Skip to content

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

May 27, 2013, 8:49 AM EST

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.

Latest Posts
  1. “At least six” teams interested in Jon Lester

    Nov 23, 2014, 2:15 PM EST

    jon lester a's getty Getty Images

    The Red Sox and Cubs have long been considered the favorites to sign free agent Jon Lester, with the Braves and Cardinals also lingering. But there may be a surprise coming.

  2. Indians acquire Charles Brewer from the Diamondbacks

    Nov 23, 2014, 12:03 PM EST

    indians logo

    Paul Hoynes of the Cleveland Plain Dealer reports that the Indians have acquired right-hander Charles Brewer from the Diamondbacks in exchange for cash.

  3. Torii Hunter “favors the Twins”

    Nov 23, 2014, 10:51 AM EST

    th getty Getty Images

    Torii Hunter could be headed back to where it all began.

  4. Video: Introducing new commissioner Rob Manfred

    Nov 23, 2014, 9:44 AM EST

    manfred getty Getty Images

    Watch as former MLB commissioner Bud Selig introduces new commissioner Rob Manfred …

  5. Diamondbacks trade Mike Bolsinger to the Dodgers

    Nov 22, 2014, 10:35 PM EST

    Mike Bolsinger Mike Bolsinger

    The Dodgers added some pitching depth, picking up Mike Bolsinger from the Diamondbacks on Saturday.

  6. Wily Mo Pena is a free agent and the Twins are interested

    Nov 22, 2014, 9:30 PM EST

    wily mo pena reuters

    Wily Mo Pena could be back in the major leagues if the Twins are willing to play ball.

  7. Derek Jeter went golfing with President Obama

    Nov 22, 2014, 8:25 PM EST

    Derek Jeter AP AP

    Are they looking to hire a caddie?

  8. Rockies sign John Lannan to a minor league deal

    Nov 22, 2014, 7:20 PM EST

    John Lannan Getty Getty Images

    The Rockies added a bit of pitching depth, signing John Lannan to a minor league deal.

  9. If Giants can’t bring back Pablo Sandoval, they’re expected to bid on Yasmany Tomas

    Nov 22, 2014, 6:15 PM EST

    yasmany tomas getty Getty Images

    The Giants have a Plan B if they can’t bring back Pablo Sandoval.

  10. Reds sign Josh Satin

    Nov 22, 2014, 1:13 PM EST

    Josh Satin Mets Getty Images

    Satin spent parts of the past four seasons in the majors with the Mets.

  11. Henry Blanco leaves Diamondbacks for Cubs coaching staff

    Nov 22, 2014, 12:12 PM EST

    Henry Blanco Getty Getty Images

    Blanco played for the Cubs from 2005-2008.

  12. Report: Twins win bidding for Korean pitcher Hyeon-jong Yang

    Nov 22, 2014, 11:14 AM EST

    hyeon-jong yang Getty Images

    Yang won the Korean equivalent of the Cy Young award this season and the 26-year-old tops out at 92-95 miles per hour.

  13. Angels acquire Daniel Robertson from Rangers

    Nov 22, 2014, 10:15 AM EST

    Daniel Robertson Rangers Getty Images

    He figures to get a look as a backup outfielder for the Angels.

  14. Report: Red Sox make $95 million offer to Pablo Sandoval

    Nov 22, 2014, 9:10 AM EST

    Pablo Sandoval AP

    Boston is competing with San Francisco and San Diego for Sandoval.

  15. Mariners gain another option year on Danny Hultzen

    Nov 21, 2014, 10:55 PM EST

    Danny Hultzen AP AP

    The Mariners get an extra year to do whatever they want with Danny Hultzen.

  16. Jason Grilli a potential option for the Yankees

    Nov 21, 2014, 9:45 PM EST

    jason grilli getty Getty Images

    If the Yankees can’t bring back David Robertson, Jason Grilli could be one option the club could look at.

  17. Orioles sign Paul Janish to a minor league deal

    Nov 21, 2014, 8:40 PM EST

    Paul Janish AP

    The Orioles bolstered their organizational depth by signing Paul Janish on Friday.

  18. White Sox sign Adam LaRoche to two-year, $25 million deal

    Nov 21, 2014, 7:35 PM EST

    adam laroche getty Getty Images

    The White Sox have signed first baseman Adam LaRoche to a two-year, $25 million deal.

  19. Torii Hunter a back-burner option for Orioles, Giants

    Nov 21, 2014, 7:05 PM EST

    Detroit Tigers v Cleveland Indians Getty Images

    The interest in free agent outfielder Torii Hunter has been lukewarm, but he represents a decent Plan B or C for a handful of teams.

Featured video

Maddon has high hopes for Cubs
Top 10 MLB Player Searches
  1. P. Sandoval (5003)
  2. G. Stanton (3519)
  3. Y. Tomas (3200)
  4. J. Lester (3136)
  5. R. Martin (2801)
  1. J. Heyward (2654)
  2. M. Scherzer (2403)
  3. A. LaRoche (2366)
  4. T. Hunter (2338)
  5. J. Upton (2321)