May 27, 2013, 8:49 AM EDT
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.
Mar 9, 2014, 7:35 PM EDT
Jon Heyman of CBS Sports writes that the Padres and third baseman Chase Headley appear unlikely to agree to a contract extension before he heads into free agency. The club offered him an unknown amount over the winter, but talks dissipated. Headley had a breakout season in 2012, finishing with an .875 OPS and a…
Mar 9, 2014, 7:10 PM EDT
Refuting recent reports that the Tigers were taking offers on starter Rick Porcello, GM Dave Dombroski told the media that the team isn’t interested in trading any starting pitching and hasn’t fielded any offers on their pitching, per Tony Paul of the Detroit News. Porcello has been the subject of trade rumors for a while…
Mar 9, 2014, 6:05 PM EDT
Jon Heyman of CBS Sports is reporting that the Twins have offered free agent starter Ervin Santana a three-year deal. The right-hander has been mulling one-year deals from the Blue Jays and Orioles and has stated that he prefers a one-year deal, which doesn’t bode well for the Twins’ chances of signing him. In the…
Mar 9, 2014, 5:18 PM EDT
Bronson Arroyo was diagnosed last week with a bulging disk in his back, which threatened to steer him to his first-ever 15-day disabled list stint. But recent workouts have it looking like a minor blip. According to Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic, the veteran right-hander felt “way better” Sunday in Diamondbacks camp after testing…
Mar 9, 2014, 4:05 PM EDT
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Mar 9, 2014, 3:00 PM EDT
Braves right-hander Kris Medlen made an early departure from a Grapefruit League appearance on Sunday against the Mets after appearing to injure his elbow on a pair of consecutive fourth-inning pitches. Medlen grabbed at his throwing elbow following his second-to-last delivery of the game and then skipped to the Braves’ dugout after his final pitch,…
Mar 9, 2014, 2:41 PM EDT
From beat writer Adam Rubin of ESPN New York comes word that Mets left-hander Jon Niese has been cleared to make his Grapefruit League debut on Tuesday against the Cardinals. Niese came down with some left shoulder soreness at the end of February and was sent to New York for an MRI, but that exam…
Mar 9, 2014, 1:49 PM EDT
As first reported by Bob Nightengale of USA Today, the Cardinals have agreed to a major league contract with Cuban infielder Aledmys Diaz. Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports reports that it’s a four-year deal. Diaz will arrive at Cardinals camp in Jupiter, Florida on Monday morning. No word on the financial terms. The Cardinals already have…
Mar 9, 2014, 12:54 PM EDT
Bruce Levine of CBS Chicago has the inside word: Although the White Sox are not shopping outfielder Dayan Viciedo, they are listening to other clubs about their interest in the Cuban power hitter. Several major league sources confirmed that the Sox and Mariners have had discussions on a deal that could center around Viciedo. Nick…
Mar 9, 2014, 12:08 PM EDT
White Sox right-hander Nate Jones said at the end of February that he was completely over the glute strain that he suffered shortly after arriving at spring camp and he proved that on Saturday, delivering a scoreless inning in his 2014 Cactus League debut. Jones allowed a hit and issued a walk, but he also recorded…
Mar 9, 2014, 11:22 AM EDT
Goods news Sunday morning in Cardinals camp. According to beat writer Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, outfielder Peter Bourjos is back in the starting lineup for Sunday’s Grapefruit League game against the Nationals after sitting out for seven days with tightness in his right hamstring. Bourjos dealt with chronic leg problems during his…
Mar 9, 2014, 10:37 AM EDT
Evan Drellich has an in-depth feature in the Houston Chronicle about the Astros’ built-from-scratch private online database, which is now being used by the entire baseball operations department to improve scouting, communicating, and decision-making. It’s called “Ground Control,” a play on the Astros’ name. The Indians have a similar database called “DiamondView,” the Red Sox call…
Mar 9, 2014, 9:45 AM EDT
Matt Kemp has begun running at full speed and participating in daily outfield drills in Dodgers camp, and he could soon be cleared to become a regular in the club’s Cactus League starting lineups. “We’re seeing him take fly balls, getting jumps,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly told MLB.com’s Ken Gurnick on Saturday. ”He’s swinging the bat good.…
Mar 9, 2014, 8:59 AM EDT
Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu has just two hits in his first 13 Cactus League at-bats, but one was a double and the other was a home run, and he continues to draw rave reviews in White Sox camp for the patience he’s showing at the plate. Abreu has yet to strike out through five Cactus…
Mar 8, 2014, 11:25 PM EDT
Over his 15-year career, Yankees outfielder Alfonso Soriano has logged time at five of the eight non-pitcher positions on the diamond. The only three positions he hasn’t played are catcher, first base and right field. He might make it six this season. ESPN’s Andrew Marchand reports that manager Joe Girardi has kicked around the idea…
Mar 8, 2014, 10:50 PM EDT
Outfielder B.J. Upton and second baseman Dan Uggla had miserable 2013 campaigns for the Braves, finishing with a .557 and .671 OPS, respectively. Both players finished with batting averages well under the Mendoza Line with 150-plus strikeouts. It was ugly. As the Braves flipped the calendar over to 2014, there was a sense of optimism…
Mar 8, 2014, 9:40 PM EDT
Yesterday, Brewers starter Kyle Lohse criticized the qualifying offer system. Lohse rejected a $13.3 million qualifying offer from the Cardinals after the 2012 season, hoping to get a lucrative deal in free agency. He ended up jobless well into march until the Brewers jumped in and signed him to a three-year, $33 million deal. This…
Mar 8, 2014, 8:30 PM EDT
Many are anxious to see how the new instant replay system will affect the way baseball is played. They may have to wait a week. According to the Associated Press, replay won’t be available when the Dodgers and Diamondbacks open the regular season in Australia. Standard replay, for home run and boundary calls, will be…
Mar 8, 2014, 7:20 PM EDT
The Phillies had the fourth-highest bullpen ERA in baseball last season at 4.19, according to FanGraphs. Don’t tell that to closer Jonathan Papelbon, who thinks the Phillies will have a top-five bullpen in 2014. Via CSN Philly’s Jim Salisbury: “I will be very, very surprised if this is not a much better bullpen this year,”…
Mar 8, 2014, 6:15 PM EDT
Edwin Jackson gave up three runs on four hits in his start against the Indians on Friday, but that wasn’t the shocking part of what happened. Unbeknownst to manager Rick Renteria and pitching coach Chris Bosio, Jackson threw all fastballs in his outing — 50 of them. Via MLB.com’s Carrie Muskat: “I think maybe, as…
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