James Rumpel’s “Trouble With the Normal Curve”
In 2018, after 35 years as a high school math teacher and coach (tennis and wrestling), James Rumpel retired. Since that time, he has greatly enjoyed spending time with his wonderful wife, Mary. Most days find him camping, playing board games, or training for half-marathons. He has also watched a lot of baseball with his daughter, Allie, who is a huge Milwaukee Brewer fan. In addition, James has had the chance to fulfill a lifelong dream by using some of his free time to try his hand at writing short stories. He has been lucky enough to see nearly one-hundred thirty of his works appear on the internet or in print, though, to be honest, he finds his greatest joy in simply being able to turn some of the odd ideas circling his brain into stories.
Without further ado, and with both great pleasure and honor, we present you his story:
Trouble With the Normal Curve
Doug Roberts, the northwest scout for the Lake Michigan BrewCubs stood outside the owner’s suite and looked around the stadium. Wrigley Field was, per usual, nearly empty. The BrewCubs trailed by a score of one to nothing in the bottom of the ninth. A slight murmur rose from the sparse crowd when the team’s best hitter strolled to the plate. Javier Cortez sported a robust .139 batting average and was the team’s best hope. The opposing team’s positioning coach consulted a hand-held computer and signaled for the third baseman to move next to the shortstop. The second baseman was also moved to a position near the other infielders, forming a conglomeration of players in short left field. Cortez swung at the first pitch and hit a blistering line drive directly at that group of players. The shortstop made the catch with ease, ending the game.
Baseball had changed a great deal since Doug was a minor leaguer in the early 2000s. Forty years later, he still loved the game but it just wasn’t the same. With a sigh, he opened the door and entered the suite. He wasn’t sure why the owner had called this meeting, but he figured it wasn’t going to be a positive experience.
“I have no idea how long we can continue to put a team on the field,” said Gus Morton, the team’s owner. “Merging teams has gained us another year, but attendance is abysmal. People just aren’t interested.”
“We aren’t doing that badly on the field,” added the general manager and director of personnel, Lanny Walldorf. “We’re in second place in the division and have a 500 record.”
“Everybody has a 500 record,” interrupted Morton. “That’s the problem. Analytics have gotten so good that the game has become completely predictable.”
Tanya Jeffers, one of the other scouts at the meeting, raised her hand. “Couldn’t the league just ban the use of advanced analytics?”
“It’s been talked about for years,” answered Morton. “The problem is that predictive analysis has gotten so good that the fans are using it. There are websites that can predict the final results before the game.” To prove his point, he pushed a couple of keys on his computer and the large monitor on the wall burst to life.
“What do you see?” asked the owner.
“That’s the box score from today’s game,” said Doug.
“Look at the time stamp in the lower right corner,” directed Morton. “This was available online last night. An analytic program predicted the results with nearly 90% accuracy
“That can’t be right,” insisted Doug. “Baseball’s a game of chance and randomness.”
“Apparently, not random enough. Not anymore. That’s why I called this meeting. We have to do something or else baseball is going to suffer the same fate as casinos and horse racing. I asked all of you here in hope that someone has an idea that can save the team and the league.”
Silence engulfed the room.
Waldorf finally spoke. “I don’t think our talent is the problem. I’ve put together a good team.”
Doug stared at the general manager for a moment, sighed deeply, and then said “Maybe too good.”
“What do you mean?” asked Waldorf.
Doug shrugged. “I mean if the analytics use the compiled data from players’ careers. Maybe the problem is that there is too much data available. Maybe if the team was made up of lesser-known players the analytics wouldn’t be so effective.”
“I don’t know,” interjected Morton. “The analytics are being used in college and high schools. There’s going to be large amounts of data on every major league talent.”
“We’ll just have to work hard to find talented players who are off the grid. Good players from small towns or unknown leagues,” suggested Doug.
“Do you really think we could find players like that?” asked Morton.
“I don’t know, but we can try,” replied Doug. “You just said that the team is doomed if we don’t do something. It might be time for us to stop scouting from our computers and hit the road.”
Doug stared at Morton. The owner seemed to be considering Doug’s proposal.
“If we can’t find enough talented players, we still might find some who the analytics don’t have enough data on. They might not be good enough but at least the fans wouldn’t know what they were going to do in advance.”
“That’s stupid,” declared Waldorf. “You can’t put a bunch of low-level players out on the field. We’d lose every game.”
A sly smile formed on Morton’s lips. “But people aren’t going to know how we’re going to lose. They’ll have to watch to find out. Let’s give your idea a shot, Roberts. I’m putting you in charge of organizing a search for players who are analytics resistant.”
“I’ll do my best,” said Doug.
“You better. We’re probably out of business if your idea doesn’t work.”
A week later, Doug was in northern Utah searching for the best unpredictable players available.
Today, he sat in the wooden bleachers of Sandy Rock High School, watching his third game in the last twenty-four hours. He glanced down at his tablet and looked over his notes. So far, he had seen a lot of very mediocre players playing unspectacular ball.
His attention was pulled back to the game when the monotone voice of the announcer came over the loudspeaker. “Next up for the Sand Pipers, Russel Erickson.”
From what Doug had learned from interviewing the few fans at the game, this kid had some talent. While the beefy redhead got ready for his at-bat, Doug looked around the bleachers. There were less than two dozen people in the stands. Each held a smartphone or tablet in their hands. Doug was greatly disappointed when he discovered that even games in these remote towns had analytics available. He figured the only fans at the game were the parents of players who were predicted to do something good. Doug had no problem picking out Erickson’s parents. The couple was engaged in excited conversation as they pointed to their hand-held device.
Doug checked the program on his tablet. Sure enough, the analytics were predicting, with 97% certainty, that Erickson would hit a home run.
To the fans’ chagrin, especially Russel Erickson’s parents, the opposing manager had the same technology. After a brief conference on the mound, the manager walked over to the umpire and informed him that they were going to intentionally walk the batter.
When the next player came up to bat, the coach moved the right fielder in a few feet. Doug looked at his tablet and saw that it predicted a pop up to shallow right. Two pitches later the short fly ball ended with a routine catch.
Doug started gathering his stuff together. Even in this tiny rural area, every player, every pitch, every hit was being predicted with incredible accuracy. He was supposed to find players whose actions couldn’t be projected. He was beginning to think that no such players existed.”
“Now pinch-hitting, Leonard Groppler.”
Doug was putting his tablet into his briefcase when he noticed a message flashing in red on the screen.
“Predictive Analytics Not Statistically Significant.”
Below the message, was a statement that the program was only 8% certain that Groppler would hit a ground ball to second base. Five seconds later, it predicted, with 6% certainty, that Gropper would strike out.
On the field, the opposing team manager was using hand signals to position his players. First, he moved the second baseman a couple of steps to the left but then he moved him back. After calling for the center fielder to back up, he moved the player forward. All the while, he was constantly looking up and down from his phone. He was still trying to get his players in position when the first pitch was thrown.
Groppler took a mighty cut at the ball and barely touched it. The result was a weak roller toward third base. The third baseman, who was busy looking at his coach, got a late break on the ball and by the time he picked it up, Groppler was already safe at first.
Doug sat back down. Had the analytics program gone off-line? A quick check showed that it was already predicting the next batter’s result with 94% certainty. Why hadn’t it been able to foretell Groppler’s grounder?
“Excuse me,” he called to the Erickson parents. “Is that player new to the team? Hasn’t he ever played before?”
The mother shook her head and laughed. “No, Leo’s been playing with the boys since fourth grade.”
“Yeah, it’s weird,” added the dad. “For some reason, the software programs never get him right. Drives the other coaches crazy.”
Lanny Waldorf’s expression was not happy. “No. Absolutely not. Groppler’s a zero-tool player. He has almost no baseball talent. I’ve watched every video available on the guy and I could go down to the local park and find a dozen sixth-graders with more potential than him.”
Maybe the color settings on Doug’s laptop were off, but Waldorf’s face was turning a shade of red that Doug had never seen on a human being before.
Gus Morton, whose face occupied the other half of Doug’s computer screen, was much happier looking.
“Roberts says that the analytics don’t seem to work on Groppler. He might be just what we need.”
“I don’t care,” shouted Waldorf. “I agreed to the cockamamie plan to sign a couple of lesser talented players if they can somehow get around the analytics, but this kid is terrible.”
“Maybe we can coach him up,” suggested Doug. “And remember, when he plays, he’ll still have the advantage of using analytics on his opponents. We can tell him what pitches are coming or position him in the outfield so that his lack of speed isn’t an issue.”
Morton nodded, “That might work.”
Waldorf continued to fume. “As long as I’m the general manager, we are not going to sign some talentless, weak-armed . . .”
Morton interrupted Waldorf’s tirade. “You might be onto something there.”
Suddenly Waldorf’s side of the screen went blank.
“Doug, I want you to sign Groppler to a contract.”
“I’ll meet with him this afternoon,” said Doug. “I want to talk to him and his family and try to figure out what makes him different. Maybe we can find more players who are immune to analytics. There have to be others.”
“Excellent idea.” Morton grinned. “If we can find as many of these players as possible before other teams even start looking, we might gain a huge advantage.”
Mrs. Groppler shook her head, “I don’t know. Well, it’s just that . . .” She looked at her son and shrugged. “. . . he’s not very good.”
“We know his talent level,” said Doug. “We want to sign him.”
“I think he should go to college instead. He’s very smart. The predictive program said he would get 1400 on his SATs.”
“But, Mom,” interrupted Leonard, meekly. “I only got 1150.”
“That’s why you shouldn’t have taken the actual test. Colleges accept the predictive scores.”
“But, Mom . . .”
Doug took a deep breath before directing the conversation back on topic. “Have you noticed that the predictive software doesn’t work on Leonard? You just mentioned how the SAT prediction was way off. There’s something special about him. He possesses some sort of special randomness that most people don’t. I have no idea why and I’m not sure how that will help him in life, but I do know that baseball needs people with his skill. We are willing to pay a lot of money.”
It was Mrs. Groppler’s turn to breathe deeply. “Do you honestly think he’ll be able to play in the majors?”
“I do,” replied Doug. “And even if he doesn’t, he’s still going to get paid to try. We are willing to pay a signing bonus that’s more than enough to cover college tuition.”
“Please, Mother,” pleaded Leonard. “I can always come back and go to college. It would be awesome to play professional baseball.”
Mrs. Groppler looked at her son. “Okay. I’ll give my permission if his father agrees. He should be home from work any minute now.”
“That’s great,” said Doug while he pulled some paperwork out of his briefcase. “By the way, do you know anybody else who has this same unpredictability? It would be helpful to know what makes Leonard special.”
“Well, his sister’s the same way. But, she’s only eleven and there’s no way I’m going to let her go play professional baseball.”
“Oh no. We’d never ask you to have her play. So, this trait runs in your family? How about you or your husband.”
“No. As far as we know, every time we’ve used predicting programs, they’ve been accurate. The medical analytics caught my thyroid cancer before it even showed. We seem to always hit our budget predictions almost exactly.”
Doug shrugged. “Oh well, I thought I’d ask.”
“What about Grandpa?” asked Leonard.
Mrs. Groppler thought for a moment. “Well, my dad won the raffle at the American Legion six out of seven years back when they used to have one. Everybody said he was the luckiest man alive . . . that is until he got struck by lightning, the second time.”
Doug took a couple of quick notes. “Thank you, Mrs. Groppler. That might be very helpful.”
Doug studied the faces of the other scouts, each confined to a small square on his monitor. The meeting had gone better than expected. One or two of them were still very skeptical and Doug couldn’t blame them. The idea was pretty far-fetched.
“And, you’re certain management is okay with this plan?” asked Caesar Alverez, the top scout for Central America.
“Well,” shrugged Doug. “Like I said, the owner’s the one who is pushing for it.”
“I’m still a little confused,” said Tanya Jeffers. “We’re supposed to seek out the families of people who’ve had weird statistical anomalies. I can do that. But, don’t we still need to find people who can play baseball?”
“Yes, you should try and find someone with baseball talent but it’s more important that they have the unpredictability trait that we discussed earlier. That’s one of the reasons we have to move quickly on this. We need to get out ahead of the rest of the league.”
“So, what do we do if they aren’t ball players?”
“Give them a tryout. Run them through some drills. If they show any potential ability, we have to consider them.”
Doug waited for more questions but the faces checkerboarding his computer monitor remained silent. He glanced at the list of names he had found during his late-night internet search.
“Great,” he announced. “So, Tanya you’re going to head to South Carolina and check out the farmer who keeps finding meteorites on his land. I’ll hit Northern California and the lady with all the cases of kidney stones that were never predicted. Caesar, you can check out the guy in Santo Domingo who . . .”
Doug Roberts, the new general manager of the Lake Michigan BrewCubs looked down from just outside the owner’s box. A crowd of nearly thirty-thousand people was watching the local team lose to the Missouri Royal Cardinals by a score of 7-2. The BrewCubs were sitting at the bottom of the standings but they were improving. Most importantly, they were fun to watch. Every at-bat, every fly ball, was an adventure. The public enjoyed the mystery of not knowing what was going to happen. They were starting to appreciate this team of misfits.
The scientist enlisted by the team owner still had no idea how someone could be genetically inclined toward unpredictability. Someday, someone would probably figure it out. But for now, the why didn’t matter. Doug and the other scouts had managed to find nearly two dozen young ballplayers with that trait. Other teams had begun to sign similar players. The use of analytics was slowly fading away from the baseball landscape.
Leonard Groppler came to the plate in the bottom of the sixth inning. The young man had only three hits in twenty games but he was still a fan favorite. The opposition outfielders all moved closer; not because of analytics but because of common sense. They’d seen Groppler bat before. The pitcher, a recent Royal Cardinal signee, who had a seventy-three-mile-per-hour fastball and analytic resistance, wound up and delivered. At the crack of the bat, the crowd rose to their feet and cheered as the ball flew over the centerfielder’s head and bounced to the wall. Groppler raced around first and headed to second for a double. The fans remained standing, giving the young player an ovation.
Doug smiled and thought, “Nobody saw that coming.