They’re Not Getting Lucky

The St. Louis Cardinals, to date, have been the best team in baseball, at least in terms of getting wins and avoiding losses. It’s not surprising, in that the Cardinals have proven themselves to be something of a powerhouse, but it is surprising given some of their injuries. The Cardinals have the best record in the National League by two games. They have the best run differential in the NL by 32 runs. A big part of the explanation is pure talent. The Cardinals have talented players. There’s also the matter of timing. At the plate, with the bases empty, the Cardinals own an 86 wRC+, good for 24th and sandwiched between the Mariners and the Pirates. With man or men in scoring position, they own a 140 wRC+, good for first by a mile. The Cardinals have scored 35% of their baserunners, and that’s tops in all of baseball.

This didn’t escape Buster Olney’s attention. Olney has written and tweeted about the Cardinals’ ability to drive runners home, noting that they have the highest team OBP with runners in scoring position since at least 1974. A lot of this came up Sunday night, and a lot of the response, as you can imagine, is that the Cardinals have been lucky. Olney wasn’t buying this argument, and you shouldn’t buy it, either. “Luck” — what we’re dealing with here isn’t luck.

Look at the Cardinals’ splits. They don’t make sense. Good-hitting teams shouldn’t be bad at hitting in certain situations, and bad-hitting teams shouldn’t be good at hitting in certain situations. The Cardinals almost certainly aren’t going to keep hitting this poorly with no one on. Nor are they going to keep hitting this well in run-scoring situations. This is a situation that just screams out for regression, a somewhat complicated mathematical principle that’s weaved its way into ordinary parlance, and we can identify that by eyeballing it. We can declare, with an absurdly high degree of confidence, that the Cardinals’ splits are going to get more normal. But when talking about what’s already happened, there’s a need to be careful. There’s a need to pay attention to semantics.

In this situation, and in all such situations. I am far from the first person to write about this, but the word “luck” has been bothering me more than usual lately. I think people now are more responsible than they used to be, but they’re still over-aggressive, and it’s important to understand the difference between “luck” and “sustainability.” They are not the same thing, even if it feels like there’s an awful lot of overlap. Lucky outcomes are unsustainable, but not all unsustainable outcomes are lucky.

If one were to ask me, I’d say the Cardinals’ splits are unsustainable. They are not going to continue as they’ve proceeded to date. That is, they will not be sustained. But the Cardinals haven’t been flipping coins and getting a bunch of heads or tails. They’ve been the players hitting the baseballs, and we can’t strip them of responsibility. Think of the case of Yasiel Puig. At this writing, Puig’s got a 1.447 OPS. His slugging percentage is almost four digits. Obviously, Puig isn’t going to threaten to bat .500 for the duration of his career, but it wouldn’t be fair to say he’s been lucky. Perhaps he’s been lucky to have faced the Padres a bunch, but that line of his reflects his performance.

The thing about “luck” is, we know what people mean by it, usually. The purpose of language, to me, is to convey certain ideas, and as long as that’s accomplished, one needn’t be pedantic. One needn’t correct another who has the gall to say “decelerate.” But there is that important difference between “lucky” and “unsustainable,” and one makes it easier for statheads and sabermetric research to be dismissed. See, “luck” is off-putting, and inaccurate, and hardly necessary.

The big problem with using “luck” when talking about baseball is that it’s essentially a reassignment of agency. Baseball is a game between teams of individual players, and when you start tossing around “luck,” you start removing credit and blame from the equations, even though it’s the players who’re playing. It’s the Cardinals’ hitters who’ve hit the ball harder and found more holes with runners in scoring position. They did that — they swung at particular times, with particular swings, against particular pitches. They batted those baseballs, and they generated those results. They’ve been trying to get hits, and they’ve been largely successful.

The fact of the matter is that we don’t know how responsibility should be divvied up. This is a big issue when it comes to, say, BABIP. But when you start using a term like “luck,” you basically strip away all responsibility, and that’s dangerous. And, probably, wrong. Jhonny Peralta has a .417 BABIP, and that won’t continue. Adam Dunn has a .175 BABIP, and that won’t continue. But to simply say that Peralta’s been lucky or that Dunn’s been unlucky is to ignore a presumably real and significant performance difference. I’m guessing Peralta’s hit the ball harder. I’m guessing Dunn’s hit the ball worse, and perhaps more predictably.

When people talk about luck with regard to baseball statistics, they mean relative to some ordinary baseline. A player or team should have X, but instead they have Y. We can, again, use the BABIP example, where people are accustomed to seeing BABIPs around .290-.300. Someone’s lucky or unlucky if they’re a good deal away from that. Somebody’s normal if he has a BABIP of, I don’t know, .295. But what is the agency breakdown, then? Is the player considered responsible for the three hits out of ten balls in play? Could a player then not be responsible for two or four hits out of ten balls in play? When the Cardinals’ scoring-position splits regress, people will say the Cardinals hit like the Cardinals. Is it not possible for them to be responsible for temporary over-performance?

And that’s what this is really about — temporary over- or under-performance. People aren’t always performing right on their true talents, and variation can’t just be written off to luck. That misses too much of the truth, and while one can’t deny the presence and influence of luck, one should be careful not to exaggerate the impact. It’s going to make people less willing to listen, and it’s often going to be wrong, too. There’s almost never a reason to say “luck” when you can use some variety of “sustainable,” and though maybe that’s more of a mouthful, we’re already pronouncing names like “Adeiny Hechavarria” so it’s not like we’re worried about syllable economy.

One of the easiest ways to dismiss statheads is by saying they don’t watch the games, or they don’t enjoy them, or they don’t understand them. One of the easiest examples is the overuse of the word “luck,” as if baseball is nothing but dice in a cup. Mind your words, all of the time. Mind your words, in this case in particular.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.