The probability of catching four foul balls

Greg Van Niel caught four foul balls at Sunday’s Cleveland Indians game.

ESPN reported that this is a one-in-a-trillion event – a number due to Ideal Seat, which I’ll take to mean that this guy had a one-in-a-trillion chance of catching four fouls. This is immediately suspicious to me. Total MLB attendance last year was about 75 million, so a one in a trillion event should happen once every thirteen thousand years. The fact that it happened, given that we’ve had way less than thirteen thousand years of baseball, is evidence that this computation was done incorrectly.

Somewhat surprisingly, given how small the number is, it actually seems to be an overestimate. I’ll assume that their numbers are correct: 30 balls enter the stands in an average game, and there are 30,000 fans at that game. Say I’m one of those fans. Let’s assume that all foul balls are hit independently, and that they’re equally likely to be caught by any person in the stands. The probability that exactly four balls will be hit to me are {30 \choose 4} p^4 (1-p)^(30-4), where p = 1/30000. This is about 3.38 \times 10^{-14}, or one in thirty trillion. (The probably that five or more balls will be hit to me is orders of magnitude lower than that.)

IdealSeat also claims that two fans caught two foul balls in the same game last year. I suspect that there’s some massive underreporting going on here, because the same analysis gives that the probability that I’ll get two balls is {30 \choose 2} p^2 (1-p)^(30-4), which is about one in two million. So this should have happened 35 to 40 times last year – it’s just that most of the people who it happened to didn’t bother telling anybody! (Other than their friends, who probably didn’t believe them.)

What’s wrong with the one in a trillion, or one in thirty trillion, numbers?

  • They assume that all foul balls are uniformly distributed over all the seats. This is patently untrue. Some seats by definition can’t receive a foul ball, because they’re in fair territory. Some seats, although they can theoretically receive a foul ball, just won’t. Ideal Seat has a heatmap of foul ball locations at Safeco Field in Seattle — basically the closer you are to home plate, the better your chances. Your chances of getting a foul ball drop off much faster with height than with horizontal distance. In addition, aisle seats are more likely to be the closest seat to where a ball lands than adjacent non-aisle seats.
  • They assume that all foul ball locations are independent. I don’t know if there’s data on this, but batters have tendencies on where they hit balls in play; they should have tendencies on where they hit foul balls as well.
  • They assume that a person can only get foul balls hit to their seat. This might be true in, say, San Francisco (where most games sell out), but it’s not true in Oakland (where there are plenty of empty seats). Van Niel’s section looks pretty full in the pictures, though. But Van Niel himself admits at least one of the balls wasn’t hit right to him.

All I can say for sure is that these drive the chances up – so the probability of catching four foul balls in a single game is probably a good deal higher than one in a trillion.

2 thoughts on “The probability of catching four foul balls

  1. I think that this probability, should be calculated as the probability that at least two people in a room of n, have the same birthday. The probability that the same person captures more than two balls in a given game (yes, the probability that this happens in one game) should be calculated using 30000 instead of 365 and n = 30. However, I don’t know how to proceed with more than four balls.

    What do you think?

    Hope I am not terrible wrong

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