July 21, 1999 After pitching the 14th perfect game in the history of major league baseball yesterday, New York Yankee David Cone made a tongue-in-cheek remark about how improbable it all was. "You probably have a better chance of winning the lottery than this happening," was how the Associated Press quoted him.
Not quite, Mr. Cone. With all due respect to his great achievement, Cone should realize that it is actually much more likely to pitch a perfect game. There have been approximately 150,000 major league baseball games played since 1901, the advent of modern baseball. With two starting pitchers per game providing a total of approximately 300,000 perfect game opportunities to date, the odds have been approximately 14 in 300,000, or about 1 in 20,000, of throwing one.
On the other hand, winning the New York Lotto--guessing 6 numbers out of a possible 51--has a probability of 1 in 18 million.
What's more, Cone's chances on Sunday were probably a little better than average, if you take into account his low lifetime earned run average (3.14), his high number of career wins (178) and the on-base percentage of the Montreal Expos (.321), ranked with the lowest in the major leagues.
Statistics can't tell you who will throw a perfect game, but it can forecast the likelihood of future baseball events. "One can use prior performance to estimate the chances that someone will perform a certain way under certain conditions," says Chip Denman, manager of the statistics laboratory at the University of Maryland.
On the other hand, in a lottery, numbers are chosen at random, and every holder of a single ticket has an equal and undistinguished chance of winning. Anyone can play Lotto and win it. Whereas getting the chance to pitch a perfect game requires talent, years of dedication, and a major league contract.
Lotteries and sports bring out the differences between probability, statistics...and luck. "Probability deals with quantifying uncertainty, and in certain cases like a game of Lotto we can calculate precisely the chances of winning," Denman says. "In open-ended systems, like sports, all we can do is draw upon statistics to make our best estimates of future performance. We draw upon what happens so far to estimate what will happen. Luck--good or bad--is nothing more than taking probability personally," he adds.
Even more striking about yesterday's perfect game is that the ceremonial first pitch was thrown by Don Larsen, the only player to have pitched a perfect game in the World Series. Before you start speculating whether this was kismet, Denman remarks "even the most unlikely things are bound to happen eventually, if we wait long enough for them." (We'll spare you the calculation.)
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