A second half search for a little bit of luck

First Half Review: Corner Infielders
First Half Review: Catchers

As we analyze the Yankees’ season, we often focus on the role luck plays in a baseball game. For those not used to the concept, though, it can be confusing. This isn’t the luck that leads you to find $10 in the washing machine, but it is more akin to the luck that leads you to just catch your train in the morning one second before the doors close. That still doesn’t answer the question what exactly luck is in a baseball context.

For that answer, we can turn to a three-year-old Wall Street Journal article by Russell Adams. In it, the author explores concepts and analysis surrounding luck. Using ample data points from the rich history of baseball, leading analysts both inside baseball’s front offices and outside of them can determine whether a player’s performance is lucky or a sign of a different shift.

Luck can take on a few different forms in baseball. On an individual level, the most obvious example is Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP). The average player’s BABIP will generally hover somewhere around .290. A player with a BABIP of .250 may be unlucky; he isn’t hitting them where they ain’t. He also may be popping up more and hitting fewer line drives, both negative factors on the ol’ BABIP. By looking at outcomes and results, statisticians can weed out bad luck from good.

On a team level, luck manifests itself in the form of win-loss records. Generally, history has shown that teams’ records track with their runs scored and runs allowed. This is known as the Pythagorean expectation. Teams that score a lot of runs without allowing as many generally win a lot of games, but one-run games or blowouts — the so-called “random” events — can impact the perception of how good or bad a team actually is. (For more on team-based luck, check out J.C. Bradbury’s take. He has written extensively on the topic.)

This year, the Yankees have, by one measure, been lucky. Based purely on their +60 run differential — they’ve scored 60 more runs than they’ve allowed — they should be 49-39 rather than 51-37. That calculation, however, doesn’t account for various factors, such as strength of schedule, Chien-Ming Wang‘s problems and the early-season blowouts. Another calculation, however, should give comfort to Yankee fans.

Using a complex statistic called base runs that attempts to calculate expected runs scored and expected runs allowed while controlling for strength of schedule, Matthew Carruth at FanGraphs has the luck breakdown of every team in the Majors. In this calculation — one Carruth admits is subjective, as are most complex concepts of team luck — the Yanks have a luck factor of -1 and the Red Sox are at 6. Tampa is at -9. In a perfect world, these would all balance to 0, and the AL would continue to be a three-way race between Tampa, New York and Boston.

(As an aside, a few FanGraphs commenters had some issues with Carruth’s methodology. Take a gander through the feedback there if you’re interested. My point will remain the same.)

So, where does this leave us? Well, as I said, we could take comfort in the luck factor. The Yanks were a bit unlucky and are still the Wild Card leader. Sounds good to me. But Tampa is a dark horse. If their luck evens out and Boston’s does as well, they could jump ahead of the Sox and Yanks in the standings.

In the end, then, we’re left where we started. We can understand the role luck plays in baseball; we can blame it for some of the Yanks’ failings; but we will be subjected to its whims this summer. As the 2009 season hits its second half, the two teams in the AL East who are the luckiest will probably be the ones playing in October while the third will go home.

First Half Review: Corner Infielders
First Half Review: Catchers
  • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

    Okay, whoring yourself out to the YES Network© Blogging Network™ was one thing, but The New York Lottery? Have you no shame? HAVE YOU NO SHAME?!?!?!??!

    RiverAveBlues = Phillip Tattaglia

  • KayGee

    Are there any statistics on luck in regards to missed calls by umpires (mainly on the bases) and how they could impact a teams record? Or is it assumed that eventually those calls even out by years end?

    • JGS

      It’s assumed they even out, but it’s also impossible to really know how the game would have played out had they made the correct call. We like to assume, but we really know nothing

    • RAB poster

      I can’t help but think that one game vs. Toronto was stolen by the umps.

      I know “all teams go through this” and “good teams can overcome those types of calls”.

      But I at least am convinced had the calls not been blown, we win that game.

  • http://theyankeeuniverse.com Moshe Mandel

    I cannot observe luck with my eyes. Hence it does not exist, and Girardi should be fired.

    • Reggie C.

      +1

  • Salty Buggah

    That +6 “luck” for the Red Sox isn’t luck, it’s all GRIT! Half of it comes from that animal on Youkilis’ chin.

    • JGS

      don’t forget an infallible bullpen and AA and AAA teams that could beat ~26 big clubs

    • Mike Pop

      His beard’s WAR is good for 6.0 wins a season.

      • Thomas

        He shaved his beard and the US didn’t win the WBC.

        Coincidence? I think not!

        • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

          He didn’t shave his beard. It just ran away.

          Don’t worry, he made sure this new squirrel was fully dead before he strapped in on. Once bitten, twice shy.

          • RAB poster

            + 1

          • UWS

            So that’s what happened to Scooter the squirrel. That explains so, so much.

      • RAB poster

        New theory: Giambi’s stache was actually a piece of Youk’s beard bought by Giambi for a cool 10 mill and implanted on Giambi’s face.

        It would explain a lot.

  • RAB poster

    Why does this matter? In the end, I know nothing more than before-if we win games, we win the division.

    Fascinating.

    • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

      Yes, I agree.

      Your head-in-the-sand approach new information is fascinating.

      • RAB poster

        TSJC-I know I appear that way. But this isn’t even a stat.

        I don’t get why knowing this helps us. Seriosuly.

        I live to fascinate.

        • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

          I don’t get why knowing this helps us. Seriosuly.

          Knowing more than you did before ALWAYS helps you. If nothing else, you gain valuable perspective.

          • RAB poster

            Fair enough.

            But what I’ve learned amounts to me as “if we win more games, we’ll win the division”.

            • whozat

              Then you didn’t really read very well.

              • RAB poster

                Then what exactly does it mean?

                That we were unlucky and need to get luckier?

                Therefore, we must win more games.

                • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

                  Seriously, dude, you’re not getting anything else from it because you’re choosing to not get anything else from it.

                  Whatevs. Not your cup of tea. Enjoy the sand.

                • RAB poster

                  All right then. What else could I get from it?

                  I understand what the article is saying. That we were unlucky and the Sox were lucky. Hopefully that will even out. And Tampa Bay is very unlucky, and that should change.

                  So, to win the division we must get lucky and win more games.

                • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

                  Nevermind. Forget I asked.

                • RAB poster

                  I feel as if somewhere at your computer/iphone/blackberry/place you’re typing this you’re banging your head against the wall.

                  My work here is done.

                • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

                  Is it?

                • RAB poster

                  No it isn’t actually.

                  But it looked good in print.

        • whozat

          because it provides us with a better understanding of what has happened.

          Obviously this isn’t something that the players or even the organization need to be looking at. However, as fans, it allows us to see that the Yanks have played a tad better than the record shows, and the Sox have played worse than the record shows. There is a factually-based reason to believe the Sox are due to regress somewhat in the second half.

          • RAB poster

            Unfortunately, there is also reason to believe Tampa Bay wll improve.

            • whozat

              Yes. There is. And knowing that is better than not knowing that, don’t you think?

              • RAB poster

                Ignorance is bliss…or not.

                I’d still take the Yanks over Tampa Bay. W/ Aceves in the pen (assuming he returns) our bullpen is > than Tampa Bay’s.

        • Mike HC

          When did a baseball article have to “help you.” It is just pointing out that luck plays a role in the results, and one guys analysis at Fangraphs shows the Yanks have been a little unlucky and the Sox to be lucky.

          • RAB poster

            It didn’t have to help me. I was just saying I didn’t get the point.

            Now I guess I do.

  • Sweet Dick Willie

    Is it just me, or does that guy look like Pedroia?

    • RAB poster

      All of a sudden I can’t look at that guy w/o imagining him in a Red Sox cap.

      The height is about right.

      • yankeefan91 Arod fan

        I also agree hahaha

  • Little Bill

    I understand luck and variance, but not many others wanted to hear it during the Yankees mini slump in early June. “I don’t want to hear That’s baseball blah blah blah.” These people were convinced that the team was as bad as the Nationals and that they’d quickly collapse. This is a good post to explain to these people that sometimes the the results just don’t happen because of variance and luck.

    • V

      Link? Or are you pretending to be oh so much cooler than everybody else, yet again, because your life is JUST that sad?

      • Bo

        Always the class act, V. You ever comment without insulting someone?

        • RAB poster

          Arguement time!

      • Little Bill

        Just do an RAB search for “variance.” Anybody that has been here a while knows that I have been at the forefront of this critical issue. I’ve defended guys like A-Rod, Tex, Cano, and Matsui who some people wrote off when they went through slumps. Bad streaks are going to happen to every player, but with good players like those mentioned it has a way of balancing itself out.

        • http://bronxbaseballdaily.com Matt ACTY/BBD

          Yeah, everyone sensible has said exactly the same sorts of things including myself, pat, Pop, TSJC, Mike, Ben, THCM….and a lot others.

          • Salty Buggah

            Exactly, and that’s why it angers me when he states he was the only one that right.

          • http://bronxbaseballdaily.com Matt ACTY/BBD

            Oh and Joe, too.

          • RAB poster

            I agree.

          • Mattingly’s Love Child

            New RAB Drinking Game rule. Everytime Little Bill claims he was the only one to be on a position or idea or anything, we drink.

            That work for everyone? We gotta get something positive out of his comments!

          • Little Bill

            I know you guys have. I never said I was the only one saying this. A lot of others have, including the 3 who run this blog. That’s why I like this blog so much.

        • S

          That’s true. Little Bill has always brought up variance. The only thing I don’t like is that he usually adds on how everyone was wrong and he was the only one who was right.

          • Salty Buggah

            Hmmm, my whole name didn’t get typed in…

    • Salty Buggah

      Yes, Little Bill knew everything…

  • Bo

    Luck? How about pitching and hitting better. That will help this “luck” thing out.

    • Mike Pop

      I cannot see or touch luck, therefore it does not exist.

    • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

      Thanks for continuing to not read before you comment, Bo.

  • http://www.puristbleedspinstripes.com Rebecca-Optimist Prime

    Baseball is the most superstitious sport of them all.

    Why wouldn’t luck be a part of it?

    • RAB poster

      We (anyway who wants to from RAB) should create a company that practices voodoo/witchcraft and performs good luck spells on baseball teams.

      Bet you there’s a market.

      • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

        I’ll go get a couple of buckets of KFC chicken.

        • RAB poster

          Grilled or fried?

        • http://bronxbaseballdaily.com Matt ACTY/BBD

          Eric, we can’t have guys (and Rebecca and UWS) throwin’ up all over the place, man.

        • I Remember Celerino Sanchez

          Candle sticks always make a nice present …

  • Jefe

    Blame Wang for the first half.

    If hes even just average this team has probably 60 wins right now.

    If thats luck so be it

  • JimT

    Ben, You are Brian Cashman’s PR man come true. Spend a ton on money, put together a flawed team and unproductive farm system and then have someone put together a stats oriented argumnet that its all “bad luck”. A dream come true.