Board Games, Dice and Probability – and a Love of Baseball
Mar 31, 2008 10:10 AM
The inspiration for our latest data story – on using JMP for fantasy baseball – came from Lou Valente, one of our product managers and an ardent New York Yankees fan. Lou is a synthetic organic chemist, a Six Sigma Black Belt and a passionate practitioner of design of experiments. He was a worldwide quality manager at Kodak in the Synthetic Chemicals Division before joining JMP about a year ago.
But he’s no stranger to JMP. Lou has been using JMP for work and fantasy baseball for nearly 20 years. He has won the championship eight times in his fantasy league in the past 19 seasons. His team, the Vintage Yanks, also has the most consistent performance in his league, as the JMP graph above shows. For the past seven years, his mean win percentage is nearly 70 percent, while most other teams’ figures are in the 40-50 percent range.
Lou’s data file and analysis of the top 200 professional baseball players is the basis of the baseball data story. The file is available for download from the JMP File Exchange.
I chatted with Lou about the history of his interest in fantasy baseball.
Me: How did you get started playing fantasy baseball?
Lou: It began with board games, dice and probability. But it all had to do with my passion for baseball. My passion for statistics came from baseball.
I grew up in New York in the 1960s, only 15 minutes from Yankee Stadium. I was very influenced by Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. And my dad was in the minor league farm system for the Yankees. So we were a big baseball family.
I taught my brother when he was 5 years old how to do batting averages. I showed him how 1 for 10 and 2 for 20 were the same thing. The calculation for earned run averages had to be normalized for nine innings, and this seemed like magic to him. Baseball definitely played a part in making us math-literate, and it made it fun.
A board game came out in the ’60s called “Challenge the Yankees.” It was only out for two years. It was a game that had all of the All-Stars from all teams versus the Yankees since at that time it required a team of All-Stars to compete with them.
Me: What was the game like?
Lou: That game introduced me to statistics and probability. Every card and every player had the numbers 2 to 12 on it, and by throwing dice, depending on what entries were on the card – single, home run, fly out, ground out – the game could approximate a player’s statistics using the probabilities of dice.
My cousin used to come from Michigan every summer. He was in college at the time, and I was 10 years old. He showed me how each dice roll had a different probability. You could get a 2 only with snake eyes, whereas you could have a 3 with a 1 and a 2, or a 2 and a 1. Six, 7 and 8 were the most frequent rolls. So the person who invented “Challenge the Yankees” realized that it approximates the statistics of baseball through the use of the dice.
Then the game disappeared ’cause if you didn’t live in New York, you probably didn’t buy it. On very rare occasions, you can find the original version on eBay for over $1,000.
Me: Then what did you do? You stopped playing?
Lou: No. Then Strat-O-Matic came along in the ’60s. That game is still played today, and there are conventions all over the United States for this baseball game. The guy who invented the game realized he could make “the game of games” by adding one more die.
There was one red die and two white dice. And the red die indicated the columns, so now you had six columns and 2 through 12 under each column. Three columns resided on the hitters card, and three columns resided on the pitchers card. The statistical granularity of all the things that could happen increased by six. This board game really took off, and everyone and his brother was playing it. And every year, people buy new cards with updated statistics from the most recently completed season.
Me: Then this led you to fantasy baseball?
Lou: Yes. Before computers, fantasy baseball was all on paper. Then it went with the age of computers and became more automated and easier. I’ve been playing fantasy baseball since 1988, and I’ve had eight championships in 19 years. I don’t win any money. The winner in my league gets a free subscription to the fantasy baseball Web site, which is worth only $20. A lot of people do play for money, and I probably should have been playing for money. But that’s not what it’s all about.
What it’s really about is baseball. As I got older, I sort of lost track of baseball because of college and graduate school. And I only knew the Yankee players. Fantasy baseball allows me to know every team and every player. It increased my awareness of the game of baseball again. Plus, it was fun to play against co-workers and gain bragging rights every year!