Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Fallacy Of The Predetermined Outcome

I'm a little late to the party on this one, but Lar at wezen-ball (fellow resident of Shysterville) asked one of the most loaded sports-related questions one can ponder on Tuesday: Have Two Baseball Games Ever Played Out Identically?
In other words, are there any two games in baseball history that, if I were to pick up the scorecards for each, they would be indistinguishable?
The difference between Lar and pretty much everyone else in the world is that he actually set out to crack this mystery. He created a Retrosheet database and methodically broke down the potential possibilities resulting from each plate appearance and quickly came to the conclusion that the odds would of two games playing out exactly the same would be astronomical.
If you think about the numbers involved, it's not surprising in the least: with at least a dozen possible standard outcomes available for each plate appearance (and another dozen or more possible, but highly unlikely outcomes), and with 60 or 70 or even 80 plate appearances per game, the odds become fantastic that two games would be identical.
Furthermore, if it were possible to have each plate appearance broken down by pitch, it would become even more impossible to find two identical games. Click through to see how similar the pairs of games he isolates actually were. You might be surprised.


Take into account that it is wildly unlikely that any two baseball games have ever played out in exactly the same way, and remember that the next time some tries to apply hindsight to something that almost (or supposedly should have) occurred in a sporting event of any kind. "Oh man, if the ump had called that obvious strike, then Pettitte gets out of that inning, those two runs don't score, and the Yanks would have won." Those are the same people who think "everything happens for a reason" and that everyone has a soulmate.

The title of this post comes from something that Michael Kay likes to say during Yankee broadcasts. I've had some fun with Mr. Kay 'round here, but I must agree with him on this one. There is NO chance that the game would have played out the same way and to believe so is to subscribe to the fairy tales of Destiny and/or Fate.

Lar went back over the entire history of recorded MLB game data and couldn't find anything close to two identical scoresheets. That database consisted of 100,000 games. When people try to isolate one event and keep the rest of the game the same, they are saying that not only is the imaginary divergent outcome of the game is the same as another that occurred in baseball history (essentially impossible), they are saying that it is the same as the actual outcome of THAT game (essentially impossible multiplied by 100,000+).

This is the kind of stuff that makes life endlessly fascinating. Even in a sport like baseball where things are endlessly categorized and recorded, it is almost impossible (no, fuck it, it IS impossible) to have two games which are the same, even on a scorecard.

That's why I hate the concept of "everything happens for a reason". Ironically the people who say this are usually talking about things beyond human control, which are actually the exact things that don't happen for a reason. There is plenty of stuff in life that happens without any reasonable explaination at all, and the best we can do is try to make sense of it logically.


  1. Am I the only one who ever says "That's the fallacy of the predetermined outcome" when responding to a "what if" question and get a "What the fack are you talking about" response?

  2. That's a great take on it, Jay. I hadn't considered the findings from that perspective. Thanks for bringing it up.

  3. I disagree with a part of your premise. You say that people who think that everything happens for a reason believe in destiny/fate and in things out of human control. I do believe that everything happens for a reason but for different reasons. For example, a team may win a game because they played better, both pitching and hitting, not because they were destined to. Because yankees kept Boston without a championship for 86 years doesn't mean Boston wasn't meant to win, it means that yankees are simply a better team, or at the least, the image of yankees as a good team and their dominance over boston for decades may frighten or burden boston players, which psychologically leads to them losing anyway. Everything Does happen for a reason because we live in a world of chemical and physical reactions that form weather in the same way that they shape our decisions; the brain is simply a bunch of chemical and neuron connections so you will have vanilla not because you "chose" it but because you like it and the way it makes you feel better than other ice cream, there's the reason.

  4. I think we are on the same page, airhead. Things happen for a variety of reasons, of course. There are rational and logical explanations for most everything that occurs.

    I don't think that's what most people are implying when they drop that stupid cliche, however.