When the 2003 regular season ended, things were looking good for the Chicago Cubs. They had won the National League Central – edging out the Houston Astros by one game – and were lined up to play the Atlanta Braves in the first round of the playoffs. They also had two of the best pitchers in the game, Kerry Wood, who had recorded a career-high 266 strikeouts, and Mark Prior, who went 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA. Earlier in the season, Sports Illustrated dubbed them “Chicago Heat,” and they indeed appeared unbeatable. On top of that, the Cubs had a solid line up that consisted of power hitters Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou, speedster veteran Kenny Lofton, and recently acquired young star Aramis Ramirez. Needless to say, Cubs fans were thinking that this was finally their year.
Then, just as the stars were aligning, everything collapsed. With a 3-0 lead in the 8th inning of the 6th game of the National League Championship Series versus the Florida Marlins, Mark Prior surrendered five straight runs (three earned) and was replaced by reliever Kyle Farnsworth, who gave up three more runs; in the blink of an eye, the Cubs went from a 3-0 lead to a 8-3 loss – Wrigley was speechless. Fortunately, it was a best-of-seven series and there was still one more game to play. Kerry Wood was starting, and he and Prior hadn’t loss back-to-back games the whole season. However, in typical Cubs fashion, Wood pitched poorly, the offensive didn’t score enough runs, and they lost.
Next came the finger pointing, and it seemed like the actual performance of the Cubs was last on the list. On the top, there was the curse of the Billy Goat, Steve Bartman, and of course, the classic SI jinx. For those that don’t know, the SI jinx is an urban legend that states that a team or player’s performance is made worse by being on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Below is a clip from the ESPN show “Mike & Mike In The Morning,” which illustrates the SI jinx debate. Listen closely to Mike Greenberg (the one on the left with the blue collard shirt) explain why he thinks it is a real thing (Begins around 1:00).
I hope that you are smart enough to realize that Greenberg’s pseudo psychological story is completely wrong; the classic “I read a book” example just doesn’t cut it. But I want to tell you why he is wrong, and for that we need to rethink what it means for something to be random.
Leonard Mlodinow’s The Drunkard’s Walk tells the story of how psychologist Daniel Kahneman was first motivated to understand the cognitive biases behind people’s tendency to misunderstand randomness. According to Mlodinow, Kahneman, then a junior psychology professor at Hebrew University, was lecturing to a group of Israeli air force flight instructors on the importance of rewarding positive behavior and not punishing mistakes (a well established finding in psychology). During the lecture, however, Kahneman was met with sharp objections. Many instructors believed that their praises were almost always followed by worse performances and vice versa. But Kahneman knew that in any series of random events, an extraordinary event is most likely to be followed, due purely to chance, by a more ordinary one.
Any especially good or especially poor performance was… mostly a matter of luck. So if a pilot made an exceptionally good landing – one far above his normal level of performance – then the odds would be good that he would perform closer to his norm – that is, worse – the next day. And if his instructor had praised him, it would appear that the praise had done no good. But if a pilot made an exceptionally bad landing – running the plane off the end of the runway and into the vat of corn chowder in the base cafeteria – then the odds would be good that the next day he would perform closer to his norm – that is, better. And if his instructor had a habit of screaming “you clumsy ape” when a student performed poorly, it would appear that his criticism did some good. In this way an apparent pattern would emerge: student performs well, praise does no good; student performs poorly, instructor compares student to lower primate at high volume, student improves. The instructors in Kahneman’s class had concluded from such experiences that their screaming was a powerful educational tool. In reality it made no difference at all (2008, p. 7-9).
This explains why the instructors are wrong, and illustrates what psychologists call the regression fallacy. The regression fallacy refers to the tendency for people to “fail to recognize statistical regression when it occurs, and instead explain the observed phenomena with superfluous and often complicated causal theories.”
As you may have guessed, the SI jinx is a prime example of the regression fallacy. Though people like Mike Greenberg tend to think that SI actually causes a poor performance i.e., “everyone talking about the curse gets in your head and you start squeezing the bat tighter,” the regression fallacy illustrates his mistake. The reality is that athletes are usually on the cover of SI for an extraordinary performance. And like a superb landing by the pilots, an extraordinary performance by an athlete is usually followed by an ordinary performance. So it is not that athletes do worse because they were on the cover of SI, it is that their performance regresses back to its norm. This also explains why Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky, two athletes who have been on the cover of SI many times, are not affected by “the jinx.” Relative to most athletes, their ordinary performances are extraordinary.
Returning to the Cubs. Prior and Wood were never the same after the 2003 season. From 2004 to 2006, they went 30-32 and combined for an ERA over 4.00. Prior didn’t play in the majors after 2006, and Wood, who is still active, has only seen moderate success since. This suggests they were average pitchers with one great season, not great pitchers with a handful of average seasons. As they say, “You can have a lucky day, sure, but you can’t have a lucky career.”
So we can safely conclude that the SI jinx is in fact a myth. In addition, we can also understand why it exists in the first place – the regression fallacy. So the next time you see your favorite player or team on the cover of SI, relax, take a deep breath, and realize that SI isn’t actually causing anything.