Thursday, June 30, 2005

On luck

There's a lot of fuss circulating in Nats Nation about "luck" these days. You might have heard of it.

The general contention, asserted by those in the Baseball Prospectus writers group, among others, is that the Washington Nationals are an extraordinarily lucky team. Their standard is the so-called Pythagorean theorem of baseball, and they proffer into evidence the Nats' run differential, which is currently minus-four. (The Nats have scored 315 runs and yielded 319.) According to Pythagorus, the Nats "should" (or, rather, "would"---since I'm pretty sure the old guy doesn't much care) be 38-39, instead of 46-31; seven games behind Atlanta, instead of 3.5 games ahead; and in third place, instead of atop the National League East.

There are many ways to approach the issue, several of them quite valid (in my view, at least). You could critique a substandard analysis on the subject, as friend of this blog Yuda has done. You could cite teams from past seasons who experienced success to various degrees, despite substantial disconnects between their actual and Pythagorean (or estimated) records. You could argue that the team is lucky and good, as Harper from Oleanders and Morning Glories did to great effect a week or two ago.*

You could also take offense at the evaluation.You might even burn the people who cite Pythagorean records in rhetorical effigy and lash out with ad hominem name-calling. That's fine, too, I suppose. It's a sincere reaction.

I want to back the truck up a bit and approach the issue from a broader perspective. Let's just assume that the Nats are lucky; let's further assume, consistent with everything we know about luck, that the luck is a warehouse of potential energy ready to burst back in the team's face at an indeterminate time in the future.

Who cares? What's so ignoble about being lucky?

I am most definitely not qualified to speak from a sociological perspective, but I find a strange cognitive dissonance envelops America on the topic of luck: perhaps out of a sense of duty or honor or pride or craftsmanship, we are supposed to be embarrassed to ascribe success to it, yet many of our popular heroes prevail with little more than it. Watch for it the next time the good guys prevail in an action movie, or Tiger Woods somehow coaxes one last rotation from the golf ball on a miraculous chip in, or Derek Jeter gets to any ground ball to his left. That's all luck, folks.

And it's nothing of which to be ashamed. Why, this is what conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote about Ronald Reagan---the "Gipper" himself, a man Kruthammer greatly admired, and of whom many believe embodied an American spirit of hard work:

"What made Ronald Reagan the greatest president of the second half of the 20th century? Well, he certainly had the one quality Napoleon always sought in a general: luck. Luck in his looks, luck in his voice, luck in his smile, luck in his choice of mate . . . and the greatest luck that any president can have: to find a nation in trouble."

There's nothing disgraceful about being lucky, right?

Well, what did Shakespeare think about luck? The guy could write pretty well, don't you think, so maybe he had something interesting to say about it:

Fortune brings in some boats that are not steered.

Hey, cool. Just for the heck of it, here's a whole page (or four) on the virtue of being lucky. Emerson didn't seem so fond of the concept, granted; however, Roy Kroc, the McDonalds dude ("Luck is a dividend of sweat.") was down, and so was another hale and hearty American, football coach Darrel Royal ("Luck is what happens when preparation meet opportunity.").

Still uncomfortable with "luck"? Fine. Call it "ingenuity" (a bit of the Royal take, I suspect) or "miraculous." I'll take two of those any day, come to think of it.

But whatever you do, don't forget to take tremendous satisfaction in the first 77 games and extract exceeding joy for however long this run lasts. And embrace the "luck" (or "ingenuity" or "miraculous" result), wherever it pops up. You don't think a team wins consecutive games with Wil Cordero as its starting first baseman just by being good, do you?

* The more I think about it, the more this post parallels Harper's in a sense. I read Harper's post a week or two ago, but I can't find it at the OMG blog. I'll try to find it again, and when I do, I'll link to it; it's worth the read.


Good post, Basil. Even if we are lucky, who cares? We're still 16 games over .500!!
Really, really well done Basil but I'm not sure I buy it. The longer this goes on, the less likely it is due to luck.

If the Nats were to lose their next 10 games in a row, they would still be 6 games over .500 at the all star break!

When I was in college, my best friend was a statistics major (I was an English/Computer Science guy) and I loved to mess with his head. One night after a few beers, I told him I would flip a penny onto the floor 20 times and screw his entire theory of random distribution. He agreed after I set out ground rules where he couldn't touch the coin etc. I proceeded to produce 20 straight heads with a penny right out of my pocket. What he didn't know was that I used a two headed coin.

It is my contention that the Nats are to the point where luck is beyond a reasonable explanation. It's July 1st and they are 16 games above .500.

Someone or something is using a two headed coin and we just haven't figured it out yet.
My only current guess is that our run-differential breaks down at a certain time in the pitching order (Esteban's run support a clue)? During the other positions we actually are quite favorable. I still don't know if this would get us to 16 games over, but there should be a way to predict us being around 4-6 games over (our record disregarding one-run games)

BY the way shamless plug
was my column
All good points/insights.

My post was not nearly so ambitious. I was just assuming arguendo that the Nats are like BP-level lucky. I think, once you get past the initial, visceral reaction to the concept, there's little reason to be ashamed or angry at the statement. Take joy in it; everyone values good luck, deep down.

And if we're lucky, we've "banked" an awful lot of games!
Oh, and I'll throw that link up today, Harper. I liked the post.
Great post! Luck or not, the fans that get the most enjoyment out of winning are the ones who root for teams that aren't expected to win (e.g. Hickory High in Hoosiers), not the ones who root for teams that are supposed to win (e.g. the Yankees). Plus, sitting in the stands, a one run win is a lot more exciting than a blowout. So let's be thankful we have a lucky team that has provided so much excitement this season, and hopefully a whole lot more in the second half!
It seems that way, doesn't it, Allen? Lots of NYY's fans I know seem to struggle with the concept of experiencing joy when the Yanks win.
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