Last week my home town of Austin, Texas was encased in a quarter inch of ice for a couple of days. The TV stations covered "Ice Alert 2007," or "The Big Freeze: Ice Alert" like a telethon. There was wall-to-wall coverage on all channels. Everyone stayed off the roads. The airport ran out of de-icer, stranding countless airline passengers. I kept expecting Jerry Lewis to pop up and plead for more sand for the overpasses.
The city as a whole was actually extremely well prepared this time around. We had a similar event several years ago, and everyone remembered what a headache that was. You can't outsmart the ice. You just have to wait it out.
The main reason Austin handled it so well was that the weather forecasters saw it coming from days in advance. We're in an El Nino cycle this year...which means the Pacific Ocean is going to keep running a freight train of moisture over the state for a couple of months. Link that up with a severe arctic blast, and your city turns into a hockey rink. Thanks to meteorologists, who are basically weather's version of handicappers, everyone stocked up, hunkered down, and probably set about creating a massive Autumn birth rate.
Anyone trying to handicap the event using weather "averages" that required a big "sample size" to be meaningful would have missed the ice storm. You can't log results from the past 360 days, or even the past 1,500 days and get "ice storm" as a best expectation for Austin, Texas. Yet, there was 100% certainty in weather circles that this was going to happen. And it did, just as scripted.
You could make the same case with hurricane Katrina last year. Logging daily weather stats in New Orleans wouldn't have created a recognition that the monster storm of all time (so far) was going to hit.
Meteorologists focus on conditions in the atmosphere to outline and understand the basics of what's going on, then use the data within various categories to make a best estimate of what's going to happen. They're not always right. We all know that. They are right most of the time. And, they've gotten much better as technology has advanced at anticipating and warning people when danger is in the air. They can't tell you where a tornado is going to hit yet. They can tell you when conditions are favorable for the appearance of tornadoes.
If you want to make the most of your handicapping, you should consider looking for what kinds of conditions are favorable for certain results. And, you should be on the lookout for "course changes" which signal that recent results are about to change dramatically. In Austin, El Nino means we're going to have a course change for wet weather. It doesn't matter that the previous months have been dry. It doesn't matter that the previous years have been dry. Course change...keep your umbrella handy.
What does this mean in sports? Here are a couple of quick examples...
*It doesn't matter that UCONN's college basketball team posted some impressive results while playing 11 straight home games against non-conference opposition if you're trying to project what's going to happen once conference play begins.
The stats will impress you. The trends will impress you (5-1 ATS in six board games). How could anybody NOT be impressed by a string of blowouts from a big name program? Here's what happened when the schedule toughened.
UCONN'S LAST SEVEN GAMES
LOST 81-71 at West Virginia as a 1-point favorite
WON 69-50 vs. South Florida as a 17-point favorite (which is basically the same as playing a home cupcake game)
LOST 66-49 at LSU as a 4-point underdog
LOST 73-69 vs. Marquette as a 9-point favorite
WON 68-59 at St. John's as a 6-point favorite
LOST 63-54 at Pittsburgh as a 7-point underdog
LOST 77-73 to Indiana as a 4-point favorite
In its first 11 games, UCONN was 11-0 straight up, and 5-1 ATS (they played five non-board games).
Since the schedule toughened up (course change), UCONN is 2-5 ATS. Four of the five pointspread losses missed Las Vegas expectations by double digits. If you discount South Florida because they're a creampuff opponent this year (blown out by Notre Dame again Sunday), you could arrange the data so that UCONN is 6-1 ATS as double digit favorites, but 1-5 ATS in games with single digit spreads. Or, they are much more talented than patsies, but very overrated against teams who know what they're doing.
Heading into Connecticut's road game Monday Night at Louisville, this very young team is reeling and losing confidence. That doesn't mean we're going to see a two-month disaster. Handicappers should anticipate struggles until they see some good results that may represent a course change back to success buoyed by an increase in the youngsters' confidence. That could start in Louisville. It might be a few weeks away.
Handicappers who were looking only at stats and pointspread trends might have been prone to stubbornly back UCONN during this slump because the numbers had been so good. "Hey, that loss to West Virginia was just one game! That's not a big enough sample size." Three non-covers in four games? "I'm going to judge a team on 15 games not four."
Course changes are real. Sample sizes hide them.
*Jeremy Bonderman of the Detroit Tigers was having a great year in the strikeout category. Handicappers charting his numbers as they studied K-prop possibilities would have seen this over his first 17 starts:
Fully 12 of the 17 outings had six strikeouts or better, and 15 of the 17 had five or better. Here's what happened the rest of the way:
Can you say "tired arm?" The 8's, and 9's, and 12's disappeared. Four's became common. For the first time all year, we saw numbers less than four.
FIRST 17 STARTS: 5 or more 15 of 17 times
LAST 9 STARTS: 5 or more 2 of 9 times
You can literally see the arm wearing down by running your finger across the numbers. There's only one four in the first 14 starts. There are two four's in the next four starts. In his final six starts, four is the PEAK!
Two fours in four starts is a red flag. The number two is a red flag hitting people on the head! Handicappers worrying about sample size would have kept backing Bonderman to go Over his proposition numbers because the percentages "said" that's what they were supposed to do. But, the course had changed. His arm had worn out and he was trying to gut his way through the playoffs and World Series. Under his K prop was the right play after the course change.
Those are two examples...but you could find many in all sports. The world changes, sometimes on a dime. Handicappers who can learn to recognize those changes will be a few steps ahead of the Vegas oddsmakers. Those who don't even try will often find themselves chasing an edge that doesn't even exist any more. Their results will be at the mercy of the fates. Kind of like driving on ice...