The Cleveland Indians are AL Central favorites: While We're Waiting...

The Cleveland Indians have over 80 percent probability to win the American League Central. But how do we, as sports fans, understand probabilities? It's complicated.

By nature, sports fans are somewhat illogical. If people were acting in their ideal self-interests, then why would they spend so much of their personal time, disposable income, and emotional well-being on something so fleeting, so out of their control, and so likely to result in heartbreak? Cleveland sports fans should know this better than most, after just experiencing a 52-year championship drought. Why do we care so much about sports? It’s sometime of deep-rooted tribalism that supersedes pure logic.

Because of the underlying illogicalness of sports fandom, that makes sports-related probabilities very difficult to truly comprehend. That’s perhaps why fans love gambling on sports (and also why online gambling sites can get away with misleading fans). Fans truly want to believe in their cause or in their prediction abilities. But also, probabilities are hard in real life. You could read all about behavioral psychology, the law of large/small numbers, Nate Silver’s The Signal and The Noise, and you’d understand that probabilities are just plain hard.

As humans, 50/50 probabilities are intuitively scary and somewhat meaningless. They represent the unknown. If you read Nate Silver’s book, you’ll learn that weather forecasters are incentivized to never make a 50-percent rain forecast, but to lean toward one extreme or the other. Consumers prefer a bit more certainty, even if it isn’t completely accurate. They want to know one way or the other if they should bring an umbrella to work, not just a shrug emoji and a “maybe?” response.

I’ll always recall when a Twitter friend said 50/50 projections “add zero value.”

To the consumer, it adds very little new information compared to the ordinary default of general uncertainty. If you know nothing about a certain topic or if you’re simply tossing a coin, then the underlying truth is 50/50. And thusly, if you know an incredibly deep amount about a certain topic … and you’re still landing at 50/50, something inherently feels wrong or disappointing.

This leads me to the topic of the Cleveland Indians, playoff probabilities, and the 2016 Cleveland sports fan. In order to make my point, I wanted to first frame it within the content of illogical sports fandom and why probabilities are hard. Now, I’m going to have to do some very brief math.

Earlier this summer, the Cleveland Cavaliers trailed the Golden State Warriors 3-1 in the NBA Finals. In order to win that series, the Cavs had to win three straight games. That was improbable at the time. In a default state, with 50/50 odds such as getting three straight heads coin tosses, that would indicate a 12.5 percent probability. You’d arrive at that number by multiplying .5 by .5 by .5. 

But, two of those three games were set to be played at Oracle Arena in Oakland. Even if we assume an underlying 50/50 matchup, home-court advantage skews that to a certain degree. Golden State was a phenomenal 78-4 (.951) at home in the previous two regular seasons. Cleveland was only 46-36 (.561) on the road in the previous two regular seasons. That's a sizeable difference in a sizeable sample size that indicates a slight change in the formula from complete even strength.

From 1979-80 through 2014-15, the entirety of the three-point era before this season, home teams were 124-80 (.608) in the NBA Finals. So if we used 60/40 as the probability for the home team against the road team, then the Cavaliers would be at a disadvantage compared to the default 50/50. You’d arrive at a new number by multiplying .4 (road) by .6 (home) by .4 (road). This indicates a 9.6 percent probability.

But, alas, that 60/40 split assumes even strength of the opponents. Again, from a pretty clear and undoubted sample size of any verifiable information, the Golden State Warriors were the stronger team on paper. They had just set an NBA record for 73 regular season wins. The Cavs, although quite good in the playoffs, were much less impressive in the larger 82-game sample of the regular season. 

So even after adjusting for home-court advantage, you’d have to bring down the probabilities at least slightly more for Cleveland. Just using round numbers, let’s arbitrarily drop it down it down to 30 percent road win probability for Cleveland and 50 percent home win probability. So the math becomes multiplying .3 (road) by .5 (home) by .3 (road). That’s a final 4.5 percent probability.

That fairly basic math is what led to this tweet on the morning of Game 5 of this year’s NBA Finals:

Obviously, with hindsight, we know that the Cavaliers rallied, won three straight, broke the 52-year curse, and won the NBA Finals in improbable fashion. Things that have 3-to-6 percent probabilities of occurring are very unlikely! They’re rare! But, 3-to-6 times out of 100, or so, they still occur! Otherwise, the probability would be 0. That’s very difficult for our minds to grasp because of the improbability, scale, and magnitude of the event. It was an outrageously improbable event.

I read a very fascinating article from The Atlantic's Derek Thompson about today's 2016 media and its hyper-focus on sharing odd newsworthy events over the boring and mundane. One could perhaps trace that back to the O.J. Simpson case of the ‘90s, and the birth of the sensationalist media recipe. Because of social media and the non-stop availability of media content in our pockets, today’s society is producing and consuming far more written and auditory content than ever before in humanity. Whether it's politics or terrorism or weather or sports or likely even our job performance, we’re still very poor at assigning accurate pre-event probabilities and acknowledging their existence post-hoc in everyday life.

Nate Silver himself has run into some criticism for his own personal political predictions, alongside his website FiveThirtyEight’s computer-generated and human-designed probabilities. No matter what, people probably aren’t very good at predicting the future. That could go for stock market experts, financial advisers, sports analysts, or probably anything in life. The future is incredibly difficult to predict! Numbers can help. Probabilities can be somewhat useful in planning and resource allocation and getting into the right frame of mind. But ultimately, it’s never 100 percent clear-cut and random things can always happen.

This long-winded explanation finally leads me to the 2016 Cleveland Indians. They currently have a 57-42 (.576) record with 63 games remaining in the regular season. They hold a 4.5-game lead over the Detroit Tigers in the American League Central. They're constantly jockeying with Baltimore and Texas for the league's best record. Yes, almost 40 percent of the regular season still remains. Baseball features a long, extremely grueling regular season. But from what we know so far, the Indians are a very good team with better than average playoff probabilities. 

FanGraphs currently gives the Indians 82 percent probability of winning the AL Central division. With their nifty Playoff Odds Graphs, you can note that it’s been above 75 percent for the last five weeks. Only the Chicago Cubs and Washington Nationals, both in the National League, can brag about the same thing. The other two American League divisions are much more tightly contested. And, as the Indians learned in 2013, just winning the division can go a long way toward achieving potential October success. Cleveland's 10.4 percent probability of winning the World Series is notably higher than the Cavs' championship odds pre-Game 5 of the NBA Finals.

So, we can argue left and right about whether the Indians might fade away in these next two months, what they should add at this week’s trade deadline, and more. We can debate how important regular season record against fellow playoff teams might be. My hunch, anecdotally, is that it means very little. In the Wild Card era since 1995, many regular season underdogs have achieved October immortality. That can happen in a sport where a 162-game marathon is followed by a wild, extremely quick postseason. Baseball, out of all of the major North American sports, historically has the wackiest postseason.

But what we know at this point of time is this: The Indians have about an 82 percent probability of winning the AL Central. That’s pretty darn good. It's better than 50/50. I’m content with that. As a fan, I’d obviously like it to be 99 percent, in some idealistic world. But at this point in time, I’m pretty happy. And as we just saw with the Cavaliers earlier this summer, we never quite know what might happen from here. So enjoy the moments while you can. The Indians are quite good.


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