember another thing, maybe less persuasive but I'd say it's the same thing -- playing better when the team feels "up" and "psyched": the Yankees in 1966 when Johnny Keane got replaced by Ralph Houk.

It's well known that Keane and the Yanks (those Yanks at least) were a bad fit, and that they were thrilled when Houk took over. What I remember is that they had a terrible record at the time, then went on a nice little run before settling back to themselves. I'm thinking something like "8 and 3".... let's see
With Keane, which was the first 20 games: 4-16, including losing the last 4
When Houk took over: won the first 3, then, it was even better than I remembered: It was 8-3 in the next 11 games, making it 11-3 in the first 14.
Overall under Houk they were 66-73.

I'm sure you could show that there's some real statistical chance of that happening randomly, but -- I doubt it, and I imagine most of you would too. So, the question becomes, WHY does something like that happen?

I would say, confidently, that it's mostly because of the "up" and "psyched" factor. Some of it might have been because Houk made better moves than Keane, but, that can't make anywhere near that much of a difference.
12:33 PM Jan 2nd
As a life long Laker fan I have always believed in this. Less in baseball. It’s hard to come into town for three days and do things above and beyond what you normally do. Though you certainly might arrange off days and such around a big series.

In basketball it is different. Emotion and energy and pure effort play a bigger role. A Wednesday night game against the Pistons or Wizards in the middle of a long season may not get your attention.

But the Lakers, coming to town, possibly as defending champions, with LeBron or Kobe or Magic or Kareem standing out there... that you can get up for. And your fans will be much more excited. There are a dozen teams that consider the Lakers their biggest rival, from Sacramento to Phoenix to the Clippers to the actual rival Celtics. The energy in the arena is different from other nights.

I have no doubt players respond to that, and that coaches may even prepare more for those games than they do for the Hornets.​
12:01 PM Jan 2nd
If you have Trevor Hoffman in your bullpen and you have an edge case where he would help in the third game of a three-game series and you're playing the Yankees tomorrow (and you have a decent #2 person you could use), how often does the manager sit that reliever? I think pretty rarely. If it's September, in a tight pennant race, MAYBE.
9:32 AM Jan 2nd
To add my two cents. I think Bill is greatly overstating the extent to which announcers talk about this. Yes, if you're the defending champion, people are aware of that and are going to think of ways to counter your strengths as a season-long endeavor. I don't really think the Carolina Panthers are spending time figuring out ways to use their resources against the Packers more than anybody else. I don't hear announcers saying this, and I don't think it's true.

I think there's a third path, which is "yes it happens but who cares?" The effect might be small. Teams try to beat everybody. This is the option people are picking when they say no.

Also, baseball is weird because you can save a pitcher or a reliever for a series. Football and basketball don't really have that option.
9:29 AM Jan 2nd
I believe the hypothesis to be true, with a caveat. I think when facing the traditional powerhouses, most teams give it their best shot until the powerhouse develops a big lead. If Clemson (basketball) is down to Duke by 20 points in the first half, it’s over.

Or, as Mike Tyson once said, everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.
8:03 AM Jan 2nd
3for3: See my comment! :-)

That "opposite" that you talk about is exactly the same as in my comment.
That's what I mean by a sort-of-bimodal thing:

I'd say that for sure the thing Bill talks about does happen -- but that any attempt to detect in an 'overall' kind of study would be thwarted by the co-presence of this opposite kind of thing.

Actually it would probably be a "tri"-modal kind of thing (don't know if the term exists), in terms of degree of effort/focus/whatever-we-should-call-it, vs. the best teams:
-- a goodly prevalence of normal effort, and
-- a goodly prevalence of super-normal, and
-- a goodly prevalence of sub-normal.

BTW, if those 3 things form a continuum rather than a 3-bump distribution, then it's not particularly 'modal' at all.
I'd guess it is, though.
2:05 AM Jan 2nd
This happened against me in a Strat-o-Matic season many years ago. My chief competitor had Pascual Perez the year he was phenomenal for about 10 starts. I saw all 10 starts.

I would think there is some of the opposite going on. If you are in the opposite division of a strong team, with say 1986 Dwight Gooden on the mound, I'd think it would be a good time to rest your start catcher or hold back your pitching ace a day since you aren't going to win that game anyway.
1:36 AM Jan 2nd
You can do it, but that doesn't mean they'll do any better in that game.

I would wager dollars to donuts Woods went 0 for 5 in that game.

11:02 PM Jan 1st
However, Bud Grant worried more about the division games as they count double. I remember one time the Vikings lost a close game to an another contender and Grant said I can't get worry about that I have to get ready for the Lions (or some other divisional foe) as those games count double for the playoffs.
6:18 PM Jan 1st
(dam, I can never do one of these without typos no matter how hard I try) :-)

I didn't mean "lesser demoralization/effort," but demoralization/lesser effort.
4:31 PM Jan 1st
Thanks for this! -- a thing I've often wondered, in relation especially to evaluations of Yankee players.

A couple of things:

-- About the below post, while it's not true that Ford 'never' pitched against the Browns or A's (I assumed it to be not true but just checked to make sure), for sure he was used disproportionately against whichever teams were the main contenders in a given year.
(I looked at this in detail a few years ago and posted the results on Reader Posts. The way I looked at it was by looking at each year individually and seeing which teams were in fact the main contenders; I didn't do a blanket thing by figuring "Boston and Cleveland" or any such.

-- About the subject of the article: I offer the thought that there is indeed such an effect but that any 'overall' kind of study would show no effect or a greatly-minimizing result, because of sort of a "bi-modal" thing.

I feel no doubt that the effect Bill talks about does exist.
I also feel little doubt that there's also an opposite effect that would work against any capability to detect the first effect by looking at stuff in an overall way.

The "opposite" effect would be, bad teams often playing below their usual level when playing against very good teams, due to lesser demoralization/effort ("what chance do we have anyway...") and possibly also things related to what Bill says about holding back the better starting pitchers for games that are felt to be more winnable.

BTW, an additional thing along those lines that might be included, which is sort of within the "lesser effort/demoralization" thing but which I would see as additional, is doing worse against the top teams due to something like feeling intimidated, like how in the movie Damn Yankees, probably the play also, one of the Washington players talks anxiously about how against the Yanks he "chokes up," in the sense of what I'm saying here, not choking up on the bat. I know that that's fiction, but surely it came from some concept of a human phenomenon that does exist, although I'm not assuming it much exists for major leaguers.

4:29 PM Jan 1st
Happy New Year, Bill!

Thank you for all your interesting posts. I have a few Ballpark Baseball seasons. My game of choice is Strat-O-Matic Baseball.

I know that when Casey Stengel managed the Yankees, Whitey Ford never won 20 games. He pitched Ford lots of times against the Indians, White Sox and other teams that were competitive. I think Ford never pitched against the Browns and Athletics. Other pitchers such as Don Larsen would start against the Browns and Athletics. I think it is called leveraging.

I think there might be something to a player playing for one team for several years, then getting traded, he may try harder against the team that traded him away. As a Red Sox fan, I know that in 1978 Mike Torrez disrespected the Seattle Mariners who were in their 2nd year. In his first start against them on June 10, he pitched well, eights innings, 4 hits, 1 run unearned, he got the win. On August 23, he gave up four runs in the 6th inning and was pulled from the game. He earned the loss. On August 28 at Fenway, he got shelled 2.2 innings, 6 hits, 4 runs. The Red Sox bailed him out, they won the game 10-9. All opponents should be treated with respect.

Happy New Year,
your friend Tom Nahigian
3:41 PM Jan 1st
It makes sense--it may be one of the many factors that contribute to the Plexiglas Principle, the force that pulls all teams toward .500. I wonder if it can be effectively studied. Is a star player likelier to be given a day off against the Pirates than against the Dodgers? I would bet that he is, but the data would be fascinating to see, were someone to take the time to compile it.
3:39 PM Jan 1st
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