Is there luck in baseball?


Nov 2, 2013; Boston, MA, USA; Duck boats line up inside of Fenway park prior to the World Series parade and celebration for the Boston Red Sox. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

About a month ago I had a conversation with a Tigers fan about the Boston Red Sox 2013 season. Since this took place at a casino his focus was on luck. “If Miguel Cabrera was healthy, we would have won.” In his view, that injury was good luck in Boston and bad luck in Detroit. He was not done. The effort of Koji Uehara was, again, an example of luck for Boston, and, not to be outdone, so was the Nick Punto trade of 2012. All were lucky.

"Luck is the residue of design – Branch Rickey"

Is there a concept of luck in baseball or just an eventual outcome of probabilities?

Luck is usually defined as chance, fate or fortune. Is baseball part of that? For me, a semi-seamhead, it is not. The more baseball metrics become refined, the greater the accuracy of their predicted outcomes. Baseball has a history of refining the math for a more objective view of the game. As players have improved so has the statistical analysis. There is now observational and empirical evidence that could easily support statements such as “He can’t go to his right” or “He’ll choke in the clutch.”

Mar 11, 2014; Lakeland, FL, USA; Detroit Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera (24) singles during the sixth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Joker Marchant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

On March 23rd of 2001 what was the statistical probability of a pitcher tossing a pitch and hitting a bird? None. Zero. At least on the non-quantum level. On March 24th that had changed, thanks to Randy Johnson.

During a season a ball will hit a pebble on the field. That will most certainly happen. I’m sure an equation can be devised to explain the mathematical possibilities. In most instances a pebble ball is just brushed aside as bad luck or good luck and you get credit for a hit or your ERA gets inflated. Good and bad outcomes. Players, teams or fans may assign it to luck, but the probability was there. It would most certainly happen. What is unassigned is when it will happen.

"Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. – Lou Gehrig"

During a spring training game a shot was hit back to the pitcher who deflected the ball with his glove. Without his quick ability a personal disaster was imminent. The announcer said “How lucky he was.“ Was it luck? Pitchers will be hit by a batted ball during the season. Some, thanks to pitch selection, positioning, and fielding ability, will be more prone than others to simply be hit. Others, more gifted with the glove, will avoid disaster. Most balls hit towards the mound will go through legs or above heads, but some will find a body part and a certain number of those will result in a Herb Score situation. Bad “luck” for the individual, but statistically it was going to happen.

I remember a story I heard years ago. A manager went out to rescue his pitcher who had given up several runs. Not a ball had been hit hard. Slow rollers, flare hits, and seeing eye grounders – we have all seen that. “Skip. Why am I being pulled? Everything was just luck.” The manager replies: “I know, Ace, I’m just hoping the next guy is luckier.”

"Luck is the great stabilizer in baseball – Tris Speaker"

That’s what happens in baseball. For every gift hit in the ledger – either individually or collectively – it is balanced by a smoked line drive right at a fielder. A baseball yin-yang.

When a player performs over an extended period of time out of the normal expectations – say league average – then it becomes a statistical fact for that player. The issue is the baseline that one may choose. How long? To me that has always been the 800 pound gorilla in statistical analysis of an individual in baseball.

In 1961, Norm Cash it .361. In the next 13 seasons Cash never got close to .300. The anomaly was clearly that 1961 season. Projecting Cash off that season? Not me.

In that expansion season Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle engaged in a non-PED home run duel. Maris won with a still AL record of 61. Examine Maris’ career and it sings of an anomaly.

I like to give a player several seasons to develop a baseline. Show me three that are consistently productive (or non productive) and I have an idea of what to expect from an individual. As a player goes deeper into their career you have a greater baseline, but you also have other factors that may intrude – especially with age. There is an inherent risk factor as a player gets older. Mike Cameron was an example of that when Boston signed him for two years. His defensive and offensive skills had deteriorated.

"Baseball is an island of activity amidst a sea of statistics. ~Author Unknown"

Recently I wrote an article on Mookie Betts. Betts is trending in a positive manner. Three teams and three leagues, each with improved competition, and Betts “numbers” improve with each step. With player development I look at this as quite positive. There is no significant regression or flat line – yet.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to talk with an agent and brought up the subject of arbitration and metrics. He’d been to arbitration a few times and talked about his last visit. I will paraphrase best I can. “You go into the hearings with your math guy and thirty pages of stats. The GM shows up with his stat team or geek. They also have their thirty pages of stats. I show how my guy hit. Fourth best average in the league. They come back with his below-average RISP. I break down their RISP to debunk their position. They come back and debunk that. I have my points highlighted in red and they have their points also highlighted in red. Punch, counter punch.”

I mentioned to him the famous line by Benjamin Disraeli on the three types of lies: “Lies, damned lies and statistics.” That was a nod and a smile. He closed off the conversation with the following: “We took a break and the GM comes over to me and gives me a number and says he can’t take it anymore. I come back with a bit more and we split that. Hearing over.”

His conclusion was that the reason arbitration is settled before being held is not to avoid contentious confrontations, but to avoid being exposed to hours and even days of competing statistics. I imagine they would both fall asleep reading the fascinating Baseball Prospectus.

I enjoy the refinements taking place in the realm of statistical analysis. There are a number of newly minted doctorates that have baseball as their subject. Math, to me, has always been a simple and enjoyable subject, but some of the higher end math is, I readily admit, quite beyond me. But I can still balance a checkbook.

My first real exposure to metrics was “Percentage Baseball” by Earnshaw Cook. That was fifty years ago. Cook’s work is generally considered the basic beginning of metrics or Sabermetrics. I will not go on with the long list of contributors through the years, nor the mountains of contributions, but I especially enjoy and will give a shout out to Tom Tango and Nate Silver.

Just maybe Boston was lucky in 2013? If so, I am in full favor of “luck” repeating itself.