Stealing Second

John Goodell

LATE OCTOBER and early November mean two things to me. First, I spend a lot of money on trenta-sized pumpkin-spice cold brew at Starbucks. Somewhere, Suze Orman is no doubt cringing in horror. But that’s not what this post is about.

Second, late October usually means I’ve moved on to other pursuits—because the sports teams I follow either have a terrible record or have been eliminated from tournament play already.

Except this year. The Atlanta Braves are still alive and competing in the World Series. Which is, in a word, amazing.

I haven’t tuned in to watch much baseball over the past several years. I was reserving my mental bandwidth for things that brought me happiness. Or, at the very least, weren’t depressing. But now that baseball has once again captured my attention, I was surprised to hear an announcer explain why players don’t steal bases as often as they once did.

Apparently, defensive players have become so skilled against the steal that basic math now defines the outcome. Quick pitchers will have a consistent time of just 1.1 to 1.29 seconds to home plate. The average catcher can throw to second base in just two seconds. Add these together, and it means a base stealer has only 3.1 to 3.29 seconds to reach second safely. Not much time.

Because of the recordkeeping now common in baseball, managers know right away whether their baserunner is fast enough to steal second successfully. Once a player reaches first base, it’s a foregone conclusion whether he’ll steal second.

The parallels with saving for retirement are striking. The statistics on retirement are also formidable. It’s easy to predict how much the average investor needs to save—and when she can retire successfully—using Monte Carlo simulations.

But unlike today’s base stealing, the odds of success are harder to figure out, thanks to the average investor’s saving and investing (mis)behavior. Some investors play the equivalent of mistake-free modern baseball. But most are still mired in the game of chance that I grew up watching a few decades ago.

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