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It's OK to get things wrong

posted May 1, 2016, 12:27 PM by Robert Vollman
"You're wrong!"

When it comes to sports predictions, that's a phrase that people are really scared to hear. But why? Is it really so bad to be wrong?

Nobody is perfect. Nobody is going to be right all the time, and nobody can (reasonably) expect someone else to be. Plus, it's not like predictions are ever meant as a personal attack on the player or team involved, or that the pundit is somehow personally responsible for any aspect of a player's successes or failures.

More importantly, there's a lot to learn from being wrong. Assuming you were open and transparent about the reasoning behind your sports predictions (with yourself, at a minimum), being wrong gives you new information to learn something new, and to arrive at new insights.

Don't be afraid of being wrong, because you will be wrong.

And don't be afraid of jerks, because there will be jerks, but that's nothing to be afraid of. They go after you regardless of whether you're right or wrong, and usually just because you have the audacity to even exist.

If there's anything to be afraid of, then it's what you'll fail to learn because you were too scared to share your ideas.

Just look at me. I've been wrong many times, and have received some pretty harsh criticism over the years, but nothing happened to me. I didn't vanish in a puff of smoke.

As an example, consider my most high-profile error ever, which was in my very first self-published book, Hockey Abstract. In it, I predicted that the Ottawa Senators would win the President's Trophy in 2013-14 (Note: They didn't). 

I didn't just get some small detail wrong here. I wrote a book, slapped my name on the cover like I was the next Bill James or something, and then made a bold prediction about how a team that squeaked into the playoffs was going to be the best team in the league. I even repeated the prediction on countless radio spots throughout that pre-season. It was a pretty big error -- much bigger than the little mistakes that most people are afraid of making.

And what happened to me? Nothing. I wrote another book the next year, and it sold even better than ever. In fact, people loved the short section in Hockey Abstract 2014 where I went back to that original prediction, figured out where it went wrong, and how to improve on it in the future. 

There are reasons everyone went easy on me. I was very open and transparent about how I reached that prediction, I was candid and modest about the limitations of my approach, and it was also a mistake that many other people made. 

But do you want to know the real reason people went easy on me? Because I was actually and clearly and completely wrong.

That's the big secret! When you're actually wrong beyond any doubt, people go easy on you. But, when there's an element of doubt, that's when people really explode.

The classic example is Bryan Reynolds, who had a full-on meltdown about the prediction we made for the Minnesota Wild in Hockey Prospectus 2013-14. In it, we concluded that "Minnesota is a bubble team, and a healthy Josh Harding might just be what ultimately makes the difference." In my view, that's a prediction that was as accurate as it was bold.

At the time, Harding was a backup with a .915 career save percentage, and coming off a season with an .863 save percentage in five games. To describe the Wild as nothing more than a bubble team, and one whose fate hinged on a secondary player like Harding, was bold. And what happened? Harding led the NHL with a .933 save percentage and a 1.65 goals-against average, the Wild grabbed a wild card spot, and struggled to get by the awful Avalanche in the first round. You would think that a fan would be scrambling to find a book with that kind of rare insight, but nope. Meltdown.

In fairness, reasonable people could quibble on just how accurate that entire prediction was, or the entire book, but it was certainly not one whose wrongness would reach any kind of consensus. And yet, that's the prediction that caused the greatest stir at Hockey Prospectus over its eight seasons.

As another example, last season I predicted the Chicago over Tampa Bay Stanley Cup on a weekly radio segment I have in Calgary right before the playoffs began, but one listener can't take me seriously because I mispronounced a player's name. (Incidentally, this was in a thread where they took exception to Karri Ramo and Lance Bouma being included in last summer's list of the worst contracts).

I do make mistakes, all the time, but I never get any heat for them! Even just this season, I made some really beauties, including:
And yet, the most heat I received was for an article in which I argued that the Flyers will be a surprisingly tough and even match for the Capitals in round one. That series went six games, the last three of which were decided by one goal (not counting empty-netters), and Washington's even-strength goal differential was +1. The accuracy of a prediction is always up for debate, but there's a reason why this one got more heat than the others: it wasn't actually wrong.

People are loudest about your mistakes when it's tenuously arguable that you even made one. Critics will invest a lot of effort arguing about the accuracy of reasonably solid predictions, and save their energy when it's clear and obvious.

So, let that be the final reason not to be afraid of being wrong: the harshest criticism always is usually reserved for those who largely got it right.

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