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.

Padres trade starters Andrew Cashner, Colin Rea to the Miami Marlins

Andrew Cashner
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8:31 AM: Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald reports that the Marlins are also getting pitcher Colin Rea from Padres. Rea has started 18 games this year for San Diego, posting a 4.98 ERA and a K/BB ratio of 76/44 in 99 and a third innings. He’s definitely more innings eater than effective starter, but the Marlins are clearly looking to throw as many pitchers at the problem as they can get. Plus: Rea is under team control beyond just this year.

8:29 AM: Ken Rosenthal just reported that this trade is “bigger than just Cashner,” and that the Marlins may be getting more from the Padres. So stay tuned.

8:26 AM: Buster Olney reports that the San Diego Padres have traded pitcher Andrew Cashner to the Miami Marlins. There’s no word yet on the return.

This is a rental of a guy with a live arm but who has experienced some mighty struggles this season. Cashner is 4-7 with a 4.76 ERA and a 67/30 K/BB ratio in 79 1/3 innings. He missed over three weeks between June 11 and July 2 due to a strained neck. A righty, Cashner is earning $9.625 million this season and will be eligible for free agency after the season.

Miami has been in desperate need to upgrade the back of its rotation. If Cashner can regain the form he showed before injuries slowed him down in the past two seasons, he will be an upgrade. That’s not necessarily a pipe dream — he’s pitched pretty well of late — and he certainly has some incentive to show what he can do down the stretch to potential suitors this coming offseason.

The Marlins currently sit five games back of the Nationals in the NL East and are tied with the Cardinals for the second wild card slot.

And That Happened: Thursday’s scores and highlights

ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA - JULY 28:  
 Mike Trout #27 of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim slides past catcher Sandy Leon #3 of the Boston Red Sox to score the tying run in the ninth inning after Leon jumped but couldn't reach the ball on a throwing error at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on July 28, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  The winning run also scored on the play as the Angels won 2-1.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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Last night Hillary Clinton jabbed at Donald Trump by saying that “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.” This means that no Phillies fan who followed me from 2009-2012 and no Royals fan who has followed me since 2014 can ever be president. Sad seeing y’all disqualify yourselves like that, but that’s just how it goes.

Anyway, here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Rockies 2, Mets 1: Jeurys Familia saved 52 (regular season) games in a row before Wednesday night, now he’s blown two in a row. This one on a day when his manager said he wasn’t going to pitch but used him anyway, but I suppose stuff happens. So do errors by your first baseman and wild pitches in games that, because your offense could do nothing, you had no margin for error. For Colorado, credit Tyler Anderson for allowing only one run in six and four relievers for allowing bupkis to the Mets the rest of the way.

Angels 2, Red Sox 1: Speaking of bad defense from your first baseman, Hanley Ramirez sailed a throw home in the ninth inning which allowed both of the Angels runs to score in walkoff fashion. Assist to Brad Ziegler for loading the bases with one out beforehand, helping squander eight shutout innings from David Price. That’s four straight losses for the Sox. They’re just lucky that the Orioles have lost three in a row themselves.

Brewers 6, Diamondbacks 4: Ryan Braun, Jonathan Lucroy and Jonathan Villar got the day off yesterday but it didn’t matter. The Brewers had Zach Davies going and, despite a first inning stumble, he was solid, allowing two earned runs while pitching into the seventh. For the Dbacks, Robbie Ray struck out 11 dudes in fewer than six innings but he ran out of gas and the pen couldn’t hold the Snakes’ early lead. There are rumors that Chip Hale is on thin ice as Arizona’s manager. Games like this can’t help his mood.

Twins 6, Orioles 2: A four-run seventh inning for the Twins broke a 2-2 tie. Max Kepler tied the game at 2 with a homer in the sixth and had two hits and two RBI in all. Eduardo Nunez went 0-for-4 and was traded to San Francisco after the game, which was a makeup from a postponed game from back in May. Life is the illusion of control over one’s plans and circumstances.

Phillies 7, Braves 5: Aaron Altherr went 3-for-4 with a homer and two RBI in his first game back after missing over 100 of ’em with a broken wrist. Maikel Franco and Tommy Jospeh homered too. Matt Wisler of the Braves gave up all three of those bombs because giving up bombs is what Matt Wisler does.

Cardinals 5, Marlins 4: Aledmys Diaz homered, doubled and drove in three. His homer came off of Jose Fernandez, who was his childhood friend in Cuba. With friends like these . . . Fernandez was beat up pretty good — he also allowed a homer to Matt Holliday — and gave up five runs in five innings. Dee Gordon went 0-for-4 in his return from his drug suspension. Ichiro got a hit and is two shy of 3,000. In other news, a bunch of my friends were at this game because the SABR convention is going on down in Miami right now. During the game one of them tweeted that, in their opinion, the silly home run sculpture thing in the outfield at Marlins Park should light up when the visitors hit a homer too. This morning I woke up to a bunch of their tweets from karaoke bars in the middle of the night. One of them was doing “Piano Man.” another was doing “Walking in Memphis.” SABR convention attendees: wrong for baseball, wrong for America. Everyone knows that the best karaoke song is “Laid” by James. And that if you don’t do the high notes on the “. . . think you’re so pretty . . .” lines you shouldn’t even bother.

Rangers 3, Royals 2: Cole Hamels allowed two runs and six hits in eight innings, giving his stumbling club both innings and effectiveness just like an ace does. Lookin’ at you, Pete Mackanin. The Royals have lost seven of ten and sit in fourth place, nine games back in the AL Central.

Cubs 3, White Sox 1: Chris Sale came back and allowed two runs in six innings. This is frustrating in that if he pitched either way, way better or way, way worse, I could’ve shoehorned in a “shredded” descriptor about his performance. As it was, he and the Sox lost because John Lackey and the Cubs bullpen pitched better.

Nationals 4, Giants 2: The Nationals’ bullpen tried its hardest to blow this one, allowing the Giants to rally a bit in the ninth, but it wasn’t a big enough rally. Tanner Roark allowed one run over seven innings, striking out three and [all together now] helping his own cause by singling in a run in the Nats’ three-run second inning. The Nats won their 60th game. The Giants are stuck on 59. The Cubs have 61.