Past a diving shortstop

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

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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.

Sanchez hits another home run, Yankees rout Orioles 13-5

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NEW YORK (AP) Rookie Gary Sanchez kept up a most remarkable run, homering for the third straight game as the New York Yankees routed the Baltimore Orioles 13-5 Saturday.

Sanchez hit a drive that bounced off the top of the right-center field wall and over in the fourth inning. He reached 11 career home runs faster than anyone in major league history – 23 games, including two hitless games last year.

After the switch-hitting catcher connected, the crowd of 38,843 emphatically chanted his name. Mark Teixeira stepped out of the batter’s box, pausing the game and allowing the 23-year-old to tip his batting helmet to the fans from the top of the dugout steps.

Starlin Castro and Aaron Hicks also homered as the Yankees won their fourth in a row. A day after trouncing the Orioles 14-4, New York moved within 2 1/2 games of them for the second AL wild-card spot.

Chris Davis homered twice and Mark Trumbo hit his big league-leading 39th home run for Baltimore, which has dropped three straight.

Sanchez is now hitting .400 with 21 RBIs in 21 games this year.

Castro had four hits and drove in three runs, Hicks also drove in three runs and Brian McCann got three hits and drove in two.

Every Yankees starter has gotten a hit in back-to-back games for the first time since July 26-27, 2009.

Tommy Layne (1-1) pitched a scoreless inning for the win.

Dylan Bundy (7-5) gave up five runs in four innings.

The Yankees got 18 hits and drew seven walks. For all that offensive output, it was a disputed play on the bases that put them ahead.

Baltimore led 2-1 in the third when with two outs, singles by Teixeira, Didi Gregorius and Castro brought home the tying run.

With runners at the corners, Castro broke for second. Catcher Matt Wieters‘ throw was then cut off by shortstop J.J. Hardy as Gregorius tried to steal home.

Hardy’s throw appeared to be in time, but Gregorius neatly tucked in his right arm and extended his left arm across home plate.

Umpire Ron Kulpa called Gregorius out, but the Yankees challenged and the ruling was overturned. After the review, McCann hit an RBI double for a 4-2 lead.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Yankees: McCann returned to the starting lineup after being away following the death of his grandmother.

Orioles: CF Adam Jones was held out of the lineup after aggravating his hamstring injury on Friday. He tried to talk his way into starting, manager Buck Showalter said.

UP NEXT

Orioles: RHP Kevin Gausman (5-10, 3.92 ERA) is set to make his fourth start this season against the Yankees. He’s 0-1 in the previous three outings despite a 1.31 ERA.

Yankees: LHP CC Sabathia (8-10, 4.33) was originally scheduled to pitch Monday in Kansas City. But manager Joe Girardi made a switch, starting Sabathia instead of RHP Michael Pineda. Manager Joe Girardi cited Baltimore’s better numbers against right-handed pitching and the Royals’ success vs. lefties.

Urias matures on mound in Dodgers’ 3-2 win over Cubs

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LOS ANGELES (AP) Julio Urias allowed one run over six innings, Corey Seager set a Dodgers franchise record for a shortstop with his 23rd home run and Los Angeles defeated the Chicago Cubs 3-2 on Saturday to even the series between NL division leaders.

Urias (5-2) pitched better at home than the last time he faced the Cubs. The rookie left-hander made his second career start in Chicago on June 2 and gave up six runs – five earned – and eight hits in five innings while serving up three homers.

This time, he allowed six hits and tied a career high with eight strikeouts and two walks. He is 4-0 in six games (four starts) since the All-Star break.

Kenley Jansen pitched a perfect ninth for his 38th save a day after allowing a run on a wild pitch in the ninth in a 6-4, 10-inning loss.

The Cubs’ four-game winning streak ended behind the shortest outing of the season from Jason Hammel (13-7). He gave up three runs and five hits in 2 1/3 innings.

The right-hander was coming off a poor performance against Colorado, allowing a season-high 10 runs (six earned) in 3 1/3 innings of an 11-4 loss. Hammel remained winless in nine career games (six starts) at Dodger Stadium.

The Cubs’ rally in the seventh came up short. They got to 3-2 on pinch-hitter Jason Heyward‘s RBI single off reliever Pedro Baez.

Heyward got caught stealing, and Baez walked Dexter Fowler and Kris Bryant before getting Anthony Rizzo on an inning-ending grounder.

Los Angeles took a 3-1 lead in the third on RBI singles by Chase Utley and Justin Turner. Utley’s hit was the third straight given up by Hammel to start the inning.

Seager tied the game at 1 in the first, giving him the most homers by a Dodgers shortstop in franchise single-season history. He broke the old mark of 22 set by Glenn Wright in 1930.

The Cubs led 1-0 in the first on Rizzo’s RBI single.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Cubs: RHP John Lackey (right shoulder strain) will throw a bullpen session on Monday in Chicago.

Dodgers: OF Scott Van Slyke won’t play again this season. He’s on the DL with right wrist irritation after being out nearly two months earlier in the season with low back irritation. “He doesn’t have the range of motion he needs to contribute,” manager Dave Roberts said. … LHP Clayton Kershaw (mild disk irritation) will face hitters in a simulated game on Tuesday in Los Angeles, Rancho Cucamonga or Arizona.

AT THE TURNSTILES

The announced attendance of 49,522 pushed the Dodgers over the 3 million mark for the fifth consecutive year and made them the first team in the majors to top that number this season.

DAY TRIPPIN’

The game featured the major leagues’ top two clubs in day games. The Dodgers improved to 24-11, while the Cubs fell to 38-21. Los Angeles came in averaging over a run more during the day (5.56) than at night (4.17).

UP NEXT

Cubs: LHP Jon Lester (14-4, 2.81 ERA) is 1-1 with a 4.05 ERA in two career starts at Dodger Stadium. The team is 7-0 in his last seven starts.

Dodgers: RHP Brock Stewart (0-2, 11.25) makes his third career major league start after being recalled from Triple-A Oklahoma City on Friday. He last pitched on Aug. 19 against Albuquerque, allowing four hits in five scoreless innings.