Do the Math

Monday, September 29th, 2014

Baseball is a game obsessed with numbers. No other major sport involves nearly so much math. Amateur sabermetricians1 analyze the numbers in attempts to quantify the true value of their favorite players. When not involved in other distractions while attending a baseball game, fans keep score, crunch numbers, and swap statistics. Meanwhile, professional analysts toil for major league clubs, digging through mountains of data in search of a competitive advantage.

Yet for all that, it seems the devotion to math has not found its way to all parts of the sport. The accountants and insurers who run various contests and donations in baseball seem to be using their rear ends as a source of numbers, or worse, not doing the math at all. To continue the tying of loose ends before the playoffs start tomorrow, here’s a quick recap of three statistically-challenged contests seen while watching Red Sox baseball.

Arbella’s Strikeout Donations

During the 2014 season, the Arbella Insurance Foundation pledged to contribute $50 to the Jimmy Fund for every strikeout thrown by a Red Sox pitcher.2 That sounds pretty straightforward, and it is. However, whenever the contest was mentioned on air, a disclaimer always accompanied it. That disclaimer informed viewers that Arbella’s contribution would only go as high as $100,000.

That may sound reasonable. After all, Arbella needs to have a ballpark (sorry) for what their donation will be. What if the Sox pitchers have a stellar year? Arbella needs to put a cap (again, sorry) on their donation to protect themselves, so why not $100,000? Well, statistics and probability are why not. The excellent 2013 Detroit Tigers pitching staff set the high-water mark for strikeouts in a season, and their total was 1428 Ks. At $50 per strikeout, if the Red Sox managed to match that amazing season, it would only total out (still sorry) to a $71,400 donation. And remember, that’s the all-time record! Hitting (I really just can’t help myself) Arbella’s ceiling would require besting the current record by almost 50%. There’s no way that that will ever happen, and no need for that disclaimer.3

Cumberland Farms 99K Grand Slam Contest

The next contest involves pitching as well, but it’s the opposing team’s pitching. In short, if the Red Sox hit a grand slam on the 99th pitch they saw in a game, a $99,999 prize would be awarded by local convenience store chain Cumberland Farms. So what’s the problem? First, a single “finalist” was selected at the beginning of each game. Thus, before a single player had stepped into the batter’s box, all but the chosen contestant were already eliminated. Second, a grand slam requires that the bases be loaded prior to that 99th pitch, with a home run hit on the 99th pitch. If the bases are empty at pitch 97, the contest is already over for that day. In fact, if the bases are empty around pitch 90 or so, there’s almost no chance of a grand slam on pitch 99.

There were 92 games scheduled during the contest, and can you believe that not a single person won? Given that only around 100 grand slams are hit per year, I’d be fairly confident in taking a bet that zero grand slams were hit on pitch 99 throughout all of baseball. The contest’s official rules did include a sop to the “lucky” finalists who were selected. If a non-grand slam home run were hit on the 99th pitch, that day’s contestant would receive the so-called “bonus prize”. Rather than $99,999, they would instead receive a paltry $999. No one managed to claim even that prize.

A reading of the official rules showed that the only thing each losing finalist earned was a $30 Cumberland Farms gift card. Lucky for them, the gift card does not expire. Lucky for Cumberland Farms, a contest which could have awarded as much as $9,199,908 ($99,999 times 92 games) actually issued just $2,760 in prizes. That’s quite a savings.

The 2005 Chevy Cobalt Contest

The Cumberland Farms contest echoed another ridiculous contest from years back. Scouring the web revealed only passing mention of it, so I’ll do my best to catalog this 2005 contest here. It was quite similar to the Cumberland Farms contest, though this one focused on the 100th pitch instead. Similarly as well, before each game one contestant was chosen to possibly win, with everyone else out of the running for that day. Luckily, this contest didn’t require that a grand slam be hit on the century pitch. No, no, any old home run on the 100th pitch would do! On the other hand, this contest also only took place on Friday games, which meant there were just 26 chances to win.

Ultimately, this contest might not seem any worse than the Cumberland Farms contest. However, there’s one key difference. Even if the Red Sox clubbed a home run at the right time, that week’s contestant wasn’t actually guaranteed of anything. The prize pool featured just one Chevy Cobalt as a prize, not two, or three, and certainly not 26. That meant that if a home run were hit by the Red Sox, on the 100th pitch, of a Friday game, the single chosen contestant for that day would have their name entered in a drawing at the end of the year, along with any other contestants who happened to have the same lucky confluence of events happen on their chosen day. Phew! If you think that was difficult to read, realize that the announcers had to explain these rules every week!

In fact, Red Sox announcers Don Orsillo and Jerry Remy managed to have great fun mocking the contest while it was going on. They’d lead a count-up to the pitch, only to guffaw when the batter didn’t even lift his bat off his shoulder to take a cut. As the contest dragged on without anything even close to a home run, they speculated that the opposing teams were aware of the contest, and diabolically choosing to throw balls on the 100th pitch. And then some games, they missed the 100th pitch entirely, only realizing several pitches later. As you might be able to guess, not a single home run was ever hit on the 100th pitch, and I assume the Chevy Cobalt was driven off a cliff and into the ocean at the end of the year. The fact that someone set up a complicated process for a drawing amongst people who would have already “won” by having a home run hit on their 100th pitch still makes me chuckle. Can you imagine being a person who, after all that, loses such a drawing and gets nothing?

Wrap Up

I don’t have access to the powerful statistical databases that Major League Baseball keeps, but you can be sure that the people who create (and insure) these contests do. Perhaps they’re foolishly not using that access when they design the contests. Then again, perhaps the more likely scenario is that they’re intentionally creating contests that won’t have any winners. There’s something to ponder in the long, cold off-season.


Footnotes:

  1. Hell, does any other sport even have its own word for the statistical analysis of its data? ↩︎

  2. I suspect this page will disappear or change, so here’s an image from 2014 for posterity. ↩︎

  3. Also worth considering is that if the Red Sox did somehow manage to break the impossible 2,000 strikeout limit, Arbella would be able to make great hay using it for publicity. ↩︎

  4. I suspect this page will also disappear, so again, an image from 2014 for posterity. ↩︎


If you enjoyed this post, get updates via Twitter, Facebook, or RSS.