Past a diving shortstop

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


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.

The Cubs’ NLCS finish was one for the history books

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 22:  Chicago Cubs fans hold a sign after the Chicago Cubs defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers 5-0 in game six of the National League Championship Series to advance to the World Series against the Cleveland Indians at Wrigley Field on October 22, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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The Cubs obliterated the Dodgers in Game 6 of the NLCS, riding nine shutout innings to their first pennant win since 1945. Here’s what you should know about their historic finish:

  • By virtue of the Cubs’ 71-year World Series drought, Jon Lester and Javier Baez became the club’s first and only postseason MVPs in franchise history. The World Series MVP award was first distributed in 1955, while the NLCS MVP awards have been issued since 1977.
  • Lester and Baez are also the first co-MVPs of the Championship Series since the 1990 Reds celebrated left-hander Randy Myers and right-hander Rob “Nasty Boy” Dibble following the team’s ninth pennant win (per’s Jenifer Langosch).
  • Anthony Rizzo’s fifth inning solo shot in Game 6 tied him with Miguel Cabrera, Alex Gonzalez, and Kyle Schwarber for the most postseason homers hit at Wrigley Field, with three (per Comcast SportsNet’s Christopher Kamka).
  • Rizzo and Willson Contreras’ home runs were the first Clayton Kershaw had given up in the playoffs since Game 4 of the 2015 NLDS. The twin blasts also accounted for a fifth of the total home runs Kershaw had given up in 2016.
  • Clayton Kershaw’s Game Score of 33 was not only the lowest the left-hander had put up since the start of the 2015 season, but the lowest the Cubs had seen from an opposing pitcher in the postseason since 1989. During Game 4 of the 1989 NLCS, Giants’ right-hander Scott Garrelts pitched 4 2/3 innings with eight hits, four runs, and two homers en route to a 6-4 loss and a 33 Game Score.
  • By contrast, Kyle Hendricks’ Game Score of 86 was the third-highest among Cubs’ postseason starters, ranking just below Jake Arrieta’s 11-strikeout complete game during the 2015 wild card tiebreaker and Orval Overall’s three-hitter in Game 5 of the 1908 World Series.
  • The last major league season to feature an ERA leader on the Cubs’ roster was 1945, also the last season in which the Cubs rode to the World Series. In 2016, the MLB ERA leader is Game 6 winner Kyle Hendricks (2.13 ERA); in ‘45, it was left-hander Ray Prim (2.40 ERA), who capped a dominant year with a loss against the Tigers in Game 4 of the World Series and blown save in Game 6.
  • Not to be overlooked in the lefty’s gem on Saturday night: Hendricks and Aroldis Chapman combined to face the minimum number of batters, at 27. According to MLB Stat of the Day, only the 1956 Yankees had also faced the minimum batters in a postseason game, though they did it with just a bit more panache.
  • With Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Albert Almora Jr., Javier Baez, and Addison Russell penciled into the lineup, the Cubs became the first MLB team to utilize five starters under 25 years old to clinch the NLCS (also via MLB Stat of the Day).
  • If you want to talk postseason drought, the Cubs-Indians World Series will set a precedent for combined championship-less streaks, at 174 years between the two clubs (per ESPN Stats & Info).
  • Speaking of unpleasant streaks, there’s this: with the Dodgers’ loss in the NLCS, they’ve now gone to the postseason four consecutive times without participating in a World Series showdown. According to ESPN’s Buster Olney, that’s a first in major league history.


The Cubs clinch World Series berth with NLCS Game 6 win

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 22:  The Chicago Cubs celebrate defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers 5-0 in game six of the National League Championship Series to advance to the World Series against the Cleveland Indians at Wrigley Field on October 22, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
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After 71 years, the Cubs are headed back to the Fall Classic.

The dominance with which Clayton Kershaw attacked the Cubs in Game 2 of the NLCS was nonexistent in Game 6 as the Dodgers’ ace loaded the bases to start the first inning and scattered five extra bases and five runs over five frames. By the time Dave Roberts pulled his starter in the sixth inning, Kershaw was sitting on a Game Score of 33, the lowest he’s mustered since the start of the 2015 season. Only one of his strikes came via curveball, and whether he was having difficulty locating his off-speed stuff or felt more confident with the fastball-slider combo, it was the fewest curves he’d seen land for strikes all year (per David Adler).

Where the Dodgers were able to give Kershaw the edge in Game 2, they found themselves powerless against opposing hurler Kyle Hendricks. Hendricks turned out 7 1/3 scoreless frames with two hits and six strikeouts, preserving the Cubs’ second shutout of the postseason and the first since they bested the Giants in Game 1 of the NLDS. After his 1-0 loss to the Dodgers early in the NLCS, seeing the MLB ERA leader turn out a gem was a relief for the Cubs, especially one as spectacular as an 88-pitch two-hitter.

With Hendricks effectively stymieing the Dodgers’ best attempts to get on base, the Cubs played to their strengths at the plate. Kris Bryant and Ben Zobrist cleared the bases in the first inning for a two-run lead, followed by a Dexter Fowler RBI single in the second. Willson Contreras came through in the fourth inning for the Cubs, lifting an 87 m.p.h. slider to left field for his first home run of October, while Anthony Rizzo hit his second homer of the postseason on a 1-1 fastball in the fifth.

Neither bullpen allowed a single run from the sixth inning onward. Dodgers’ right-hander Kenley Jansen took the ball from Kershaw in the sixth, scattering four strikeouts over three innings and denying the Cubs so much as a single baserunner through the end of the game. Aroldis Chapman, meanwhile, issued just one walk in 1 1/3 scoreless frames, inducing a Yasiel Puig double play to clinch the Cubs’ 17th franchise pennant.

With the win, the Cubs will face off against the Indians in Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday at 8 PM EDT. And, in case you needed a reminder: