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Cascade Failure


Cascading failure is common in power grids when one of the elements fails (completely or partially) and shifts its load to nearby elements in the system. Those nearby elements are then pushed beyond their capacity so they become overloaded and shift their load onto other elements. Cascading failure is a common effect seen in high voltage systems, where a single point of failure (SPF) on a fully loaded or slightly overloaded system results in a sudden spike across all nodes of the system. This surge current can induce the already overloaded nodes into failure, setting off more overloads and thereby taking down the entire system in a very short time.

With what amounts to so few games played, it's pretty much impossible to say for sure what the root of the problem has been for the White Sox, at least from a statistical perspective. It's the kind of thing that falls into what's often referred to as "random variance around the mean". As human beings, we have a very difficult time discerning the random from the actually patterned. Being able to sort between the two (or pretending you can) can make you famous. So as a statistically inclined person--albeit one with no formal training whatsoever--it's a little bit difficult to know what to say about what's happening that provides any sort of comfort. "And it too shall pass" only goes so far. Especially for a team that's All In.

Yeah, they can't hit. But they were hitting and all of a sudden dropped collectively off a cliff.* We know they'll revert to a much better mean. But when and why? And to what specific mean? Is there no actual motivating cause? Pure randomness? Was last night's 6 run output a fluke, or is it a sign that the worst is over?

In any case, when we say things like "randomness" and "revert to the mean" it's because there's a disconnect between the underlying fundamentals and the actual results. Many saber commentators will just leave it at that. Eventually, things will get back on track because we've seen that's what tends to happen given enough time. And I do have faith that this is true. These guys are professionals just like all the other MLBers. They'll get it going.

Anyway, the implicit saber model is that these guys are nearly machines when it comes to athletic performance that whatever the weaknesses of the flesh exist, they'll soon by cancelled out. As it turns out, there's scientific research that backs this understanding of the athletic-performer-as-robot. Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell, most folks have heard about the 10,000 hour rule. As in, that's how long it takes to get really, really good at it. Whatever "it" it is. As the guy who made the notion scientifically popular, K. Anders Ericsson, put it:

The differences between expert performers and normal adults are not immutable, that is, due to genetically prescribed talent. Instead, these differences reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance.

What's maybe not so clear popularly is what's neuronically happening as far as the science is concerned. Which is that the vast aggregation of practice, practice, practice gives them access to performance without the overt mental awareness we typically attribute to human behavior (cogito and all that). Positing that baseball training is not so different from tennis, see DFW:

The training here is both muscular and neurological. Hitting thousands of strokes, day after day, develops the ability to do by "feel" what cannot be done by regular conscious thought. Repetitive practice like this often looks tedious or even cruel to an outsider, but the outsider can’t feel what’s going on inside the player — tiny adjustments, over and over, and a sense of each change’s effects that gets more and more acute even as it recedes from normal consciousness.

So there's a very real sense in which the very best in the world are not like us. The degree of their training puts them on a kind of autopilot that makes adjustments without necessitating the kind of conscious consideration of the problem that novices deal with. Self-awareness shuts off and the unconscious kicks in fully to take over the operation. It's not so different from breathing.

If this is your model, then slumps are truly random variance. A machine can only be calibrated so finely and there will always be error. You can in fact flip 50 heads in a row. That kind of thing.

This model is oversimple by design. It works by and large, so it makes sense to stick with it. But we know that's not how people operate. I.e. most humans know what it's like to wilt under pressure. And it happens to the best athletes. Just ask Steve Blass and Chuck Knoblauch and Rick Ankiel. Back to the science:

Gucciardi and Dimmock got two interesting results: the first was that anxiety only interfered with performance when it was coupled with self-consciousness. Nervous golfers who thought about the details of their swing, such as how to position their hips, hit consistently worse shots. That makes sense, since one of the main causes of choking is "thinking too much," as we start analyzing actions (like a golf swing) that are best performed on autopilot.

The best, most consistently performing athletes will be the kind who can maintain their zen-like submersion in the unconscious no matter how many screaming fans there are or how few outs are left. By and large, we find that baseball players do this remarkably well. They've seen it all so many times and the force of repetition is such that playing, even under the highest pressure, isn't that tough for them. Which is why we don't really find much if any clutch or unclutch performers when we look. Close and late situations just are not enough to induce the kind of anxiety necessary. And if ever there was a time to point out that ballplayers have a reputation for being particularly dense, maybe this is it. If you're not great at conscious perception anyway, what's one more fan screaming at you? Dude couldn't pay attention if he wanted to.

But if the case is more special (ALL IN), if they don't have a lot of experience dealing with it (Sale, Beckham, Morel), if the players are sufficiently cerebral in the first place (Paulie, Q, AJ), maybe there's a possibility for an extended lull to cope with meaningful newness. Maybe, if only for a few weeks, there's a possibility of total breakdown. If everywhere you look, someone is screwing up in a new, different way you never expected could possibly happen, maybe that's when you start thinking, explicitly, about your own play.

One node breaks down and the pressure builds in every other node. Gotta step it up with so much on the line. Stay closed. Keep your hip in.

When what they really need to remember is:

Don't think, it can only hurt the ball club.

*Interestingly, the exceptions are Q and Paulie, probably the two most cerebral guys on the team. They've also gone through long, extended frustrating slumps. Obviously I'm not going to mention this in the main body because that throws off the entire post.