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Ben's Babbles: Beware fans, regression can lurk around the corner

February 25, 2012

Regression can be brutal.

Right now it's spring training for baseball.

Every year, some guy will play out of his mind in the Grapefruit or Cactus league and earn a spot on the big league roster.

Then a month later, after hitting .032 or having his era at something like 15.67 he is quietly released or sent down, with everyone wondering what on earth happened to that March Magic and all the talent that he had displayed.

The problem is the player was probably just not that good to begin with, but a hot stretch over a couple weeks fooled everyone into thinking he was.

Over time everything averages out, as a player returns to his true talent level or opponents do more scouting to exploit his weaknesses.

It's called regression to the mean.

Against Hermiston Tuesday night, the Hood River Valley girls basketball team demonstrated both ends of the spectrum. In the first half the Eagles played some of their best basketball all season, and led Hermiston - undefeated in league play entering the game - by eight at halftime. In the second half the Eagles fell apart as the Bulldogs surged, outscoring HRV 55-12 in the second half to get the win.

Now the Bulldogs are not as bad as they played in the first half, and the Eagles are not as bad as they played in the second half, but on both paper and on the court the Bulldogs are the better team so it figures they would win.

That's a good news/bad news scenario for Eagles fans. If HRV can figure out a way to split the difference between the two halves, they are a pretty decent basketball team.

Speaking of basketball players returning to average and still being pretty good, look at Jeremy Lin of the New York Knicks. Lin's rise from undrafted to sudden star for the Knicks has been well-documented. The odds are that Lin does not continue to produce 30 points a night over the duration of his career. He will probably regress, either to an average player, or, and this would be the Knicks worst fear, to a flash in the pan.

Lin has started less than 20 games in his career, while posting some ridiculous numbers. Is he the next Steve Nash? Could be. Or opponents could figure out his weakness and he returns to being a decent option off the bench.

Perhaps the best bet, instead of getting caught in the wave of "Linsanity" would be to hope that he just stays a decent player.

Take Hideo Nomo, for instance. In his first season for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995 he posted an ERA+ (a state designed to measure pitchers regardless of what park they pitch in and taking into account league average ERA) of 150. An average pitcher posts a score of 100, so Nomo was well above average and became a phenom.

Major league hitters had never seen him before and his unique delivery gave them fits. But slowly they adjusted. The next season his score fell to 122, then again the next season until he was nothing more than about an average major league pitcher for the rest of his career.

It didn't matter that he was still respectable; he failed to live up to the earlier hype so he was a bust.

This spring, as we watch Lin compete in the NBA rising stars game, see major league players start hot (or cold) in spring training, or see high school teams play wildly different halves in playoff games, remember the regression to the mean is coming, whether we like it or not.

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