Improbably, Chase Utley of the Philadelphia Phillies rescued his 33-game hitting streak the other night in the eighth inning with a weak bouncer to the pitcher. It was slow-played and then inaccurately thrown toward first and eventually ruled a hit. It's a play that is probably made about 95 out of 100 times (if not more), but in any long streak -- good or bad -- there's going to be a lot of luck.
Could you have seen a streak like Utley's coming? Highly unlikely. Thirty-three-game hitting streaks are extraordinarily improbable, even for a very good hitter like Utley. The odds of his even getting to a streak of this length, taking into account his current batting average are approximately 1 in 2,000, as calculated by the numbers experts at Baseball Prospectus.
And if you were just looking at what Utley was doing right before the streak started, you would have calculated the odds as being far, far worse than that -- because what Utley was doing right before his magnificent streak was, in a word, awful.
Bad before good
In the game before Chase Utley started his hitting streak, obviously, he did not have a hit. He was hitless in four of the seven games before that the streak started. In fact, right before he started his streak, Utley was in the worst slump of his season. He had gone hitless in eight of his previous 14 games, hitting only .140, and lowering his season average from .326 to .290. His performance was not good. You can look it up.
Utley looked bad right then -- like somebody you might want out of your lineup even -- but only if you were looking at and judging an extremely short period of time. Given the longer arc of his career, he has proved himself to be a very good hitter.
When it comes to streaks in investing, the best-known and currently highest-profile "streak" is Bill Miller's record of beating the market with his Legg Mason Value Trust
Of course, that streak is under extreme pressure this year -- the fund trails the market by 12 percentage points year to date, as big holdings in Amazon.com
The value of timelines
But again, that's looking at the results purely as measured only from one very specific point in time. As measured by the time period Jan. 1, 2006, to today, they've gone badly. Yet holdings such as Amazon and eBay have been spectacular winners for the fund measured over the entire period that the fund has been holding them.
Miller, after all, has not only delivered a fund that has beaten the S&P 500 for 15 straight years, but, far more important, over long periods of time investors' returns in the fund have dwarfed the returns of the S&P 500. According to Morningstar, Legg Mason Value Trust, even with this year's very poor showing, has still delivered returns of 13.06% vs. the S&P 500's 8.88% over the past 10 years.
Miller's streak and the threat to it are what typically get all of the attention. And that's fine, as long as some additional attention goes to the fund's longer-term, more meaningful results.
On other odds, streaks, and odd streaks
Turning locally, David Gardner has been defying the odds as well, though in a way that is decidedly less likely to be put on the first page of his resume. He's picked 12 straight stocks for the Motley Fool Rule Breakers investing service that have ... underperformed the market.
What are the odds of that?
Pretty darn long
Well, if you assume that half of all stocks picked at any moment will underperform the market's returns going forward and half will outperform it, the odds are 1 in 4,096. (I don't know that stock returns are actually distributed in that way, but give me that the odds of pulling it off randomly are longer than 1 in 1,000.)
So, it's either proof that David is the world's worst investor, or a very well-disguised opportunity.
But again, put it in perspective
David's streak does no more than show results from the precise moment at which the streak started, and ignores all of the longer-term results. The Rule Breakers strategy, to swing for the fences, pick up a number of misses, but also hit some spectacular home runs, is likely to be recommending a number of stocks that are of a type that move in the same direction at the same time -- and to a larger degree than the market as a whole is moving.
So, having a number of picks simultaneously underperform the market isn't so much a product of bad luck (though there's some of that) as it is having a number of stocks with similar characteristics being in or out of favor at the same time. For example, while recent biotech selections PDL BioPharma
David Gardner's longer-term record (beating the market 38% to 18% over the four-and-a-half-year life of his Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations) shows that the most recent results should be seen as a short-term aberration rather than a small representative slice of a bigger pie. Not that four years is enough to judge someone's investing record, but David's even longer-term record is much more representative and equally impressive.
All told, you can take a look at what he's doing with Rule Breakers by taking a free 30-day trial. You'll see a lot of red at the top of the scorecard. Maybe you'll find it good for a chuckle, if you're into schadenfreude, or maybe you'll find some promising growth stocks trading for low, low prices. Click here to decide for yourself.
Bill Barker does not own shares of any company mentioned in this article. Amazon.com, eBay, and UnitedHealth are Stock Advisor recommendations. UnitedHealth is also an Inside Value recommendation. The Fool's disclosure policy is known to go streaking through the quad and into the gymnasium. Bring your green hat.