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.

And That Happened: Thursday’s scores and highlights

New York Yankees relief pitcher Johnny Barbato, right, walks off the field after being relieved in the tenth inning of a baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles in Baltimore, Thursday, May 5, 2016. Baltimore won 1-0 in ten innings. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Orioles 1, Yankees 0: Kevin Gausman didn’t even break as sweat, allowing three hits in eight shutout innings. He got the no-decision, though, as the he, Masahiro Tanaka and relievers traded zeros through regulation. In the 10th, however, the Orioles broke through against Johnny Barbato and Andrew Miller. One wonders if they break through at all, however, if Miller starts the inning rather than comes in with runners on the corer and no one out. Barbato is a rookie with little experience and in that experience he has has demonstrated some pretty ineffective pitching. The Yankees have been stinkin’ up the joint, Miller is one of the best relievers in baseball and he had pitched just once in the previous five days. For the Yankees to go with Barbato there, when a single run means a loss, than Miller, is insanity. The old “don’t use your closer in a tie game on the road” thing was no doubt in play there, but for as conventional as that is, it is not wisdom. It’s the delegation of logic. It’s asking the manager to forget who his pitchers are and what his larger situation is (i.e. the Yankees NEED to win some games right now) in order to adhere to some stupid convention with less than a couple of decades of venerability. The Orioles won this game, but calcified thinking lost it.

Padres 5, Mets 3: Colin Rea pitched no-hit ball into the seventh before Yoenis Cespedes drove a ground ball single to right field with two outs. The hit came as a result of Cespedes going the other way against the shift. I’m assuming some people will say shifts suck because if there wasn’t one here Rea might’ve pitched a no-hitter, but the game story notes that the no-hit bid was extended by the shift several times. In other news, shift politics rather bore me. Hit doubles and homers and you don’t need to worry about shifts. They take away singles. Not much else.

Marlins 4, Diamondbacks 0: The Marlins have won 10 of 11 games. Five have come against bad teams, but what most people forget is that good teams winning a lot of games against bad teams is a huge part of why they’re good teams. I’m not sure if I’m mentally prepared for the Marlins to be a good team in 2016, but here we are.

Cubs 5, Nationals 2: Good teams beat a lot of bad teams. SUPER good teams beat other good teams too. The Nats are good. The Cubs are SUPER good and they cruise in a matchup between the NL’s two best so far. Kyle Hendricks pitched six scoreless innings and Ben Zobrist drove in four runs. Every team slumps at times and as a franchise the Cubs have been know to swoon, but this sure as hell feels different to me. These guys are fantastic.

Red Sox 7, White Sox 3: Sox win! Dustin Pedroia, Hanley Ramirez and Jackie Bradley Jr. all homered. The Sox have won nine of 11. Pedroia is looking like vintage Pedroia. This is another matchup of two good teams. One of ’em took two of three from the other, making them gooder right now.

Indians 9, Tigers 4: Michael Brantley was 4-for-5 with three RBI and Mike Napoli had a three-run homer. In other news, I had this exchange at about 9:30 last night with a Tigers fan friend of mine:

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Cardinals 4, Phillies 0: Brandon Moss hit a homer that they judged to be 462 feet. That would make it the fourth longest by anyone on the season. The previous long homers: Nolan Arenado, 471 feet, Sean Rodriguez, 468, and Byung Ho Park, 466. Home run measuring remains something of an inexact science but that’s pretty rad. Meanwhile, Jaime Garcia pitches seven two-hit shutout innings.

Blue Jays 12, Rangers 2: Edwin Encarnacion homered, doubled twice and drove in six runs. Is that good? I feel like that’s pretty good.

Reds 9, Brewers 5Jay Bruce hit a three-run homer and Alfredo Simon made it through seven effective innings and two-thirds of a not-so-effective one. Maybe he ran out of gas in the eighth when he allowed a two-run homer before leaving, but with the Reds’ bullpen stinkin’ like it stinks, you stretch a guy if you can. The pen came in and allowed another couple of runs in the ninth, but you know the old saying “you don’t lose often when you score nine runs and you’re playing Milwaukee even if your bullpen is a friggin’ train wreck.” I think Joe McCarthy said that.

 

Mariners 6, Astros 3: It was tied at three in the ninth when Luke Gregerson loaded up the bases and Robinson Cano cleared them off with a three-run double. A rare good start from an Astros’ stater is again wasted by the Houston pen. But sure, Carlos Gomez is the issue here.

Rockies 17, Giants 7: Remember yesterday when I said that the back end of the Giants rotation was bad? I should’ve said it was a tire fire in a sulfur mine. Matt Cain, who is clearly not right, allowed eight runs, six earned, on ten hits in four innings. The Rockies scored 13 runs in the fifth inning, which Cain started but couldn’t finish. Cain and Jake Peavy may be famous, but they’re killing San Francisco right now. In other news, Tim Lincecum will throw his little showcase for teams in Arizona later this morning. If the Giants aren’t at least thinking about getting back together with their old flame something is wrong.

Colin Rea loses no-hit bid in the seventh against the Mets

San Diego Padres starting pitcher Colin Rea works against a Pittsburgh Pirates batter during the first inning of a baseball game Tuesday, April 19, 2016, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
AP Photo/Gregory Bull
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Update (12:01 AM EDT): And it’s over. Yoenis Cespedes drove a ground ball single to right field with two outs in the seventh inning to end Rea’s no-hit bid.

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Padres starter Colin Rea has tamed the hot-hitting Mets lineup so far this Thursday night. The right-hander has walked only one, the lone batter above the minimum he has faced. Rea has also struck out three while accumulating 76 pitches.

The Padres’ offense provided Rea with five runs of support, scoring once in each of the first, second, and third, as well as twice in the sixth. Wil Myers smacked a solo homer off of Jacob deGrom in the first inning. Rea helped himself with an RBI single in the second, Alexei Ramirez brought in a run with a double in the third, Derek Norris drove a solo homer in the sixth, and Jon Jay shortly thereafter hit an RBI double.

The Mets entered play Thursday tied for the National League lead in home runs hit as a team with 40. Rea, meanwhile, came into Thursday’s action with a 4.61 ERA and a 22/13 K/BB ratio in 27 1/3 innings spanning five starts and one relief appearance.

If Rea is able to complete the job, he would become the first pitcher in Padres history to throw a no-hitter. Jake Arrieta threw the first no-hitter of the 2016 season on April 21 against the Reds.

We’ll keep you updated as Rea attempts to navigate through the final three innings.

Jason Heyward hopes to return to Cubs’ lineup on Friday

Chicago Cubs' Jason Heyward hits a double to drive in Dexter Fowler off Cincinnati Reds relief pitcher J.J. Hoover during the ninth inning of a baseball game, Friday, April 22, 2016, in Cincinnati. The Cubs won 8-1. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
AP Photo/John Minchillo
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Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward hasn’t played since Sunday due to a sore right wrist, but he’s hoping to be included in his team’s lineup on Friday, MLB.com’s Carrie Muskat reports. Matt Szucur, Ben Zobrist, and Kris Bryant have handled right field while Heyward has been out.

Heyward, 26, has gotten off to a disappointing start, as he’s batting .211/.317/.256 with only four doubles, no home runs, and 13 RBI in 104 plate appearances. He signed an eight-year, $184 million contract with the Cubs back in December.

Heyward said he hurt his wrist putting emphasis on it during hitting drills. He said, “I was doing some work off the tee and doing a drill with a donut on the bat, swinging, trying to stay through the middle, and I put more emphasis on [his wrist] and strained it from that.”

Cardinals plan to get creative to keep Aledmys Diaz in the lineup

St. Louis Cardinals' Jedd Gyorko high-fives with Matt Carpenter as they and Aledmys Diaz, center, leave the field following the Cardinals' 11-2 victory over the San Diego Padres in a baseball game Saturday, April 23, 2016, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)
AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi
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Cardinals shortstop Jhonny Peralta is expected to return from the disabled list in early June, which means current shortstop Aledmys Diaz would return to the bench. There’s only one problem: Diaz has been one of the best hitters in baseball. The 25-year-old owns a sparkling .381/.422/.679 triple-slash line with 14 extra-base hits (including five homers) in 90 plate appearances.

The Cardinals plan to get creative to keep Diaz’s bat in the lineup. Per Jon Morosi of FOX Sports, the club is considering using Peralta at first and third base. Peralta, 33, last played third base in 2010 with the Indians and Tigers. He has logged only three games and nine total defensive innings at first base in his major league career.

Diaz isn’t about to displace Peralta. Last season, Peralta was one of the best-hitting shortstops, finishing with a .275/.334/.411 triple-slash line with 17 home runs and 41 RBI in 640 plate appearances. He was even more productive in 2014, his first year with the Cardinals.