When Teams Play a Numbers Game

Posted July 14, 2009 at 4:25pm

As the 2008 House Softball League season drew to a close, the Suspicious Packages could almost taste the playoff berth they had been chasing all season. With one game to go, they sat just three seats back of the coveted 48th and final tournament spot, they needed only a victory over the 23rd-ranked Texas Republic. The Suspicious Packages were outmatched to be sure, but they planted their feet nonetheless.

After a valiantly fought contest against the favorites from the Lone Star State, the Suspicious Packages ceded a series of fatal late-inning runs and lost the game by an inch, 10-9. They had come so close, yet their post-season hopes lay there on the field, seemingly dashed. But the finger of fate is often fickle.

When the Suspicious Packages checked the league standings later, they realized that their heartbreaking loss had not beaten them back in the standings. Instead, it boosted them forward — ironically, just far enough to claim the final spot in the post-season tournament.

If this all sounds puzzling, that’s because it is. After all, moving up in the standings after a loss just seems illogical. But common-sense-defying statistics are the name of the game in the House league, where winning is less about how you play, and more about whom.

The Rating Percentage Index system, often used by the NCAA as a factor in ranking college basketball and football teams, calculates the relative position of a team by weighing not only that team’s win percentage, but also the combined win percentage of its opponents and its opponents’ opponents. Explaining the math can be a bit of a tongue twister, but the result for any team is simple: a rank that has hardly anything to do with wins and losses.

Commissioner Anthony Reed insists there is a method to the madness. There are more than 150 teams in the league, and he says this is the best way to universally quantify team quality, given that each team plays a different set of opponents.

“When you have a league with this many teams, a lot of teams might have all these wins, but it’s because they scheduled a lot of the weaker teams,— Reed said. “We wanted to reward teams for having a strong schedule.—

The top RPI in the league as of Tuesday was .743, held by the Dead Presidents.

In Reed’s equation, 40 percent of each team’s RPI is determined by the win percentage of that team’s opponents, and another 20 percent by opponents’ opponents. Given the number of teams in the league, this means that the only way to ensure a spot in the tournament is to schedule games with at least a few teams in the top 20.

But many of the league’s coaches don’t realize that, and some who do aren’t willing to do what’s necessary.

“If I liked playing a team, I make a note of it. So the next year, I look through the teams we had fun against,— said Bret Manley, coach of the Suspicious Packages. “I try to stay away from teams that take it really seriously. They tend to argue a lot.—

Reed says he hasn’t heard any complaints about the effectiveness of his system, but that doesn’t mean some teams haven’t just resigned themselves to a perpetual mediocre rank.

“The mission of the team is to just meet people and have fun. I don’t want anybody to be out there having a heart attack over a missed call. That’s not fun,— Manley said. “Playing teams ranked down in the 30s and 40s is usually more fun.—

Other teams more intent on statistical success plan before the season even begins, and often know well how to climb to the top of the ranks.

“I usually just schedule the teams I know are going to be the top 10 or 20 teams,— said Bryan Blom, coach of the 10th-place Milwaukee’s Best. “Also, I think you notice toward the end of the season, people cancel games because if they are playing a lower-ranked team, they are going to drop in the standings even if they win.—

Blom’s team has a record of 5-3 but is ranked 10th, because all of the team’s games have been against other top-seeded teams.

“We are definitely the highest-ranked three-loss team,— Blom admitted. “But that’s because we play a tough schedule. We would rather play the competitive teams, because it’s fun, but also because you’re going to climb in the rankings that way.—