Was Gretzky Only Second Best? Will Yanks Have Another Winning Year? Two Conference Papers Tackle Life's Tough Questions

April 19, 1999

LINTHICUM, MD, April 19 - What predicts a winning season? How can you compare sports greats of all eras? Two papers being presented in Cincinnati at a May convention of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS®) bring the formidable math modeling skills of operations researchers to their secret love: sports.

The papers include some unexpected observations, with the recently retired Wayne Gretzky placing only second on a list of top hockey scorers and a list of top home run hitters showing Mark McGwire far ahead of record-holder Hank Aaron.

Forecasting a Winning - or Losing - Season
Robert M. Saltzman of San Francisco State University says a team's won-loss record at the All-Star Break is the best predictor of a good season. Prof. Saltzman will deliver a paper, "Wait Till Next Year? Some Analyses of Win-Loss Records from 1960-1998," in the Cincinnati Convention Center on Tuesday, May 4 from 4:30 - 6 PM.

"Several conclusions can reasonably be drawn from basic statistical analyses," he says. "First, there's no need to follow baseball until Opening Day: The exhibition season is not important to your team's ultimate success. Second, you should be concerned if your team isn't playing well by the All-Star Break: They're quite unlikely to make a major recovery during the second half of the season despite Yogi Berra's admonition that 'It ain't over till it's over.' Finally, should you optimistically 'wait till next year' if your team has a bad season? Yes, you can be somewhat hopeful about your team's chances of success next year after a poor performance this year, but you'll have to be equally insecure about a letdown folloPwing a good year."

Although the strongest predictor of future success is a team's winning percentage at the All-Star Break, it's not a sure thing, Prof. Saltzman notes. In 1997, the Philadelphia Phillies climbed from an absolutely terrible .286 winning percentage at the All-Star Break to an almost respectable .420 by season's end. This was the best second-half improvement on record since 1960. In contrast, the Anaheim Angels' hopes were dashed after mid-season in 1983, when they went from a commendable .538 to a disappointing .432, making theirs the biggest drop in winning percentage since 1960.

Prof. Saltzman also examines changes in baseball since 1960 and their effect on the game. Expansion, in which existing teams lose only a few non-star players, he argues, has had only a short, negative impact on overall predictability. On the other hand, the amateur draft begun in 1965 initially equalized the teams by spreading out the good new players. By 1970, though, the correlation between success in one year and the following year returned to its pre-draft range. Free agency, though, has brought less stability to team rosters and has had the greatest impact on predictability - although in some respects that instability has made the game more exciting.

Sports Time Machine
Scott M. Berry and C. Shane Reese of Texas A&M and Patrick D. Larkey of Carnegie Mellon compare baseball, golf, and hockey greats from different times by taking into account important changes in the games and players. The authors present some unexpected conclusions in a paper, "Bridging Different Eras in Sports" at the Cincinnati Convention Center on Wednesday, May 5 from 9:45 - 11:15 AM. The authors use what are called bridge and additive models to estimate the innate ability of players, the effects of aging on their performance, and the difficulty of playing in each year/season. Their operations research accounts for different players aging differently and the changing population in each sport. They look at the changing talent pool within each sport. They characterize players by their career profile, rather than a one-number summary of their career.

The paper has been named the best applied paper of the year by the American Statistical Association. Sometimes, the authors' conclusions overturn classic sports views. In hockey, for instance, they rate Mario Lemieux as number 1 among top 25 peak players and place Wayne Gretzky at number 2. In baseball's home run contest, they rate Mark McGwire as number 1. Hank Aaron is only rated number 23, although he hit the largest number of home runs in major league history.

Among the authors' important observations are the following:
INFORMS® is holding its semi-annual convention in Cincinnati from Sunday, May 2 to Wednesday, May 5. The theme is "Delivering to the Global Consumer." It takes place at the Cincinnati Convention Center and the Omni Netherland Plaza. The convention includes sessions on topics applied to numerous fields, including commuter transit, e-commerce, health care, information technology, energy, transportation, marketing, telecommunications, and sports. More than 1,300 papers are scheduled to be delivered.

The General Chair is Professor David Rogers of the University of Cincinnati. The convention is underwritten, in part, by a generous grant of $125,000 from Procter & Gamble. For additional information on the conference, including a full list of workshops, visit http://www.informs.org/Conf/Cincinnati99/

The Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS®) is an international scientific society with 12,000 members, including Nobel Prize laureates, dedicated to applying scientific methods to help improve decision-making, management, and operations. Members of INFORMS work in business, government, and academia. They are represented in fields as diverse as airlines, health care, law enforcement, the military, the stock market, and telecommunications.

Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences

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