THOMAS BOSWELL

The unpredictability of predictions

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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Long ago, psychologists discovered that racetrack gamblers became more confident of their picks as soon as they actually put their money down. At least you can analyze a horse. But studies showed the same jump in confidence after making a lottery guess.

Apparently, one of our most powerful delusions is that we can influence the future by predicting it. We calm ourselves with our prophecies. But, sometimes, if we want the most pleasure, we should reverse that pattern. Sport is one of the few places where not knowing what's going to happen actually delights us.

That's why the baseball playoffs are my favorite time of year. In every pro sport, they say, "That's why they play the games." But, in October, baseball means it the most.

When we get too analytical, too serious, we can miss one of the most fundamental appeals of the contemporary game: The six-month regular season lends itself to devoted fans of the sport, the true believers and the nerds. But the postseason is strictly nuts.

I try to remind myself of where responsible empirical deduction gets you: nowhere. Four years ago, I wrote: "St. Louis and Detroit may not even belong in the playoffs. After the All-Star Game, the Cards have gone 34-39 and the Tigers 35-38. Both collapsed right at the wire." Oh, there was more ironclad fact-bloated analysis. Of course, the Cards and Tigers met in the World Series.

At the moment, the public might not be quite up to speed on how wide open this postseason has suddenly become. Whenever the Yankees are the reigning world champions, there's a tendency (outside the Bronx) to become resigned, even depressed, as October arrives. Oh, they're going to buy another title. Need a pinch hitter? Get Lance Berkman. Another reliever? Kerry Wood. If you haven't hit 400 homers or struck out 20 in a game, we don't want you contaminating our locker room. If the Yanks pay a fortune for Javier Vazquez and he's a bust, just exile him to long relief, ignore the blown millions and win 95 games anyway.

But things changed last weekend. The Yankees lost two games at Fenway Park to a virtual Red Sox scrub lineup, and New York dropped back to wild-card status, a game behind Tampa Bay. That means no home-field advantage for the Yankees against anybody, including in the World Series, unless they play Texas. Fine teams don't like to admit it, but closing out the Yankees in a Game 6 or 7 at Yankee Stadium is as daunting as anything in sport.

Then, on Monday, the Yanks dropped $82.5 million free agent A.J. Burnett from their division series rotation after an inept 10-15 season. On opening day, the Yankees' rotation depth was obscene.

Now, Burnett has joined Vazquez in pinstripe purgatory. Joba Chamberlain? He grew up to be a mediocre middle-inning reliever. Phil Hughes's ERA has risen from 3.66 before the All-Star Game to 4.90 since. So, candles are being lit to St. Andy Pettitte, who has pitched just three times since July, with a 6.75 ERA.

CC Sabathia will pitch on three days' rest. How about two? One?

Maybe the Yankees can beat the Twins, even at their beautiful new Target Field. Perhaps they can lick the Rays, if they meet in the League Championship Series. But, if they meet the stacked pitching staffs of the Phillies or Giants in the Series, will they win that, too?

Maybe. But some computers say the Yanks have just a 53.5 percent chance of beating the Twins. That's how close playoff baseball usually is. The odds of winning three such series is only about 15 percent. So the wide-open delirium of 2001-08, when the Yanks threatened but never actually won it all, will probably return. (See '06 prediction above: Rush out and get down on the Yanks.)


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