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.

Delmon Young arrested for choking, threatening a valet

Delmon Young
Getty Images
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Major leaguer Delmon Young was arrested in Miami last night after allegedly choking and threatening a valet attendant, and using ethnic slurs. Andy Slater of 940-AM WINZ in Miami was the first to report Young’s arrest. HardballTalk has independently confirmed the report after speaking to the Miami Police Department.

According to the report, Young was angry that a valet at the Viceroy Hotel in Miami wouldn’t open a door with access to a club. He allegedly put his hands around the valet’s throat and said “Stupid Cuban, open the f***ing door,” and “I’m gonna f***ing kill you, you Latin piece of s**t.” Young, who lives at the Viceroy, fled the scene and was later arrested in his room. He initially denied that he took part in the confrontation but the valet identified him to police officers. When he was being arrested Young allegedly told the police officer “I’ll slap you in the face with money you f***ing Cuban.” Oh, and he was naked from the waist down when he first opened the door for the police and appeared to be intoxicated, slurring his speech.

As you no doubt recall, Young was arrested in New York in 2012 and eventually pled guilty for harassing people on the street and using anti-Semitic slurs while appearing in a “highly intoxicated” state.

Young, 30, hit .270/.289/.339 in 52 games for the Orioles last year. He has played for the Devil Rays and Rays, the Twins, the Tigers and the Phillies before two seasons in Baltimore. The veteran of ten major league seasons is a free agent right now. And, from the sound of things, he’s likely to stay that way indefinitely.

Here’s the police report:

Delmon Young Police Report EDITED

If Brett Anderson hits better this year, thank Josh Donaldson

Los Angeles Dodgers' Brett Anderson ducks away from a pitch from Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher David Holmberg on a bunt attempt during the fourth inning of a baseball game, Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Associated Press
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Or, at the very least, thank his bat.

Brett Anderson, who hit a meaty .085/.173/.106 last season, just got his first 2016 bat delivery, it seems. He posted a pic of the shiny lumber on Twitter a few minutes ago, with a message to his former teammate, the reigning AL MVP Josh Donaldson, whose “JD” initials signifying whose model number it is are plainly visible on the barrel:

 

If Anderson breaks out offensively this year — say, he pushes that OBP over .200 — I may reconsider my “DH in the National League now” argument and merely suggest that pitchers get better bats.

In other news, whose bat was Zack Greinke using last year? And did he leave any behind at Camelback Ranch? Might be worth looking.

Diamondbacks working on a deal with Tyler Clippard

at Citi Field on July 28, 2015 in Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.
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Last week Diamondbacks general manager Dave Stewart revealed that he was interested in signing free agent reliever Tyler Clippard and now Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic reports that the two sides have “made progress toward a deal.”

Piecoro notes that by trading Aaron Hill and his remaining contract to the Brewers the Diamondbacks created a bit of payroll flexibility that they could use to sign Clippard.

Clippard has a long history of excellent work as both a setup man and closer, but his raw stuff and secondary numbers have declined even though his ERA remained very good at 2.92 last season for the A’s and Mets. His strikeout rate dipped to a career-low 8.1 per nine innings, which is drop of about 25 percent from 2009-2014.

Two elite Cuban players defect

cuba hat
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Jesse Sanchez of MLB.com just reported that Yulieski Gurriel & Lourdes Gurriel Jr., who are brothers, reportedly defected and will be seeking MLB deals. There aren’t any details yet, but Sanchez will be updating with a full story that we’ll link here when he has it. UPDATE: Here it is.

Yulieski is a 31-year old third baseman and, according to Baseball America’s Ben Badler he was the No. 1 player remaining in Cuba. He was one of the Cuban players who was permitted to play in Japan recently, and he just put up a .305/.349/.536 season with 11 homers in 62 games for the Yokohama Bay Stars and has continued to rake in Cuba. He is likely major league ready right this instant. He’d be an unrestricted free agent given his age and team’s signing him would not be subject to international bonus pool limits.

Lourdes is only 22 years old. He’s hit .269/.355/.414 in 1036 Serie Nacional plate appearances and Badler thinks he has 20-homer potential in the majors one day. He’s currently a shortstop, but is probably destined for a corner. He is young enough to where he would be subject to bonus pool limits. Several teams have already exceeded those limits for the current signing period, limiting the number of teams who could sign him. If, however, it takes MLB a long time to clear him as a free agent — and with immigration issues and the like, that’s very possible — he may not be eligible to be signed until next year, which could bring some other teams into the fold.