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A journey to baseball's alternate universe

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A journey to baseball's alternate universe
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  4/24/08 1:12 PMA Journey to Baseball’s Alternate Universe - New York TimesPage 1 of 3http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/30/opinion/30strogatz.html?_r=1&oref=slogin Multimedia Length of Record Hitting StreaksHow Often the Record HittingStreak Occurred in a ParticularSeason Related Times Topics: Baseball E-MAILPRINTSAVESHARE OP-ED CONTRIBUTORS  A Journey to Baseball’s Alternate Universe BySAMUEL ARBESMANand STEVEN STROGATZPublished: March 30, 2008 Ithaca, N.Y. WITH the baseball season under way and the memory of scandal in thesport so fresh, many fans yearn for anearlier era, a time when mythology mingled with baseball. The sport’smost mythicachie vement is JoeDiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, a feat that has nevercome even close tobeing matched. Fans and scientistsalike, including Edward M. Purcell, a Nobel laureate inphysics, and Stephen Jay Gould, the evolutionary  biologist, have described the streak as well-nighimpossible.In a fit of scientific skepticism, we decided to calculatehow unlikely Joltin’ Joe’s achievement really was. Using acomprehensive collection of baseball statisticsfrom 1871to 2005, we simulated the entire history of baseball10,000 times in a computer. In essence, we programmedthe computer to construct an enormous set of parallel baseball universes, all with the same players but subject tothe vagaries of chance in each one.Here’s how it works. Think of baseball players’performances at bat as being like coin tosses. Hittingstreaks are like runs of many heads in a row. Suppose ahypothetical player named Joe Coin had a 50-50 chance of getting at least one hit pergame, and suppose that he played 154 games during the 1941 season. We could learnsomething about Coin’s chances of having a 56-game hitting streak in 1941 by flipping areal coin 154 times, recording the series of heads and tails, and observing what hislongest streak of heads happened to be.Our simulations did something very much like this, except instead of a coin, we usedrandom numbers generated by a computer. Also, instead of assuming that a player has a50 percent chance of hitting successfully in each game, we used baseball statistics tocalculate each player’s odds, as determined by his actual batting performance in a given year. More Articles in Opinion » MOST POPULARnytimes.com/tech Go to Complete List » 1.Maureen Dowd: Wilting Over Waffles2.Editorial: The Low Road to Victory 3. Well: Boy or Girl? The Answer May Depend onMom’s Eating Habits4. American Exception: Inmate Count in U.S. DwarfsOther Nations’5. Well: A Hard Plastic Is Raising Hard Questions6.Debt Collection Done From India Appeals to U.S. Agencies7.For Obama, a Struggle to Win Over Key Blocs8. A Good Appetite: You Call That Pudding, Grandma?9.Making Money, the How-To Way 10.Op-Ed Contributor: Visible Man Opinion All NYT Opinion  WORLDU.S.N.Y. / REGIONBUSINESSTECHNOLOGYSCIENCEHEALTHSPORTSOPINIONARTSSTYLETRAVEL JOBSREAL ESTATEAUTOS EDITORIALS COLUMNISTS CONTRIBUTORS LETTERS THE PUBLIC EDITOR BLOGGEDSEARCHEDE-MAILEDHOME PAGEMY TIMESTODAY'S PAPERVIDEOMOST POPULARTIMES TOPICS My AccountWelcome,psdodds   Log Out   Help  4/24/08 1:12 PMA Journey to Baseball’s Alternate Universe - New York TimesPage 2 of 3http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/30/opinion/30strogatz.html?_r=1&oref=slogin For example, in 1941 Joe DiMaggio had an 81 percent chance of getting at least one hitin each game (this statistic can be calculated using his total number of hits in the season,the number of games he played and his number of plate appearances). We simulated amock version of his 1941 season, using the computer equivalent of a trick coin thatcomes up heads 81 percent of the time.But the right question is not how likely it was for DiMaggio to have a 56-game hittingstreak in 1941. The question is: How likely was it that anyone in the history of baseball would have achieved a streak that long or longer?To answer this, our simulation repeated the coin-flipping experiments for every player inthe history of the game, for every season in which he played. This is what we mean by asimulation of the entire history of baseball.To tease out the meaningful lessons from random effects (fluky streaks that happen by luck), we redid the whole thing 10,000 times. In each of these simulated histories,somebody holds the record for the longest hitting streak. We tabulated who that player was, when he did it, and how long his streak was. And suddenly the unlikely becomes likely: we get a very long streak each time we run baseball history. These results are shown in Figure 1. The streaks ranged from 39 gamesat the shortest, to a freakish baseball universe where the record was a remarkable (andremarkably rare) 109 games.More than half the time, or in 5,295 baseball universes, the record for the longest hittingstreak exceeded 53 games. Two-thirds of the time, the best streak was between 50 and64 games.In other words, streaks of 56 games or longer are not at all an unusual occurrence.Forty-two percent of the simulated baseball histories have a streak of DiMaggio’s lengthor longer. You shouldn’t be too surprised that someone, at some time in the history of the game, accomplished what DiMaggio did.The real surprise is when the record was set. Our analysis reveals that 1941 was one of the least likely seasons for such an epic streak to occur.Figure 2 shows the number of times, out of 10,000 simulations, that the longest streak occurred in a particular year. The likeliest time for the longest streak to have occurred was in the 19th century, back in the misty beginnings of baseball. Or maybe in the 1920sor ’30s.But not in 1941, or afterward. That season was the miracle year in only 19 of ouralternate major-league histories. By comparison, in 1,290 of our baseball universes, ormore than a tenth, the record was set in a single year: 1894. And Joe DiMaggio is nowhere near the likeliest player to hold the record for longesthitting streak in baseball history. He is No. 56 on the list. (Fifty-six? Cue “The TwilightZone” music.) Two old-timers, Hugh Duffy and Willie Keeler, are the most probablerecord holders. Between them, they set the record in more than a thousand of theparallel baseball universes. Ty Cobb did it nearly 300 times.DiMaggio held the record 28 times. Plus once more, when it counted.  Samuel Arbesman is a graduate student at Cornell. Steven Strogatz is a professor of applied mathematics there. Meet the world's smallest HD camcorder   Also in Tech:Instant digital printsDo you need to calibrate your HDTV?What was the #1 most popular song when you were born?  ADVERTISEMENTS  4/24/08 1:12 PMA Journey to Baseball’s Alternate Universe - New York TimesPage 3 of 3http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/30/opinion/30strogatz.html?_r=1&oref=slogin   More Articles in Opinion » Baseball Add Alert DiMaggio, Joe Add Alert Science and Technology  Add Alert Computers and the Internet Add Alert Related SearchesTips To find reference information about the words used in this article, double-click on any word, phrase or name. A new window will open with a dictionary definition or encyclopedia entry. Past Coverage IDEAS & TRENDS; Baseball's Devil May Not Be in the Details(February 10, 2008)NYC; Hard to Figure: The Drab Legacy of Jottin' Joe(July 17, 2007)BASEBALL; In Beginning, Even Jeter Doubted Jeter(June 18, 2007)BASEBALL; Pinstripe Memories: Joe D From Brooklyn Was Living a Dream(February 26, 2007) INSIDE NYTIMES.COM SPORTS »FASHION & STYLE »OPINION »HOME & GARDEN »BUSINESS »OPINION » Measuring Up, on theDoorway and Draft BoardLong Live the Dress (forNow)Kips Bay: Coloring In the White Boxes As Economy Slows, So DoLaser Eye SurgeriesLetters: The DemocratsRead the Tea Leaves Home World U.S. N.Y. / Region Business Technology Science Health Sports Opinion  Arts Style Travel Jobs Real Estate  Automobiles Back to Top Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company Privacy Policy Search Corrections RSS First Look Help Contact Us Work for Us Site Map
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