Buck Showalter

Rather Be Lucky

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The Baltimore Orioles are, in most ways, a better baseball team than they were last year.

— Last year, they scored 712 runs. This year, they are on pace to score 760.

— Last year, they gave up 705 runs. This year, they are on pace to give up a similar 712.

— Last year, first baseman Chris Davis came into his own and hit 33 home runs and slugged .501. This year, Chris Davis is one of the best players in baseball — he already has 49 homers and leads the league with 341 total bases. His slugging percentage is 150 points higher. His on-base percentage is 50 points higher.

— Last year, Manny Machado was a 19-year-old rookie who played 51 tentative games in the big leagues. This year, Machado leads the league in hits, doubles and is playing a spectacular third base.

— Last year, starter Chris Tillman made 15 promising starts. This year, he made the All-Star team and you can define his improvement either by his 16 wins or his 3.7 WAR — depending on your statistical preference.

J.J. Hardy is having a better year. Adam Jones is almost exactly the same player. Bullpen pieces like Darren O’Day and Tommy Hunter and Brian Matusz are pitching pretty well. Not everyone is having as good a year as last year — closer Jim Johnson’s quality has dropped a bit as has catcher Matt Wieters among others. But all in all, it seems, the Orioles really are a better team than they were last year.

Last year, they won 93 games and made the playoffs.

This year, they are on pace to win 86 games and miss the playoffs.

What was the one thing statistical analysts repeatedly said about the 2012 Orioles? They were lucky. If I was asked to come up with the most basic way that stats folk and traditionalists disagree about baseball, I’d probably say that it comes down to the role of luck. Stats people might call it the role of randomness. But let’s stick with luck for now.

Take a look at the pitcher win, the contentious statistic of the moment. Everyone would agree, I’m pretty sure, that the pitcher’s win (like the team win) is composed of two parts — (1) run prevention (how many runs the pitcher and defense allow) and (2) production (how many runs the team scores). The pitcher has a huge role in the first part, but little-to-no obvious role in the production part. So what do you make of a halfway statistic like that?

Traditionalists, many of them, believe that good pitchers — that is to say WINNING pitchers — have an ability to prevent more runs when their team is having trouble scoring. That’s pitching to the score. Traditionalists, many of them, think that good pitchers — winning pitchers — inspire their teammates to score more runs when they are pitching. Traditionalists, some of them, will ascribe to certain pitchers an almost magical power to win games because the team needs them to win games.

Stats people, many of them, think how many runs a team scores for a pitcher (and when they score those runs, which matters in a pitcher’s win) is basically random and so the statistic is silly and generally pointless. They don’t believe this because it’s their heartfelt philosophy. They believe it because no matter how they turn the numbers inside and out, they can’t find any consistent evidence that pitchers can pitch to the score or inspire teammates to score more runs on days they pitch. They cannot find this magic in the numbers.

The point here is not the win, but the concept of luck. A lot of people don’t want to believe in luck in baseball. They want to assign meaning to things. This was the thing, I think, that drove people mad about Joe Morgan. In Joe Morgan’s world, a player didn’t succeed in the big moment because of some combination of skill and repetition and sturdiness and luck. It was because he reached deep into his soul and found something inside him that regular people do not have. By any reasonable reading, if a guy bloops a single just over the second baseman’s reach, that’s kind of lucky. But if he did it in the eighth inning, with the bases loaded and the score tied — especially if he was a player who seemed particularly gritty — Joe Morgan (and many others) would chalk it up to the measure of the hitter’s courage and grit. “That,” they would say, “is a ballplayer.”*

*Quick aside: I’m here in Seattle to write about the Seahawks as they get ready to play the 49ers, and yesterday the local media got a few minutes on the phone with San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh. Apparently, Harbaugh had a legendary session where, in his own inimitable style, he managed in only a few minutes to say absolutely nothing. At one point, a reporter was listening to the tape of the teleconference, he stood up in the room, started walking to the back and and mock-shouted, “Well, I just learned that apparently Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson are both football players!”

The thing about luck/randomness is that it generally doesn’t repeat. Anyone who has had an especially good day at the roulette wheel knows that. You don’t want to downplay the role of skill and achievement — in the scenario above, the hitter DID put the ball in play, and some hitters (cough Jeter cough) do seem to have a repeatable skill of blooping a ball into the open space in right field — but the stats tend to show that randomness really is random.

Which brings us back to the Baltimore Orioles. Last year, the Orioles were a staggering 29-9 in one-run games. Going back to 1900, it was simply the best one-run record in baseball history. The 1954 Cleveland Indians, who won 111 games, did not have as good a one-run record. The 2001 Seattle Mariners, the 1998 Yankees, the 1927 Yankees, the 1963 Los Angeles Dodgers, the Miracle Mets, the Maddux Braves — none of these teams had as good a one-run record as the 2012 Baltimore Orioles.

As part of the overall package, the Orioles went 16-2 in extra-inning games, setting records there too.

So what is that? Skill? Sure, obviously, there was skill. But statistics show that one-run games — more than any other kind of games — are random. Managers and players and ex-managers and ex-players and baseball analysts have spent millions of hours discussing the strategies of winning one-run games, focusing on countless points like doing the little things right, getting the bunt down, moving the runner over, getting strong bullpen work, getting the sure out, getting the key hit, on and on, and yes, absolutely, in a micro-view, all these play a role.

But the numbers people will tell you: There’s flip-a-coin randomness in there too. I remember having a conversation with a big Orioles fan, and he was challenging me with this question: “Who’s to say the Orioles won’t be just as good in one-run games next year?” I told him it was possible, just like a second straight hot night at the roulette wheel is possible, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

“But roulette is luck,” he said.

“So is wining one-run games,” I said.

We agreed to disagree. He wanted to believe the Orioles — through determination and managerial splendor and the ability to make timely plays — had conquered the one-run game. It wasn’t roulette, he was saying, it was blackjack, and the Orioles were card counters. They had learned how to game the system.

Wednesday night, the Orioles lost to the Yankees 5-4, a one-run game, and New York slipped ahead of Baltimore in the standings. The Orioles’ record in one-run games this year? They are 16-26. It is a worse one-run record than the 50-96 Houston Astros. It is a worse record than then 54-90 Miami Marlins. It is, in fact, the worst one-run record in baseball.

Adams homers in 16th to lift Cardinals over Dodgers 4-3

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ST. LOUIS — Matt Adams homered in the 16th inning to lead the Cardinals to a 4-3 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday night for St. Louis’ season-best fifth straight victory.

It was the second consecutive game that the Cardinals won in their final at-bat. They beat the Padres on Thursday after scoring a run in the ninth inning.

Adams homer came with one out off Bud Norris (5-9), who gave up six runs as a starter in an 8-1 loss at Washington on Wednesday.

Seth Maness (1-2) picked up the win with a scoreless inning of relief for St. Louis, which was playing its longest game of the season.

Jedd Gyorko hit a two-out homer off closer Kenley Jansen in the ninth to tie the game 3-3.

Justin Turner and Howie Kendrick homered for the Dodgers. Los Angeles has lost four of six. The red-hot Turner has seven homers and 17 RBI this month. He hit two homers in a 6-3 win over Washington on Thursday.

Turner blasted his career-high 18th homer of the season off Seung Hwan Oh in the ninth to break a 2-2 tie.

Corey Seager had four hits and drove in the first run of the game. He had hit in seven successive at-bats before flying out in the ninth.

Kendrick’s solo shot in the sixth tied the game 2-2. He has hit in 14 successive games trying Colorado’s Charlie Blackmon for the longest current streak in the majors.

Los Angeles starter Brandon McCarthy allowed one hit and two runs over 6 1-3 innings, the longest of his four starts this season. He left with leg cramps. McCarthy struck out four and walked three.

St. Louis starter Michael Wacha allowed two runs on 10 hits in six innings. He struck out four and walked one.

Dodgers reliever Adam Liberatore recorded his 28th successive scoreless outing by retiring two of four batters in the seventh. He has not allowed a run in 41 of 42 appearances this season.

Minor League Players’ Wage Suit against Major League Baseball suffers a huge setback

The judge's gavel is seen in court room 422 of the New York Supreme Court at 60 Centre Street February 3, 2012. REUTERS/Chip East
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A judge handed minor leaguers looking to hold Major League Baseball liable for underpaying and exploiting them a huge setback today, ruling that the case cannot go forward as a class action. Minor leaguers who want to sue over their pay and treatment still can, but they’ll have to do it individually. The ruling saps the minor leaguers of their leverage, as Major League Baseball would likely be able to fend off individual cases which, by themselves, might only amount to several thousand dollars per claim.

The background: in 2014, former Miami Marlins player Aaron Senne sued Major League Baseball, Bud Selig, and three major league clubs claiming that minor leaguers are underpaid and exploited in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. He was later joined by former Royals minor leaguer Michael Liberto and Giants farmhand Oliver Odle. Eventually others joined and the suit had been expanded to 22 teams as defendants.

The upshot of the case is that, while the minor league season lasts only part of the year, players are required to do all sorts of things outside of merely playing games for which they are not compensated. Training, meetings, appearances and the like. When all of that time is added up, the players claim, their already low salaries are effectively far below minimum wage in violation of the law. Major League Baseball has countered this by claiming that minor leaguers are basically part time seasonal workers — like landscapers and pool boys — who are not subject to federal labor laws.

Last year the judge gave the case conditional certification, allowing the players to try to establish that it should go forward as a class action. This would streamline the case from the plaintiffs’ perspective and give them the power of collective action by asserting hundreds or more similar cases into one proceeding. The judge’s ruling today, however, was that the cases really weren’t factually similar and thus collective action was not appropriate because figuring out how many hours each player worked and what was required of him varied too greatly among the players.

From his order:

“The difficulties associated with determining what activities constitute ‘work’ in the context of winter training are compounded by the fact that there appear to be no official records documenting these activities. Because it may be impossible to determine from official records the types of conditioning activities in which the players engaged, membership in the state classes based on winter training would depend largely upon the players’ ability to remember, with a reasonable amount of detail, what they did during the off-season (often for multiple years and for many, several years in the past) to stay fit.”

The judge said that, in light of this, each case would be unique and would require “individualized inquiries” to find damages and liability. That phrase –“individualized inquiries” — constitutes magic words which sink would-be class actions. If a company overcharges all of its customers by $8 due to an error repeated a million times, it’s easy to look at one set of facts and judge them together. If you had to look at a million different wrongs, that’s no class action. And so it is not a class action for the players.

As many courts who have dealt with these sorts of cases have noted, for many plaintiffs, a class action is the only practical method of adjudicating Fair Labor Standards Act cases because individual plaintiffs are frequently unable to bear the costs of separate trials. They are, by definition, (allegedly) exploited workers. They’re not going to be able to pay legal costs and fight off a multi-billion dollar business in order to collect the few thousand dollars they were underpaid. At the same time, however, the defendants have rights too and, if the facts of each players’ treatment truly differ (e.g. the Yankees make their minor leaguers do more than the Brewers do) it’s not fair to bind one defendant’s defense to the acts of another.

So, where does this leave the players? Not dead. Not yet, at least. Their claims have not been dismissed on the merits. They have only been denied the right to act collectively. The individual plaintiffs can now file separate lawsuits against their former employers and Major League Baseball under the same theories. It would be harder to land a big blow in such a scenario, but if enough do, it could end up being death by a thousand cuts for the clubs and the league. Their legal fees might go up and, eventually, if they lose enough of these cases, more might be filed. There are a lot of former minor leaguers, after all, and once there’s some blood in the water, more of them — and their lawyers — may enter the frenzy. Decertification is certainly a win for the league right now, but it’s not necessarily a permanent win.

There are likewise some other quasi-collective forms this case could take such as multi-district litigation in which the cases, while individual, are coordinated in a loose fashion. That could lead to some efficiencies for suing players even if it’s not as robust as a class action.

We’ve written quite a bit about minor league pay and treatment in this space by now, so you probably know where we stand on it. We believe that minor leaguers are exploited and underpaid and we believe that Major League Baseball has been happy to exploit and underpay them for some time. Ultimately we believe that this state of affairs cannot and will not persist and that eventually, somehow, baseball will either see fit to pay its workers fairly or, more likely, will be forced to do so by a court or by collective bargaining of some fashion.

Today, however, was a big setback for the minor leaguers. Today’s ruling will give Major League Baseball and its clubs more time and more comfort in which to underpay them. There’s no doubt about it.