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.

Jones, Maddux, Morris consider Bonds, Clemens for Hall

USA TODAY Sports
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COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Hall of Famers Chipper Jones, Greg Maddux, Jack Morris and Ryne Sandberg are among 16 members of the contemporary baseball era committee that will meet to consider the Cooperstown fate of an eight-man ballot that includes Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Rafael Palmeiro.

Hall of Famers Lee Smith, Frank Thomas and Alan Trammell also are on the panel, which will meet in San Diego ahead of the winter meetings.

They will be joined by former Toronto CEO Paul Beeston, former Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs executive Theo Epstein, Anaheim Angels owner Arte Moreno, Miami Marlins general manager Kim Ng, Minnesota Twins president Dave St. Peter and Chicago White Sox executive vice president Ken Williams.

Three media members/historians are on the committee: longtime statistical analyst Steve Hirdt of Stats Perform, La Velle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle. Neal and Slusser are past presidents of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.

Hall Chairman Jane Forbes Clark will be the committee’s non-voting chair.

The ballot also includes Albert Belle, Don Mattingly, Fred McGriff, Dale Murphy and Curt Schilling. The committee considers candidates whose careers were primarily from 1980 on. A candidate needs 75% to be elected and anyone who does will be inducted on July 23, along with anyone chosen in the BBWAA vote, announced on Jan. 24.

Bonds, Clemens and Schilling fell short in January in their 10th and final appearances on the BBWAA ballot. Bonds received 260 of 394 votes (66%), Clemens 257 (65.2%) and Schilling 231 (58.6%).

Palmeiro was dropped from the BBWAA ballot after receiving 25 votes (4.4%) in his fourth appearance in 2014, falling below the 5% minimum needed to stay on. His high was 72 votes (12.6%) in 2012.

Bonds denied knowingly using performance-enhancing drugs and Clemens maintains he never used PEDs. Palmeiro was suspended for 10 days in August 2005 following a positive test under the major league drug program, just over two weeks after getting his 3,000th hit.

A seven-time NL MVP, Bonds set the career home run record with 762 and the season record with 73 in 2001. A seven-time Cy Young Award winner, Clemens went 354-184 with a 3.12 ERA and 4,672 strikeouts, third behind Nolan Ryan (5,714) and Randy Johnson (4,875). Palmeiro had 3,020 hits and 568 homers.

Schilling fell 16 votes shy with 285 (71.1%) in 2021. Support dropped after hateful remarks he made in retirement toward Muslims, transgender people, reporters and others.

McGriff got 169 votes (39.8%) in his final year on the BBWAA ballot in 2019. Murphy was on the BBWAA ballot 15 times and received a high of 116 votes (23.2%) in 2000. Mattingly received a high of 145 votes (28.2%) in the first of 15 appearances on the BBWAA ballot in 2001, and Belle appeared on two BBWAA ballots, receiving 40 votes (7.7%) in 2006 and 19 (3.5%) in 2007.

Players on Major League Baseball’s ineligible list cannot be considered, a rule that excludes Pete Rose.

This year’s BBWAA ballot includes Carlos Beltran, John Lackey and Jered Weaver among 14 newcomers and Scott Rolen, Todd Helton and Billy Wagner among holdovers.