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Is Luck Part of Baseball? What About Other Sports?

Over the past week or so, there have been several articles discussing the “Luck Factor” in baseball. 

The first of these articles appeared in The Wall Street Journal, called “Baseball Confronts the Luck Factor” (June 24 — Russell Adams), and it focused on whether luck is a part of the success or failure of several players and teams so far this season.  The first example was Yankees’ outfielder Melky Cabrera, who got off to a hot start, with an average over .300 through early-June, but has since hit just .189.  Adams argues that 1 in 4 of Cabrera’s hits were the result of luck, and his average should’ve been .231 when it was over .300.  This begs the question: what does luck mean?

Luck is defined in Webster’s dictionary as: the chance happening of fortunate or adverse events.  Bringing that to baseball terms, it means that one team or player was benefited by an unpredictable occurrence, and the other team was negatively impacted by the occurrence.  In baseball, luck could be many different things such as a slow outfielder’s inability to get to a ball, an umpire making a bad call, or a fan pulling-off the “Bartman” trick (touching or grabbing a ball while it was in the field of play).  In Melky Cabrera’s case, since his batting average was considered inflated by luck, the slow outfielder is a likely culprit, because some of his “bloop” base-hits could have been flyouts if outfielders had gotten to the ball. 

The article also mentioned that one of the luckiest teams in baseball is the Boston Red Sox, who would trail the Yankees and Blue Jays, if they were not lucky.  Interestingly enough, the Red Sox are one of several teams who use sabermetrics as well as the “Luck Factor” to prepare for games; the other teams relying on the “Luck Factor” are the Oakland Athletics and San Diego Padres.  This means that it may be possible to put luck on your side, by analyzing past luck, and that would take the luck out of it.  Also interesting to note about the Red Sox is that Fenway Park has by far the most bizarre dimensions in baseball.  The “Pesky Pole”, “Green Monster”, and extremely tight right-field line make playing at Fenway a nightmare for opposing outfielders.  These two examples seem to say that it’s possible to both create luck and control luck, which in essence takes the luck out of the situation.  Fenway has been rumored to have magical powers, now there’s evidence that it does.

In my opinion, luck is a huge part of baseball, and one of the important skills in baseball is “controlling” luck, or making sure that luck does not impact your play.  Back to the Red Sox; Boston recently signed pitcher Jason Johnson because he throws one of the best sinkers in all of baseball, and gets many groundball outs.  The Red Sox have one of the best infields in the league, with Kevin Youkilis, Mark Loretta, Alex Gonzalez, and Mike Lowell all potential gold-glove contenders.  The range of the infielders combined with Johnson’s high groundball percentage means that when he’s on the mound, the Red Sox will reduce the number of “lucky” hits, or in other words, they will partially “control” luck.  And that’s the best you can do, because if you could completely control luck, there wouldn’t be any of it involved. 

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Just looking at baseball when discussing the impact of luck is quite narrow, because all sports are heavily impacted by the “Luck Factor”.  Looking only at recent events, several games have been changed because of luck… 

  • During the World Cup match between Italy and Australia, Italy earned a penalty kick in the final seconds and won the game because of it.  The penalty kick however, was the result of a bad call by the referee, and a good job of “selling” a foul by the Italian player (in a way, “controlling” luck). 
  • The Miami Heat were able to come away with the NBA Championship because of several questionable foul calls drawn by Dwyane Wade.  Because Wade is a star player, the referees seemed to assume he was fouled in a few crucial situations, when in fact he wasn’t, and had just “sold” the fouls.  Wade, because of his stardom, was “controlling” luck.

In other words, luck will be involved whenever one side can be helped and the other hurt.  In sports, because a referee or umpire is deciding plays and penalties, there will inevitably be bad calls, because no referee is perfect.  The important thing is knowing how to avoid luck, or how to benefit from it.  To succeed, a team or player needs to be able to put luck aside and let their skills dictate the game, making it unimportant in the outcome.  So when you say a team is lucky, in my opinion, all you’re saying is they know how to keep luck on their side. 

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3 Responses to “Is Luck Part of Baseball? What About Other Sports?”

  1. Interesting, but I was hoping you will dig into details. For example – how teams are using luck factor in their calculations? WSJ article doesn’t offer much details about math teams are using. Example would really help here.

  2. Thanks for bringing this out into the light. I appreciate the efforts of people like you to help the rest of us understand the world around us.

  3. nawww b


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