How will Tiger do? A Statistical Look at Returns from Scandals Past

By David Roher

Tiger’s thrown away the club for now, but what’s going to happen when he picks it back up?

I awoke from a three-week nap a few hours ago (I wrote all those posts in my sleep) to find that Tiger Woods was embroiled in a bit of a scandal. My first reaction, besides confusion as to why I had 1200 messages, was disappointment that his personal problems have led to this announcement: that the world’s greatest golfer has decided to indefinitely suspend his golf career.

Eventually, the short attention span of the celebrity media will run its course, and Tiger will come back from his self-imposed hiatus. Being a writer on a sports analysis blog, I figure it’d be interesting to add a new angle: can we learn about how Tiger will do from other athletes who have returned from scandal-filled absences? What follows is a case-by-case statistical analysis of a handful of athletes that had high-profile scandals that resulted in time off.

For each athlete or team, I took a proportion-based stat (which makes some sports difficult) before and after the scandal, and examined whether the difference was significant. Obviously, there are many other factors, (aging, the effect the scandal-inducing thing was having before it became public, etc.), so don’t take any of it too seriously.


Player: Manny Ramirez
Scandal: Steroid Use
Hiatus: 50-game suspension, May-June 2009
2009 On-Base Percentage, pre-Suspension: .492 (120 plate appearances)
2009 On-Base Percentage, post-Suspension: .389 (311 PA)
Statistically Significant? Yes. Manny’s decline in OBP after his return was statistically significant (again, this says nothing about whether the decline was related to the scandal).

Player: Babe Ruth
Scandal:“The Bellyache Heard Round the World”
Hiatus: Missed first two months of 1925 season recovering from surgery
1924 On-Base Percentage: .513 (681 PA)
1925 On-Base Percentage: .393 (426 PA)
Statistically significant? Yes. Ruth’s 1925 performance, while still far above the league average, was the worst of his Yankee career. The team struggled as well, losing more games than could have been explained by Ruth’s production alone. The losing season was their first since 1918 and the last until 1965. But both returned to form in 1926.

Player: Ron Artest
Scandal: Pacers-Pistons Fight
Hiatus: Suspended for the remainder of 2004-05 season (73 games)
2003-04 Field Goal Percentage: .421 (1112 attempts)
2005-06 Field Goal Percentage: .404 (867 attempts)
Statistically Significant? No. Artest was a little less accurate, but not significantly so.

Player: Michael Jordan
Scandal: Controversy over his First Retirement. (Not really a scandal per se, but given his parallels to Tiger and that it was in the prime of his career, worth looking at.)
Hiatus: Retired after the 1993 NBA Finals, and returned for the final 17 games of the 1994-95 season
1992-93 Field Goal Percentage: .495 (2003 attempts)
1994-95 Field Goal Percentage: .411 (404 attempts)
Statistically Significant? Yes. But this was probably due to some early rust, as his playoff field goal percentage was back up to .484.

Player: Ricky Williams
Scandal: Repeated Failed Marijuana Tests
Hiatus: Suspended for first 4 games of 2004 season, then retired, and returned in 2005
2003 Success Rate: .39 (392 attempts)
2005 Success Rate: .48 (168 attempts)
Statistically Significant? Yes – Williams improved. The added rest and change in his mindset might have helped Ricky to an improvement upon his return, although a change in the Miami Dolphins offense (Ronnie Brown limited his workload, perhaps keeping him fresh during the season) could be more responsible.

Player: Todd Bertuzzi
Scandal: Assaulting Steve Moore
Hiatus: Suspended for 17 months (including lockout of 04-05)
2003-04 Shooting Percentage: .109 (156 attempts)
2005-06 Shooting Percentage: .125 (200 attempts)
Statistically Significant? No. I couldn’t find a better proportional hockey stat, which may have been part of the problem. But Bertuzzi’s performances were pretty similar overall, and the main contrast is between these seasons and the ones before, in which Bertuzzi was a much more prolific scorer.


So what can we make of this? A short break in the middle of a career isn’t a death sentence to the career of a great athlete. Guys as focused as Tiger usually is are usually capable of coming back in the heat of public scrutiny and private turmoil, and any initial difference is usually just rust. But there aren’t many examples of great athletes missing time and coming back because of scandals that are easily applicable to Tiger’s situation, and even fewer that I could easily do a statistical test on (if readers suggest more in the comments, I’ll add them). And even with more analytical rigor (the test I did was picked for ease and not for power or incorporation of better stats), it would be impossible to find the precise effect of public scrutiny.

And that last part is kind of the point of this exercise. When Tiger does come back, the media is going to assign some causality to the current scandal, even if there is none whatsoever. If he’s bad early, it’ll because he’s distracted.  If he dominates, it’ll be because he’s turned over a new leaf. The pattern is as predictable as it is stupid. My guess is that Tiger will continue to play golf the way that he did before. Maybe he’ll struggle in the first few tournaments, but he’ll round back into form pretty quickly.

I’m just looking forward to the day when golf is boring again.

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