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Luck isn’t magic. Luck isn’t the opposite of skill.

May 27, 2013, 8:49 AM EDT

Past a diving shortstop

When I talk about sabermetrics or sabermetric thinking with people, the biggest stumbling block/conversation ender is when the subject of luck comes up.  So many of the observations and insights of Bill James and those who follow in his footsteps depend on luck — or chance, or whatever you want to call it — in order to get from A to B. Or to explain why some bit of old thinking isn’t sound.

Things like hot streaks, clutch hitting and any number of other old school baseball tropes are really about people trying to see patterns and force narratives onto things which rigorous statistical analysis easily tells us is really randomness. Not pure randomness — the outcomes of more highly skilled players are, over time, always going to be better than lesser-skilled ones because they are weighted to favor better results — but in any given moment a player may get a hit or not, retire a batter or not, and it’s more easily chalked up to chance in that particular moment, statistically speaking, than it is to most other phenomenon.

Noting that, however, really pisses people off. “How dare you say, Mr. Stat Geek, that MY HERO is merely lucky?” the fan in the home team’s replica jersey says. “How DARE you say that Shlabotnik, the young man I manage, is not superior in every moment?” says his manager. “Where do you get off,” says the local newspaper columnist, “saying that the player in whom I have recognized The Will to Win does not in fact have superior intangibles?”

But saying that someone is lucky is not an insult. The only reason it has come to be thought of as an insult is because people, in sports anyway, have come to think of luck as magic or voodoo. As something that is the opposite as skill when, in fact, it is a common trait of the highly skilled. An often necessary component to skill, in fact. Branch Rickey probably gave it the best voice when he said that “luck is the residue of design.” You can’t necessarily make your own luck directly, but you can certainly create circumstances in which good fortune many be more likely to smile upon you.

I just read something which gave me perhaps the best explanation of that. It’s a post by David McRaney on his blog You are not so Smart, which is dedicated to studying self-delusion. This lengthy post is about survivorship bias, which is is a logical error in which people focus on successful outcomes and miss the unsuccessful outcomes and thus draw erroneous conclusions about why those who have succeeded did so. McRaney’s great example here involves generals trying to figure out how to make bombers safer during World War II: They’d see the planes that came back from bombing missions, note where all the bullet holes were and then want to add armor to those places. They didn’t realize, however, that the very reason those planes made it back was because planes were already capable of surviving shots to those places. The planes which didn’t make it back took shots to other places.  The generals focused on the survivors instead of those planes which didn’t survive.

The larger lesson here is that it’s not a great idea to study the successful in a given pursuit when trying to draw conclusions about how to be successful in that pursuit because it leaves out the masses more who were unsuccessful, and their lessons probably tell you way more about the ins and outs, the dangers and perils of the pursuit than the happy story of the successful ever can. Why? Because — and this is the part that pisses everyone off — the successful may be skilled in 100 different ways and they may be wonderful in 100 other ways, but the common denominator is quite often … luck.

But if that does piss you off, take some comfort in this passage by McRaney, which recounts a psychological study by one Richard Wiseman, which suggests that luck is not purely random:

Over the course of 10 years, Wiseman followed the lives of 400 subjects of all ages and professions. He found them after he placed ads in newspapers asking for people who thought of themselves as very lucky or very unlucky. He had them keep diaries and perform tests in addition to checking in on their lives with interviews and observations. In one study, he asked subjects to look through a newspaper and count the number of photographs inside. The people who labeled themselves as generally unlucky took about two minutes to complete the task. The people who considered themselves as generally lucky took an average of a few seconds. Wiseman had placed a block of text printed in giant, bold letters on the second page of the newspaper that read, “Stop counting. There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.” Deeper inside, he placed a second block of text just as big that read, “Stop counting, tell the experimenter you have seen this and win $250.” The people who believed they were unlucky usually missed both.

Wiseman speculated that what we call luck is actually a pattern of behaviors that coincide with a style of understanding and interacting with the events and people you encounter throughout life. Unlucky people are narrowly focused, he observed. They crave security and tend to be more anxious, and instead of wading into the sea of random chance open to what may come, they remain fixated on controlling the situation, on seeking a specific goal. As a result, they miss out on the thousands of opportunities that may float by. Lucky people tend to constantly change routines and seek out new experiences. Wiseman saw that the people who considered themselves lucky, and who then did actually demonstrate luck was on their side over the course of a decade, tended to place themselves into situations where anything could happen more often and thus exposed themselves to more random chance than did unlucky people. The lucky try more things, and fail more often, but when they fail they shrug it off and try something else. Occasionally, things work out.

Might that not apply to baseball too? Remember that Gif of Miguel Cabrera hitting all of those homers on Friday? All six pitchers were out of the zone in different places. He was ready for any pitch in that situation and willing to swing at any pitch. Miguel Cabrera is an extraordinarily skilled hitter, but maybe it’s not just skill that helped him there. Maybe his willingness to try to put serious muscle on a ball not in his sweet spot helped him there too. There’s a player on the Tigers named Avisail Garcia that many call “mini Miguel” due to their physical resemblance, country of origin and stuff like that. He can’t do that stuff yet. But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt because he’s young.  How about Jose Canseco and his twin brother Ozzie? Ozzie couldn’t even make a big league team for more than a minute despite being identical to Jose in every physical (and likely chemical) way. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that, just maybe, Jose is wired a bit differently.

The point here is that luck may very well be about putting oneself in positions to get lucky. To be willing to swing at pitches outside the zone despite being taught and conditioned to avoid them. Or maybe to think unconventionally about what a pitcher may do next. Or to have a crazy-scattered thought process at all times which helps tune out negativity or anything else that may prevent a hitter from making contact. Or, quite the opposite, maybe a near-sociopathic ability to tune out any human distraction on the planet which doesn’t involve that pitch heading a hitter’s way. It could be anything, really, but it could very well have something to do with approaching any given situation in a baseball game the way the self-described lucky people approached that newspaper photo thing in Wiseman’s experiment. Be unconventional. Be willing to break patterns at a moment’s notice. Open oneself up to more possibilities.

This is the sort of thing I think of when I think of luck. Sometimes, yes, it’s the ball just bouncing the right way. Sometimes it may even be what many would call the hand of God intervening. But most of the time it’s the mere manifestation of something not quite replicable or observable happening. Nothing more, nothing less. That’s not magic. That doesn’t take away from anyone’s merits or skill. And indeed, it may very well be the product, however inadvertent, of players just being wired differently. Being willing to swing at the ball low and away or to throw a 3-0 breaking ball, even when all sense says they shouldn’t. Do that over a sufficient number of at bats and stuff could happen.

I don’t know what luck really is. I don’t think anyone truly knows with any specificity. But it’s not voodoo. To say someone is lucky is not an insult. Nor is it something to be dismissed simply because it cannot be measured or predicted.

  1. kranepool - May 27, 2013 at 8:58 AM

    Wow Grantland has a nice new design

    • pjmarn6 - May 27, 2013 at 8:05 PM

      As usual Craig Calcaterra takes a thousand words to say nothing. He mixes up luck with success. An immigrant friend of mine is “LUCKY” because he works 12 hours a day and has seven dry cleaning stores. Another friend had an idea and got his cousin to invest and today has three shopping centers. Luck? Hardly! 90%+ businesses fail in their first five years. Unlucky? No, they didn’t learn. Craig Calcaterra mixes up ability with luck. You need some ability or personal trait to be, as he calls it, “LUCKY”. Some are born into “LUCK”, a good family, a wealthy family, a family locked into education. Then there are the stubborn sons of bitches, (me for one) who doesn’t take no for an answer and knows his abilities and limitations. No luck there. Just understanding, stubbornness and hard 12 hour days. Lucky!, people say! HA! Ball players have ability first and foremost. The rest is personality traits. It all depends on nature’s bell shaped curve and the law of averages. (Excluding of course the use of performance enhancing drugs.) Luck is the temporary skewing of averages and a temporary misdirection of the bell shaped curve. If you toss an average coin in the air, the odds are 50/50 it will land heads or tails. If it lands 10 times heads, the eleventh time, the odds are still 50/50.
      All the luck in the world is not going to make a 5’2″ man a forward on a basketball team. A klutz is never going to be a baseball player and a 150 lb man is not going to be a tackle on a football team. Again Craig Calcaterra took a thousand words to say nothing.

  2. thekcubrats - May 27, 2013 at 9:04 AM

    Great article, hope everyone reads and considers it well. Only, you need a better example than the Cansecos. The twins decided early on one would concentrate on pitching the other on slugging. They had the talent for both, but perhaps didn’t want to compete or perhaps wanted to own both sides of the ball. Ozzie didn’t fare well as a pitcher, and eventually gave it up to try slugging like Jose, who was having great success. Ozzie lost years of youthful repetition that Jose put in the bank. That explains a whole lot more about their relative success than anything one might label luck. Although I must admit, it was a gas seeing them both mash for the Newark Bears, after both of their careers were essentially over. Ozzie actually out-mashed Jose there. All that being said, nicely provocative article, hope it changes some near-calcified minds.

    • Old Gator - May 27, 2013 at 10:57 AM

      Especially the closed minds of folks who have been hit by lightning, meteorites or birdshit because they were control freaks.

  3. kungpow12 - May 27, 2013 at 9:22 AM

    Craig, great post and good treatment of the difference between luck and skill. If you’re interested, there’s a very good book out called “The Success Equation” by Michael Mauboussin that talks about the difference between skill and luck in sports and how that relates to the same concepts in business and investing. It’s an investing book, but the author uses football, basketball, baseball and other activities to create a “skill-luck continuum) with things like roulette at the “pure luck” end and chess at the “pure skill” end. Baseball is more skill than luck, he says, but still substantially more dependent on chance than basketball.

    One of the book’s most interesting insights is that there’s a skill-paradox in some sports like baseball or basketball or long distance running. The more an activity relies on skill to reach a base level of proficiency (i.e. major league ballplayers are the <1% of the best players in the world), the more IMPACT luck will have on outcomes. So, two hitters with equally great skills may hit 50 points apart because of chance occurrences like injuries or bad bounces or one playing in more hitters' parks, etc.

    Worth checking out if you're interested, as it basically takes McRaney's post and puts regression analysis and some mathematics behind it and applies it to business and investing. Spoiler: investing is almost as luck-dependent as roulette or slot machines.

  4. freddieoh - May 27, 2013 at 9:26 AM

    I wanna know what luck is.
    I want you to show me.

    • indaburg - May 27, 2013 at 9:30 AM

      Ohrwurms are evil.

      • Old Gator - May 27, 2013 at 10:51 AM

        Is “Sweet Caroline” still an ohrwurm away from Fenway Park? I think Khan would have put it in people’s ears if he had ever been subjected to it himself.

    • aceshigh11 - May 27, 2013 at 10:51 AM

      You just received the Foreigner Belt of Power.

  5. indaburg - May 27, 2013 at 9:27 AM

    Self perceived lucky people are more confident. Confident people tend to succeed more and place themselves in situations where they are likely to succeed, which then appears like luck. The luck reinforces the confidence. Repeat.

    Good post, Craig.

  6. recoveringcubsfan - May 27, 2013 at 10:11 AM

    “Phenomena,” my good sir. Good post.

  7. themuddychicken - May 27, 2013 at 10:16 AM

    At first I thought this post was going to be about baseball.

    Then I realized it was about life.

    • Old Gator - May 27, 2013 at 10:53 AM

      I used to think that baseball was about baseball, and then, thanks to my grandfather, I realized it was about life.

      • indaburg - May 27, 2013 at 1:33 PM

        No truer words have been spoken on this blog.

      • abaird2012 - May 27, 2013 at 2:06 PM

        Ah, yes — “baseball as a meaphor for life.”

      • abaird2012 - May 27, 2013 at 2:07 PM

        Sorry, “metaphor” — but you knew that.

  8. dapperdan50 - May 27, 2013 at 10:23 AM

    “Unlucky people are narrowly focused, he observed. They crave security and tend to be more anxious, and instead of wading into the sea of random chance open to what may come, they remain fixated on controlling the situation, on seeking a specific goal. As a result, they miss out on the thousands of opportunities that may float by. Lucky people tend to constantly change routines and seek out new experiences.”

    “Lucky people” is pretty close in this definition to “ADHD people.” Also see the work of Thom Hartmann’s writng about hunters (ADHD folk) in a farmer’s (non-ADHD folk) world. The hunters are seen as distractible and disorganized, but they are constantly scanning the entire landscape looking for unexpected things—like the text notes that the experimenter buried in the newspaper.

    • Old Gator - May 27, 2013 at 10:55 AM

      I am only capable of bestowing one thumbs up out of a random ten or fifteen upon you for mentioning Thom Hartmann. The question is, of course, which of the fifteen thumbs up I wanted to give you I actually gave you.

  9. Ben - May 27, 2013 at 10:45 AM

    On a more serious note, has anyone been able to determine if choosing the quickest checkout line at the grocery is a skill or luck? There’s a certain skill to it–observing that often the factor that slows you down isn’t item quantity, but the number of payments queued up. On the other hand, you may have chosen the perfect line, and then there’s that old lady writing a check, and your perfectly selected line is blown to hell. On the other hand, is that rotten luck, or does it mean always avoid old people in checkout lines?
    It’s a mystery.

    • indaburg - May 27, 2013 at 1:42 PM

      Look at the check out person. Is she or he chatting or focused? Young, old? The best is somewhere in between. Young people can be lazy, old people stricken by the ravages of time. Look at the line. Ageism, sorry, but older people can get confused by the debit machine and tend to pay with checks. Look for people dressed up or look like they’re going somewhere. People with a focus. Moms or dads with kids are likely to get distracted, stay away. Your best bet is just shop early in the morming, late at night, or during football season, Sunday afternoon. It’s not mystery nor luck; it is skill. My .OPS is off the charts crazy good.

  10. aceshigh11 - May 27, 2013 at 10:49 AM

    Cool article…lots of think about and chew over.

    Kudos, Craig.

  11. stmccull - May 27, 2013 at 11:29 AM

    The problem with “luck” in sabermetrics is that people don’t use it that people don’t use it the way you’re talking about here. They use it to mean “thing which was a fluke and is unlikely to happen again (like the Oriole’s record in 1 run games last year). And I think it’s over-used that way. When a sabermetric person says “that was because of luck”, what they really mean (or should mean) is “that was because of some reason we can’t figure out yet”. I feel like a lot of (the less good) stats people think that the formulas and stuff we have currently explain everything, and use that as a bit of a crutch..

    • billybawl - May 27, 2013 at 12:34 PM

      I think sometimes sabermetricians actually sell statistics short. In building the strongest case they can for the predictive ability of stats, they come close to concluding that if the existing stats can’t prove it, it must be false (e.g., there is no “zone” that players occupy during hot streaks). You can’t rule out that there are other variables nobody has yet figured out how to quantify — e.g., maybe running a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation before every game would produce new correlations and more powerful stats. The point is if we had more information, perhaps stats would show that luck really isn’t always what we’d consider luck.

      • markbul - May 27, 2013 at 3:34 PM

        Statistics shows that there is no difference between what you perceive as a ‘zone’ and random chance. Call it ‘being in the zone’ if you like. No psychiatric evaluations can change the fact that we EXPECT there to be runs of success – they are not aberrations. A computer picking numbers at random will produce the same result.

  12. chip56 - May 27, 2013 at 1:17 PM

    Very well written article. I’m more in the Buck Showalter camp on stats. Showalter said that he uses statistics to verify what his instincts are telling him about his players rather than using them as the basis of his opinions.

    My problem with the argument framed here, and in other places, is that it minimizes things that can’t be statistically quantified as irrelevant data that you can’t base a decision off of. I don’t agree. Ten years ago statistics would tell you that Alex Rodriguez was a vastly superior baseball player to Derek Jeter. But anyone who watched a Yankee playoff game would tell you that in a big spot Derek Jeter was far more likely to come through than Alex Rodriguez. You can’t quantify that, nor do I think you can chalk Jeter’s playoff success and Rodriguez’s lack of success purely on luck or randomness.

    Anyway, I just wish the “intelligentsia” could come up with a better argument to explain the parts of baseball that can’t be statistically quantified than, “it’s irrelevant.”

    • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - May 28, 2013 at 8:43 AM

      But anyone who watched a Yankee playoff game would tell you that in a big spot Derek Jeter was far more likely to come through than Alex Rodriguez. You can’t quantify that, nor do I think you can chalk Jeter’s playoff success and Rodriguez’s lack of success purely on luck or randomness.

      Want to know something funny? You are completely wrong about this. Not only has Arod hit better in the post season than Jeter has (127 wRC+ to 122), he also has hit better in the clutch (defined by WPA, comparing high leverage situations to low leverage, +0.70 for Arod vs -1.38 for Jeter). Know how I know this, by not using confirmation bias and actually looking at the numbers.

      http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/a-friendly-reminder-about-a-rod-and-october/

    • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - May 28, 2013 at 8:46 AM

      Anyway, I just wish the “intelligentsia” could come up with a better argument to explain the parts of baseball that can’t be statistically quantified than, “it’s irrelevant.”

      Also wanted to comment on this. Let’s not take every person with a blog and put them in the same situation as Keith Law or the guys from Baseball Prospectus/Fangraphs. There’s a huge difference in being unable to quantify something and it being irrelevant. Setting up strawman(s) is no way to start a discussion.

      • chip56 - May 28, 2013 at 1:45 PM

        There’s another one – whenever an argument is made about statistics run amok the reply is “that’s a strawman argument” and dismissed. Seriously, have an intelligent conversation or get off the stage.

  13. decimusprime - May 27, 2013 at 1:24 PM

    Except when you subject the players to pre-game psychology tests you change the landscape in the players head, which would then change how they approach what they’re doing because the test is in the forefront of their mind before the action you’re wanting data on takes place.

  14. Shayna - May 27, 2013 at 2:16 PM

    You wrote:
    “Things like hot streaks, clutch hitting and any number of other old school baseball tropes are really about people trying to see patterns and force narratives onto things which rigorous statistical analysis easily tells us is really randomness. Not pure randomness — the outcomes of more highly skilled players are, over time, always going to be better than lesser-skilled ones because they are weighted to favor better results — but in any given moment a player may get a hit or not, retire a batter or not, and it’s more easily chalked up to chance in that particular moment, statistically speaking, than it is to most other phenomenon.”

    But what we categorize as random is sometimes an association we simply don’t recognize yet. Imagine that I take a time machine back to a maternity ward in the 1880s and walk along the rows, pointing to the labouring women and saying which one will get a fatal infection after delivery. At the time, my ability to pick out the doomed from the safe would be seen as miraculous whereas all I needed to do was to notice which doctors washed their hands as they went from one patient to the next, and which didn’t.

    There is certainly a pure mathematical idea of randomness but I am always skeptical of our ability to analyze a particular human activity — say, hitting a baseball — so thoroughly that we can say there is no pattern there. We may only mean that we haven’t discovered one yet.

    • markbul - May 27, 2013 at 3:39 PM

      What’s up with the need to believe that there’s something mysterious happening, when you have a perfectly rational explanation staring you in the face? Our universe could be some alien kid’s science fair project, but the possibility is not particularly useful to us.

  15. anxovies - May 27, 2013 at 2:58 PM

    But after all is said and done, the hundreds of Lotto winners and the 2004 Red Sox show us it’s still better to be lucky that good.

  16. txnative61 - May 28, 2013 at 1:16 AM

    Seems to me there is a bit more to being a “clutch” player. For instance the Lottery is a terrible gamble, likely the worst legal bet available. But the odds of winning do not change. So when the payout is likewise astronomical, it is a better bet. So some players take more chances on long odds at critical times. I have also noticed some people are more prone to “accidents” than others. Working a number of very dangerous professions, I have avoided serious injury. No doubt this attributable to focus, study, and attention to detail in working safely, but with all that comes an ability to “sense” danger in advance. On a few occasions it seemed to be an eerie “premonition” of specific events. What I am saying is that some highly skilled players might also possess a degree of psychic “viewing” of what will happen, then create a “deja vu” scenario. That is at least as likely as blind luck.

  17. ningenito78 - May 28, 2013 at 1:23 AM

    Like my old man always told me growing up: ‘Ya know, it’s funny. People tell me I’m lucky to have all this security and nice stuff. Somehow, the harder I worked the luckier I got.’

  18. ningenito78 - May 28, 2013 at 9:59 AM

    @church- take those stats and blow them out your ass. It’s entirely skewed based on that crazy post season ARoid had in 2009. Stop insulting everybody’s intelligence.

  19. ningenito78 - May 28, 2013 at 10:06 AM

    That’s the problem with you stat heads. While anybody with half a brain can tell you sabermetrics definitely has a place in baseball evaluation, you people go the exact opposite direction and COMPLETELY ignore what your eyes tell you. If you seriously are going to tell anybody with two good eyes that from post season to post season ARoid outperformed Jeter, you sir are ignorantly blind.

    • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - May 28, 2013 at 10:39 AM

      Yes, I’m the ignorant one. I use information from what actually happened, and you use memory.

  20. obsessivegiantscompulsive - May 30, 2013 at 8:02 PM

    I would like to address the comment about hitters who are “lucky”, like Miguel Cabrera, or another like him, Pablo Sandoval. I think that has to do with players from the Latin American region, who often don’t even have the proper equipment to field 9 players on the field, let alone coaches to teach them to hit properly. I would liken this to the early 1900’s when baseball was a new sport and players in America developed on their own on the nearby playground fields or in an empty field on a farm.

    For example, Sandoval, in one in-depth interview, used to play a game while growing up where his brother would throw a small object for Sandoval to hit, and he learned to swing a bat and hit a tiny object (I think they were bottlecaps), which could go any which way, making swinging at a ball that is in his general vicinity an easier challenge. I believe that is how many Latins learned to be the so-called bad ball hitters (and players in the past learned to do that too, like Yogi Berra).

    I would also remind people of Ted William’s great Science of Hitting book. He broke up the strikezone into areas where the batter can maximize his batting average. What I would add is that the strikezone is an artificial construct of the game under the logic that balls in the strike zone are balls that hitters can strike well. As we know, that is not quite true, as there are also areas in the strike zone where a hitter is vulnerable and can’t hit well for pitches in that zone. Thus, it should not be a stretch of the imagination to believe that there are areas outside the strikezone where a hitter can hit squarely for homers and extra-base hits.

    So luck, for these types of hitters, is not really luck, but to the author’s point, they do open themselves up to more possibilities. I would use the Beatles as a good example of this. Like the hitters, they didn’t know that they weren’t suppose to do certain things, whether it be swinging at pitches outside the strikezone or placing musical notes in certain sequences that any university trained musician would rather listen to nails on a chalkboard. Because they were unfettered by conventional thinking, they are open to being different, thinking differently, because they didn’t realize that they were being different. Saying luck is a large element of their success in these cases is not on target in my opinion.

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