The imperfect game, Part 3: The end-game bias

Posted on June 10, 2010

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It is significant that the perfect game was denied at the point of the last out. If the incident had happened in the 4th inning and Galarraga had gone on to pitch a one-hit complete game would anything like the same controversy have ensued? (That was a rhetorical question.) There is a pervasive, but surely irrational, focus on last-inning events in baseball.

Some hitters (usually without great long-term evidence) gain reputations for being “clutch hitters,” and this is based largely on the impression that they come up with game-winning hits in the last inning. It is often argued that one of these late-inning clutch hitters is more valuable than someone who produces more runs overall, but not as many in the 9th. But this is nonsense. A run in the 2nd inning is as valuable as a run in the 9th. (I think here I am echoing more meticulously supported arguments worked out by King Kaufman when he was the regular sports columnist at Salon. Search his archive from Salon here.)

If there really are players who are able to make themselves hit better in “clutch” situation, why are we not instead questioning the fact that they are not focussing up and playing to their potential earlier in the game? The tendency to use the most reliable relief pitcher only as a “closer” reflects a similar, but more strategically costly, bias about the perceived importance of what happens at the end of the game.

I suspect our lives are full of similar examples of exaggerating the significance of late-stages in processes and events. (Have you ever been haunted by what you did or didn’t say to someone in your last conversation with them before they passed away? Ever been haunted by what you did or didn’t say to them in your 3rd last conversation?) Suggestions about such real-life (i.e., non-sporting) examples are invited.

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