What were the odds? How 'bout 278M to 1?

September, 29, 2011
9/29/11
9:52
PM ET
BOSTON -- Nate Silver has developed virtually a cult following for his use of statistical analysis in forecasting, with uncanny accuracy, political elections, which he now does on a regular basis in a blog for the New York Times, called Five Thirty Eight, Nate Silver's Political Calculus.

But before he turned to politics, Silver was doing groundbreaking work for Baseball Prospectus, in the vanguard of the "Moneyball" generation that viewed baseball through a sabermetrician's eyes. Well, Silver found the collapse of the Red Sox irresistible as a topic for his most recent blog, found here.

Do yourself a favor and read the whole thing, but Silver guides the reader through a journey to calculating the odds of the Sox and Rays games ending the way they did. Here's his summation:

The following is not mathematically rigorous, since the events of yesterday evening were contingent upon one another in various ways. But just for fun, let’s put all of them together in sequence:

The Red Sox had just a 0.3 percent chance of failing to make the playoffs on Sept. 3.

The Rays had just a 0.3 percent chance of coming back after trailing 7-0 with two innings to play.

The Red Sox had only about a 2 percent chance of losing their game against Baltimore, when the Orioles were down to their last strike.

The Rays had about a 2 percent chance of winning in the bottom of the ninth, with Johnson also down to his last strike.

Multiply those four probabilities together, and you get a combined probability of about one chance in 278 million of all these events coming together in quite this way.

When confronted with numbers like these, you have to start to ask a few questions, statistical and existential.


And when he began asking those questions, Silver arrived at a startling conclusion: It all comes back to Bill Buckner.

Here's why:

On Sept. 4, the day after the Red Sox’ playoff probability peaked, HBO aired an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” The show is the brainchild of Larry David, the creator of Seinfeld.

In the episode, “Mister Softe,” Mr. Buckner was featured prominently. Jeered by Red Sox fans everywhere he went, he dropped a baseball autographed by Mookie Wilson out a window. But he restored his reputation after catching a baby dropped from a burning building.

Since the Red Sox’ curse already seemed to have been lifted after 2004, Mr. Buckner’s redemption was superfluous: a case of two 180-degree rotations turning the Red Sox’ karma all the way back around. From the day that the episode aired, the Red Sox went 6-18.

The program was fiction, of course. But you couldn’t have scripted what happened last night. And Mr. David is a Yankees fan.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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