Is Bob Nightengale a Fortune-Telling Wizard?

Do his tweets have magical baseball powers?

On Twitter, one of the best and worst places for sports fans, there are many self-proclaimed prognosticators. People love to make predictions about a player’s success (or lack thereof) and take victory laps when their predictions are proven correct. Certain fantasy players bought in early on Cedric Mullins fantasy outlook for 2021 and have really enjoyed a well-deserved victory lapfor example.

Then, some people are known as prognosticators, despite never actually making any real predictions. One of those people is USA Today reporter Bob Nightengale, who has earned a reputation for ‘cursing’ teams or changing their fortunes by drawing national attention to a player/team’s performance. Nightengale’s comments are filled with accounts claiming that once he comments on the state of a certain team or player, the opposite is bound to happen.

And, when Nightengale tweets things like this, it’s hard to discount those claims:

 

 

There were immediate groanings among the Cubs faithful complaining that Nightengale had doomed them to yet another loss even after scoring seven runs in the first inning.

Then, there was this:

 

 

Those Cubs fans may have been onto something.

The epic conclusion:

 

 

To recap — the Cubs scored seven runs in the first inning. Nightengale tweeted about it. Then, Jake Arrieta and the Cubs gave up 14 unanswered runs. And, the Cubs haven’t stopped losing since then, finally ending a very long losing streak with a victory over the Phillies just a few days ago. If you weren’t a believer before, this thread might have done the trick.

Here are some more examples to make you believe in the Nightengale magic:

 

 

While this did appear to be an awful blow for the Brewers’ offense, the team responded by ripping off a 10-game win streak that ended on July 2. The Brewers have a wRC+ of 131 since then (June 25 to July 7), ranking second only to Toronto’s 132. The team is missing Vogelbach, Christian Yelich has an OPS below .600 in July, and yet the Brewers are still raking! Moments like this can really make you a believer in the Nightengale process! This account never lost faith:

 

 

However, Nightengale’s powers can also work in the opposite direction, as Neftalí Feliz would, unfortunately, find out:

 

 

Feliz ended his latest stint in the majors with the following stat line: 1 IP, 4 H, 4 ER, 1 BB, 2 SO. That translates to a 36.00 ERA and an 18.17 FIP. The boring naysayers probably said, “he hadn’t pitched in the majors since 2017, a blowup was probably inevitable.”

 

Wrong! It was Nightengale’s tweet. He is a magician!

 

But, it’s time to get down to brass tacks. Is Bob Nightengale a baseball wizard with a crystal ball? Is he just pointing out streaks and trends that are bound to change because baseball is baseball? Is this really the best topic our author could write an article on? I dove into the data to find out the answers to all those questions and more:

 

Methodology

 

For the sake of time, I combed through the previous two months (May 1 to July 4) worth of Nightengale’s tweets. That gave me plenty of predictions to sort through, although a larger sample size could probably help draw better conclusions about baseball’s ‘prognosticator.’ For the sake of time and sanity, though, I cut off the collection of predictions on May 1. There are still a couple more predictions that were collected that require a little more time to be resolved. For example, Nightengale has tweeted often about the Home Run Derby and the All-Star Game, two events that haven’t happened as of this article’s publishing.

Each tweet was cataloged into a spreadsheet that can be found here. The tweets, as well as their publishing date and results, were also included. You can filter them as you please at that link.

The tweets that I collected were in reference to a trend in baseball, be it a player or a team winning streak, injury news, etc. For example, in the tweet above, you can see that Nightengale references Daniel Vogelbach’s injury in conjunction with its effect on the Brewers’ offense, creating a negative tone for the news. Not all of his tweets are as clear a prediction as the Vogelbach one, so I tried to stick to tweets that were similar in verbiage to the Vogelbach news or make clearer proclamations about a player or team’s success or lack thereof.

 

 

As you can see above, Nightengale tweeted many times about the Arizona Diamondbacks and superstar 1B Vladimir Guerrero Jr.as he should. The Diamondbacks were on an unfortunate, historically bad losing streak and Vladito is absolutely mashing at the plate. We can safely eliminate those results since Vlad cannot be touched and the Diamondbacks are just plain bad. Even wizards can’t change everything, I guess.

 

Results

 

The past two months yielded 27 tweets that could be interpreted as “predictions” or notes of larger trends. Of those 27 tweets, 13 of them produced a change in the fortunes of the player or teams referenced, including the ones mentioned above. The other tweets produced no change in the results or a small enough change that it was basically meaningless. Is a 48% success rate (albeit over two months) large enough to anoint Nightengale a fortune-teller? (This is me, asking “is…is that good?”)

In baseball, a 48% success rate at the plate is unheard of. Nobody has come close to getting hits in 48% of at-bats. Even Nap Lajoie’s single-season record of .426 doesn’t even sniff that level of success. But, if we’re talking an on-base rate of 48% or .480, Nightengale’s success would rank 68th-best in single-season OBP. But, a .480 OBP would dominate the 2021 OBP leaderboards, as Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s .436 still doesn’t come close to .480.

On the mound, producing a positive result on 48% of pitches (known as PLUS) would put Nightengale around 53rd or 54th-best in that category (min. 50 IP), similar to Taijuan Walker, Spencer Turnbulland Cole IrvinNightengale would need to nail approximately 2-3 more predictions out of a 27 prediction sample size to ascend to Jacob DeGrom levels of production. Still, a 48% success rate is nothing to sniff at. The SP version of Nightengale would probably make Nick Pollack’s ‘The List’ without too much trouble.

Winning 48% of games in a given season isn’t even enough to make the playoffs in a 10-team MLB playoff. Last season, teams made the expanded playoffs with a below-.500 record, but it is extremely rare to see that happen across a full, 162-game season.

In sports gambling, a 48% success rate is not even enough to make a profit. Gamblers need to hit on at least 52.4% of their bets, assuming similar amounts of money gambled in each bet, to make a profit. Could a regular human, with no baseball knowledge whatsoever, succeed in baseball prognostication in 48% of their opportunities? Could a coin flip succeed at the same rate, if not better?

So, it really depends on the context you see Nightengale’s success. Is he a superstar, who is lightyears better than Nap Lajoie or other BABIP masters? Or is he a pitcher who can be depended on for 5-6 solid innings? Or does he have no talent at all?

I’m not sure how he compares (prediction-wise) to other national MLB writers like Jeff Passan, Ken Rosenthal, or the bevy of other talented writers. Nightengale is the one most often noted for “changing” a player or team’s fortunes on Twitter, but Rosenthal, Passan, and others could be sneaky-good at predicting the future. We also don’t have a complete record of every tweet, so to make a sweeping proclamation of Nightengale’s success could be dangerous. The world may never know a true measure of his prediction skills!

For now, you can simply choose to believe that he’s a magician. He is not the hero we need, but the hero we deserve for 2021’s wacky season. He’s a silent guardian… a watchful protector…

Or, he’s just a guy who watches a lot of baseball and just happens to be right when it matters most (sometimes!). Your choice.

 

Design by Quincey Dong (@threerundong on Twitter)

Adam Sloate

Die-hard Angels fan since birth; misses the good ol' days of Vladdy, Kendrys, and Weaver. Temple University alumnus, UCLA Law student.

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