Saturday, June 24, 2006

The Luck Factor

Fascinating article in today's Wall Street Journal about luck in baseball. I can't link to it because the link requires registration, but it's titled "Baseball Confronts the Luck Factor" by Russell Adams. You can get a free two-week registration at www.wsj.com if you want to read the full article.

The article is about efforts to quantify "the ethereal quality of luck" in baseball using insights into randomnesss from other fields. The Journal asked ProTrade, "a startup co-founded by a former M.I.T. math whiz and staffed by engineers and former executives from companies like PayPal and eBay," to figure out which teams have been the luckiest and unluckiest this season.
ProTrade analyzed detailed data about each batted ball in every Major League game, including speed off the bat and the exact spot where it landed. Based on typical results seen over the past four years for batted balls with similar characteristics, ProTrade approximates the number of runs a team would have recorded, excluding "lucky" and "unlucky" plays. ProTrade then plugged those numbers into a formula (created by Baseball Prospectus) to predict each team's overall wins.
What ProTrade found is highly relevant to us:
The unluckiest team in baseball? The Pittsburgh Pirates, who, if you subtract chance as a factor, would jump from last to third place in their division.
ProTrade asserts that, if luck could be extracted from the results this year, we would be ahead of the Astros, Brewers, and Cubs in our division, 6 1/2 games behind the league-leading Cardinals. They also found that bad luck has inflated Ryan Vogelsong's ERA by about two full runs. Vogelsong is considered by ProTrade to be the 9th unluckiest pitcher in the National League. Mike Gonzalez, on the other hand, is the 10th luckiest--good fortune has lowered his ERA by about one and a quarter runs.

Of course, bad luck is not what we've seen at least during the last five games. That has been bad baseball (an understatement). But this data does seem to correlate with the large number of one-run losses we've experienced and with the vague sense that for as bad as this team has been, it is not quite as bad as its results would indicate.

7 Comments:

Anonymous bucdaddy said...

I coulda told them THAT. I'd say, "We have the terrible luck of being owned by McNutting and run by Littlebrain. Tell us something we DON'T know."

10:23 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

I don't believe in this luck research at all. I mean if a player hits a ball that should be a hit, then what kind of unlucky thing could possibly happen for it to not be a hit???? Unless you call a fielder catching a ball bad luck for the hitter. I would definately agree that the Pirates have had the worse luck in the area of ownership I am just praying for the day that Mark Cuban buys the team.

2:27 PM  
Blogger Billy said...

Dave: I don't have any insight into exactly how ProTrade or any of the other organizations that study this quantify luck, but you could look at the 4th inning in the Sunday game vs. the Dodgers, which just happened a few minutes ago. The Dodgers scored four runs on a series of dinks that bled through the infield (until the final single that knocked in two runs that conceivably might not have been on base if our luck had been better).

There is something different about four runs scored in this fashion than four runs that score by means of a walk, a run-scoring double to the warning track, another walk, and a three-run homer. The first four runs score with the assistance of good fortune, the second four score solely by means of one team outplaying the other.

5:42 PM  
Blogger Billy said...

Oh...but please don't take any of this to indicate that I don't want Mark Cuban--or any other sentient being, for that matter--to buy this team.

5:43 PM  
Anonymous bucdaddy said...

I dunno ... I think Dave kind of has a point. How is a screaming liner in the gap (between two fielders) any different luck-wise from a pop fly that falls between two fielders? Or a seeing-eye grounder that rolls between two fielders? There are seams on the field that are just difficult to defense. Does luck have anything to do with any ball hit into these seams?

Seems to me that what they (we) might be trying to quantify as luck is simply random distribution or chance or some other statistical explanation for which I admit I am woefully underinformed.

We as human beings seem to need to believe in luck to make sense of these random occurrences. It's almost like the ancients believing in hundreds of gods controlling events. We don't believe in Zeus but we want to believe in Luck; we must, we keep looking for her. Otherwise, we have to concede that much of what life pitches at us is utter chaos.

However, I would be willing to think of luck as events that transpire when you have a way to affect those events. In other words, that hanging curves and throwing errors are the real luck in the game, and we already have ways to quantify those. Hanging curves get quantified as home runs, and errors get added up into fielding percentages.

11:31 AM  
Blogger Billy said...

Seems to me that what they (we) might be trying to quantify as luck is simply random distribution or chance or some other statistical explanation for which I admit I am woefully underinformed.

Luck and "random distribution or chance" are the same thing. The argument here is that it is possible to "compute how much of a player's accomplishments stem from random factors." That's luck.

We as human beings seem to need to believe in luck to make sense of these random occurrences...Otherwise, we have to concede that much of what life pitches at us is utter chaos.

As I understand it, these guys are arguing that it is possible to compute the effect of randomness or chaos on the outcomes of games and of individual at-bats. If they are right, the computation becomes a useful way of identifying those players whose success has been earned and therefore is likely to continue vs. those players whose success has been based on a favorable distribution of chance occurrences and is therefore less likely to continue (because chance occurrences tend to regress to the mean as the sample size increases).

Again, I don't know enough about the methodology to be able to defend it--the article doesn't go into that kind of detail--but if you accept as a premise that the methodology may have merit, then the conclusion that the team most affected by an unfavorable distribution of chance occurrences has been the Pirates means something.

Of course, none of this is going to help the Pirates against the White Sox, Tigers, and Mets.

5:42 AM  
Anonymous Frederick the Great said...

Luck, in the long run, goes to the efficient.

Mark says,

And the Bucs ain't efficient.

6:55 PM  

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