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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.

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