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Rather Be Lucky

Sep 12, 2013, 12:16 PM EDT

Buck Showalter AP

The Baltimore Orioles are, in most ways, a better baseball team than they were last year.

— Last year, they scored 712 runs. This year, they are on pace to score 760.

— Last year, they gave up 705 runs. This year, they are on pace to give up a similar 712.

— Last year, first baseman Chris Davis came into his own and hit 33 home runs and slugged .501. This year, Chris Davis is one of the best players in baseball — he already has 49 homers and leads the league with 341 total bases. His slugging percentage is 150 points higher. His on-base percentage is 50 points higher.

— Last year, Manny Machado was a 19-year-old rookie who played 51 tentative games in the big leagues. This year, Machado leads the league in hits, doubles and is playing a spectacular third base.

— Last year, starter Chris Tillman made 15 promising starts. This year, he made the All-Star team and you can define his improvement either by his 16 wins or his 3.7 WAR — depending on your statistical preference.

J.J. Hardy is having a better year. Adam Jones is almost exactly the same player. Bullpen pieces like Darren O’Day and Tommy Hunter and Brian Matusz are pitching pretty well. Not everyone is having as good a year as last year — closer Jim Johnson’s quality has dropped a bit as has catcher Matt Wieters among others. But all in all, it seems, the Orioles really are a better team than they were last year.

Last year, they won 93 games and made the playoffs.

This year, they are on pace to win 86 games and miss the playoffs.

What was the one thing statistical analysts repeatedly said about the 2012 Orioles? They were lucky. If I was asked to come up with the most basic way that stats folk and traditionalists disagree about baseball, I’d probably say that it comes down to the role of luck. Stats people might call it the role of randomness. But let’s stick with luck for now.

Take a look at the pitcher win, the contentious statistic of the moment. Everyone would agree, I’m pretty sure, that the pitcher’s win (like the team win) is composed of two parts — (1) run prevention (how many runs the pitcher and defense allow) and (2) production (how many runs the team scores). The pitcher has a huge role in the first part, but little-to-no obvious role in the production part. So what do you make of a halfway statistic like that?

Traditionalists, many of them, believe that good pitchers — that is to say WINNING pitchers — have an ability to prevent more runs when their team is having trouble scoring. That’s pitching to the score. Traditionalists, many of them, think that good pitchers — winning pitchers — inspire their teammates to score more runs when they are pitching. Traditionalists, some of them, will ascribe to certain pitchers an almost magical power to win games because the team needs them to win games.

Stats people, many of them, think how many runs a team scores for a pitcher (and when they score those runs, which matters in a pitcher’s win) is basically random and so the statistic is silly and generally pointless. They don’t believe this because it’s their heartfelt philosophy. They believe it because no matter how they turn the numbers inside and out, they can’t find any consistent evidence that pitchers can pitch to the score or inspire teammates to score more runs on days they pitch. They cannot find this magic in the numbers.

The point here is not the win, but the concept of luck. A lot of people don’t want to believe in luck in baseball. They want to assign meaning to things. This was the thing, I think, that drove people mad about Joe Morgan. In Joe Morgan’s world, a player didn’t succeed in the big moment because of some combination of skill and repetition and sturdiness and luck. It was because he reached deep into his soul and found something inside him that regular people do not have. By any reasonable reading, if a guy bloops a single just over the second baseman’s reach, that’s kind of lucky. But if he did it in the eighth inning, with the bases loaded and the score tied — especially if he was a player who seemed particularly gritty — Joe Morgan (and many others) would chalk it up to the measure of the hitter’s courage and grit. “That,” they would say, “is a ballplayer.”*

*Quick aside: I’m here in Seattle to write about the Seahawks as they get ready to play the 49ers, and yesterday the local media got a few minutes on the phone with San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh. Apparently, Harbaugh had a legendary session where, in his own inimitable style, he managed in only a few minutes to say absolutely nothing. At one point, a reporter was listening to the tape of the teleconference, he stood up in the room, started walking to the back and and mock-shouted, “Well, I just learned that apparently Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson are both football players!”

The thing about luck/randomness is that it generally doesn’t repeat. Anyone who has had an especially good day at the roulette wheel knows that. You don’t want to downplay the role of skill and achievement — in the scenario above, the hitter DID put the ball in play, and some hitters (cough Jeter cough) do seem to have a repeatable skill of blooping a ball into the open space in right field — but the stats tend to show that randomness really is random.

Which brings us back to the Baltimore Orioles. Last year, the Orioles were a staggering 29-9 in one-run games. Going back to 1900, it was simply the best one-run record in baseball history. The 1954 Cleveland Indians, who won 111 games, did not have as good a one-run record. The 2001 Seattle Mariners, the 1998 Yankees, the 1927 Yankees, the 1963 Los Angeles Dodgers, the Miracle Mets, the Maddux Braves — none of these teams had as good a one-run record as the 2012 Baltimore Orioles.

As part of the overall package, the Orioles went 16-2 in extra-inning games, setting records there too.

So what is that? Skill? Sure, obviously, there was skill. But statistics show that one-run games — more than any other kind of games — are random. Managers and players and ex-managers and ex-players and baseball analysts have spent millions of hours discussing the strategies of winning one-run games, focusing on countless points like doing the little things right, getting the bunt down, moving the runner over, getting strong bullpen work, getting the sure out, getting the key hit, on and on, and yes, absolutely, in a micro-view, all these play a role.

But the numbers people will tell you: There’s flip-a-coin randomness in there too. I remember having a conversation with a big Orioles fan, and he was challenging me with this question: “Who’s to say the Orioles won’t be just as good in one-run games next year?” I told him it was possible, just like a second straight hot night at the roulette wheel is possible, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

“But roulette is luck,” he said.

“So is wining one-run games,” I said.

We agreed to disagree. He wanted to believe the Orioles — through determination and managerial splendor and the ability to make timely plays — had conquered the one-run game. It wasn’t roulette, he was saying, it was blackjack, and the Orioles were card counters. They had learned how to game the system.

Wednesday night, the Orioles lost to the Yankees 5-4, a one-run game, and New York slipped ahead of Baltimore in the standings. The Orioles’ record in one-run games this year? They are 16-26. It is a worse one-run record than the 50-96 Houston Astros. It is a worse record than then 54-90 Miami Marlins. It is, in fact, the worst one-run record in baseball.

  1. proudlycanadian - Sep 12, 2013 at 12:29 PM

    Will the real Baltimore Orioles please stand up?

    • indaburg - Sep 12, 2013 at 5:08 PM

      They’re pretty much the same team. It’s just that one year, they were the 2012 Lucky Baltimore Orioles. The 2013 model has been unlucky.

      I will take lucky every time if given the option. Sadly, we’re not.

  2. peymax1693 - Sep 12, 2013 at 12:30 PM

    Luck or chance plays a bigger role in baseball more than any other sport. I wish people could accept this reality (looking at you, Joe Morgan). Look at Game 7 of the 1962 World Series between the Yankees and Giants. Willie McCovey is at bat with two outs in the bottom of the Ninth. He hits a frozen rope right at Bobbie Richardson for the final out of the series. 2 feet in either direction, and the Giants win the Series. Another example is the Diamondbacks rallying against Rivera and the Yankees in the 2001 Series. Rivera, a gold glove pitcher, makes probably the worst throw of his life at exactly the wrong time. He also gave up two broken bat singles in that inning that probably couldn’t have broken a pane of glass, especially the single by Gonzalez to win the Series. It’s just the way it is.

    • petey1999 - Sep 12, 2013 at 1:32 PM

      And that’s why you need a bigger sample size (more games) to determine what’s what. And which is why a playoff series of anything less that seven games is a crap/s shoot.

    • NatsLady - Sep 12, 2013 at 3:30 PM

      That is so true…. Last year everything the Nats did turned to gold, this year, to dross. Luck and timing. Who faces which team’s ace, does your hot weather guy pitch when it’s hot (and vice versa), is it your flyball guy’s (or guys’) turn in the rotation when you hit Cincinnati?

      You have to have three things, talent, health, and luck. A healthy team with no talent goes nowhere, injuries can destroy the best team, but luck, ya gotta have luck.

  3. dowhatifeellike - Sep 12, 2013 at 12:43 PM

    They’re regressing to the mean in 1-run games, which is a stathead way of saying they can’t hold a lead. Part of the reason the season is so long is that it reduces the impact of randomness; over time, all teams will get lucky bounces and catch breaks.

    • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Sep 12, 2013 at 1:40 PM

      which is a stathead way of saying they can’t hold a lead.

      No, it’s not. Where do you come up with this shit?

      • dowhatifeellike - Sep 12, 2013 at 2:14 PM

        From the manual entitled “How to Anger People on the Internet”, which I store in my ass.

        It works pretty well.

      • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Sep 12, 2013 at 2:39 PM

        What a crappy place to hide things.

  4. brianforster - Sep 12, 2013 at 12:51 PM

    if the orioles miss the playoffs it will not be due to one run games, blown saves, or even lack of DH production.

    it will be about one thing.. CLUTCH HITTING.

    on paper the orioles are an offensive power house, but since the all star break they cannot seem to score with runners in scoring position. so many games there is a man on 3rd with no outs and we get no runs, or bases loaded no outs and we get one run, or we are down by a run and theres 1 out and someone hits the first pitch into a double play.

    i couldn’t find any data online to back me up but i’d love to know what the orioles RISP team batting average is since the all star break.

  5. scoutsaysweitersisabust - Sep 12, 2013 at 1:31 PM

    There is a lot of things going on with the Orioles this season. They are certainly a better team than they were last year. However, last year, they capitalized on opportunities where this year they do not. I can’t even begin to tell you how many two out runs they scored, where this year the balls are ending in someone’s glove. One run games are a lot about luck. However, a lot of one run games really aren’t the close games they claim to be. The Orioles had to score a few runs to make it a one run game last night. Often they will go in down by 4 to score 3 and make it a one run game, where in reality, it was a 4 run game for 5 innings.

    I also believe Buck is making terrible decisions with the pitching staff this year. Pitchers are staying in too long, and he’s relying on the wrong guys in the wrong situations too often. Last year, there was MUCH better bullpen management, with more moving parts. This year, hes making the wrong moves at the wrong time.

    • zzalapski - Sep 12, 2013 at 2:00 PM

      The Orioles are performing in line with their 1st-order W-L percentage (.531), and slightly outperforming their 2nd-order and 3rd-order W-L percentages (.518, .524). If you’re in the school of thought that ascribes such discrepancies to the manager, I don’t think you can blame Buck for whatever Baltimore’s woes are. It’s not like he went from Manager of the Year to a drooling idiot within a span of a few months.

      In contrast, the Yankees are outperforming their 1st-order W-L percentage (.499) and blowing past their 2nd-order and 3rd-order W-L percentages (.450, .460). Whether that’s due more to Joe Girardi’s managerial skills or the Yankees’ 26-15 record in 1-run games, well…

      • scoutsaysweitersisabust - Sep 12, 2013 at 2:14 PM

        Oh, I certainly don’t think Buck is an idiot. This is where the luck portion comes into play. Last year, Buck made moves at the right time. This year, he seems to make the moves a batter or two too late. Without a crystal ball, you would never know he should have pulled a pitcher two pitches earlier.

  6. anxovies - Sep 12, 2013 at 2:11 PM

    I liked Joe Morgan as a player and as an announcer. As an announcer he had an unforgiving way of looking at players and the course of a baseball game that rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. He expected players to execute and find a way to win, and was sometimes not very kind to those who didn’t. The statheads in particular didn’t like him much because his views didn’t fit into their theories and the soulless way that they view the game. Joe knew that winning is a very personal and sometimes grimy matter.

    • scoutsaysweitersisabust - Sep 12, 2013 at 2:19 PM

      As an announcer, he also had a way of not knowing what the hell was going on in the game, and having absolutely zero background on any of the players in the game not playing for Boston or New York. Almost as if the only baseball he ever watched that entire week was the one game he was assigned to announce. Not to forget that he took every opportunity to bash a book he admitted he would never read (Thus had no clue what he was bashing), and had a complete a hatred for stats and progressive line of thinking.

      Great player. Horrible announcer and analyst. I miss laughing at him weekly.

      • rje49 - Sep 12, 2013 at 3:39 PM

        Horrible announcers don’t last as long as Morgan has. You have your opinion – which clearly isn’t the one that counts.

      • zzalapski - Sep 12, 2013 at 4:00 PM

        Joe Buck says hello.

        Longevity isn’t necessarily indicative of quality.

      • scoutsaysweitersisabust - Sep 12, 2013 at 4:05 PM

        Seriously? Horrible announcers seem to be almost entirely the ones who DO last.

        Joe Buck, Tim McCarver, the Yankees Radio Duo, John Madden (For the last 15 years or so of his career), Tony Siragusa, Dick Vitale, Ken Harrelson, Chris Collensworth, Joe Theisman, Phil Simms, Matt Millen, Troy Aikman. These are just a few of the long standing, long running HORRIBLE announcers.

        Announcing isn’t about knowledge of the sport anymore, or even awareness of the action on the field. It’s about being able to spit out whatever hype the league is pressing at the moment. Dr. Z at SI used to do a yearly breakdown of the horrible announcing in football, and it was one of the best pieces of writing each and every year. And every year it’s the same. The established names are terrible and the names you never get to see are always the best.

    • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Sep 12, 2013 at 2:46 PM

      The statheads in particular didn’t like him much because his views didn’t fit into their theories and the soulless way that they view the game. Joe knew that winning is a very personal and sometimes grimy matter.

      There’s an entire website devoted to showing how wrong he was. It wasn’t that the “statheads” didn’t agree, it was that Joe was completely wrong with what he said. It’s been mentioned thousands of times before, but Joe the Announcer would have absolutely hated Joe the HoF 2B.

      • scoutsaysweitersisabust - Sep 12, 2013 at 3:03 PM

        Start at the beginning and enjoy.

      • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Sep 12, 2013 at 4:11 PM

        One of my favorite posts, which i can never find, is one someone takes over for KenTremendous on the weekly JoeChat. The writer gets about 4 questions in and openly wonders how KT manages it every week b/c Joe is so batshit crazy.

  7. coloradogolfcoupons - Sep 12, 2013 at 2:36 PM

    I truly despised him as a chicken-wing flapping player, but he took it to new heights as an announcer. He and Joe Theismann could do commercials exactly OPPOSITE of “The Most Interesting Man In The World” commercials, called “The Most Annoying Announcers In The World”..although, granted, there is a LONG list of automatic qualifiers for that award.

  8. davidpatashnik - Sep 12, 2013 at 3:13 PM

    i agree it is self inflicted this year. they helped make their own luck with good bullpen and clutch hitting last year and overperformed, but less than Yanks have. working in NY as O’s fan this week not fun.

    Buck is doing a bad bullpen job against yankes this week (terrible actually). he has a deep pen and everyone ready/healthy and he leaves M Gonzales in 2-3 batters too many (same as in game in bronx 2 weeks ago), Gausman for a 2nd inning when he should have moved on and then hunter for second inning when 1 was enough. hunter got beat 2x on non-fastballs (and Jones muffed that catch).

    last night if we were down 1, i think we could have tied against mariano. he really needed 2 run cushion.

  9. bigtrainrr - Sep 12, 2013 at 3:30 PM

    The starting pitching, with the exception of Tillman, has been horrible. Chen was hurt, same with Hammel. There has been too much reliance on the bullpen because the starters just don’t go deep enough into games. Yes, the Orioles are better, but without a decent rotation, you won’t go anywhere.

  10. inserthandle - Sep 12, 2013 at 3:36 PM

    Analysts who recognized the Orioles’ good luck last year were of course right when they predicted regression this year. But many of them predicted more than just regression. Many forecasters (including Vegas) had them failing to even reach .500 this year. Which made no sense at all. Take away the luck and their pythagorean record in 2012 was still .500. There was some overcompensating going on.

  11. steviep23 - Sep 12, 2013 at 4:39 PM

    Nope. It’s pitching. Last year the pen was much better. Hammel also had a career year last year. Not so much this year. Luck doesn’t last a whole season.

    • zzalapski - Sep 13, 2013 at 12:42 AM

      Yes it does. In David Eckstein’s case, it lasted for seven seasons, from his first year as a multimillionaire in 2004 to the end of his career in 2010. Longer than that if you think his wife is hot.

  12. steviep23 - Sep 12, 2013 at 4:43 PM

    Oh and the Nats aren’t having an “unlucky” season, they’re choking under expectations.

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