The Long Hello: Some Notes on Luck

Warning: what follows is very nearly about baseball.

Perhaps the Reader has heard that story, apocryphal or not, about the early century art-goer who, upon observing the less-than-representative figures of Mister Pablo Picasso’s paintings, said something along the lines of: “That’s not art! My child could do that!”

Perhaps the Reader hasn’t heard that story. Either way, the point remains: Picasso’s work has a playful sensibility that one could certainly construe as childish and, hence, easy. Picasso — who, if Jonathan Richman is any authority, never got called an asshole — had a clever response to this, saying (again, perhaps apocryphally), “When I was young I could paint like Raphael. It took my whole life to paint like a child.”

Jonathan+RichmanIf the Good Reader has a similar reaction — i.e. “My child could do that!” — to the work I’ll be providing to FanGraphs, I won’t be very surprised. Which, that’s way less to say that I’m a genius-level-master-of-the-genre like Picasso and way more to say that I’m less smart than the other people who contribute here and it’s pretty obvious.

Messrs. Appelman and Cameron have admitted me on a trial basis to these electronic pages as “a change of pace”. I’ve been too frightened to ask — for fear of messing things up — to ask exactly what that means. My sense is that I’m basically allowed to do whatever I want (like, I dunno, write an entire article about how, in the future, I’ll be writing other articles) so long as the word “baseball” appears somewhere. Other than that, I’ve essentially been given free reign to write pieces — like I’ve done some other places — to write pieces that (hopefully) appeal to the sort of person inclined to point his or her web browser to the best independent baseball analysis site on the internet.

Translation: I’ve won the Baseball Nerd lottery.

I say this less to brag and more to prove a point*. As the Average Reader of FanGraphs is very probably college-educated, literate, and generally sharp as a tack, you might very well feel like those critics of Picasso. Maybe your kids couldn’t do this exactly**, but you, reading this right now, almost certainly could. In other words, there’s no good reason in the world why I — or any one person, in particular — should be allowed to do this.

*I swear, just wait.

**Or, okay, maybe they could.

Well, there is one reason: luck.

American Funnymen Will Ferrell and Larry David have both discussed on NPR the role of luck in their respective careers and in the lives of actors, in general. David said during one recent installment of Weekend Edition: “There’s a tremendous element of luck in show business, especially when it comes to acting. There are great actors out there that nobody knows about and probably have had to quit because they couldn’t make a living.” Now, whether those other actors are/were as talented as either Ferrell or David, we don’t know, but the fact remains: there’s not always a perfect correlation between talent and success.

Writing is no different. Consider: a couple friends of mine, Jed Berry and Reif Larsen, have, of late, found success as honest-to-goodness, real-live novelists — and deservedly so, I’d say.

chestertonNow consider another friend of mine, Sean Casey*. I feel very comfortable saying that Sean — whose literary voice I’d describe as a mixture of Mickey Avalon and GK Chesterton — is the best author working in English**. Sean has had some stories published in McSweeney’s — no small feat, of course — but has yet to find the same sort of commercial success as either Jed or Reif. You could never say it was due to a lack excellence in re his prose stylings, though. (Or, I guess you could say it, but if you did, I’d be forced to put on these here brass knuckles.)

*Yes, like the Mayor himself. And, what’s more, is that it’s actually Sean Thomas Casey. Also like that Mayor.

**A point I’d be make even more vigorously were I able to read.

Understanding the role or contribution of luck as distinct from true skill: this is more or less one of the current missions of sabermetrics. Stats like xFIP, tRA, PrOPS, third-order wins — their intent is to understand not necessarily what did happen but to understand what probably should have happened or what would usually happen and what is most likely to happen in the future. Teams that have adopted sabermetric analysis — in tandem, of course, with traditional scouting — have succeeded*. They understand, unlike Bill Bavasi during his post-2007 spending spree, that results can be deceiving if the peripherals suggests something else.

*There’s a book about this called Moneyball. It’s kinda underground, though, so you’ve probably never read it.

Sky Kalkman writes on his profile over at Beyond the Boxscore that he roots for “smart organizations and underrated players.” My guess is that anyone who points his internet browser to FanGraphs feels roughly the same way. The sabermetric community is one generally dedicated to fairness, thoroughness, use of reason, and curiosity — a number of qualities that haven’t always existed in baseball management.

Even recently, how painful has it been, for example, to watch Jose Frigging Vidro play first base for the Mariners while Russell Branyan toiled in four corner obscurity in Milwaukee (and Nashville)? Or to watch (Sir!) Sidney Ponson throw a pitch ever?

Woody Allen says at the end of Annie Hall that we’re always trying to get things to come out perfect in art because it’s so difficult in real life. My impression is that, if we can accept Allen’s as a definition of art, then sabermetrics is absolutelydefinitelyassuredly an art. And, just as Kalkman notes, it’s an art whose practitioners are bent on seeing justice done — in baseball, if nowhere else.

love_and_death

I’m aware that right now, as a Baseballing Writer, with this opportunity to write for FanGraphs, I’m about as lucky as it gets. Were I a pitcher, my opponent BABIP and HR/F would be below league average. I’d be undeservedly in line for Cy Young consideration. I’d basically be the Barry Zito of 2002 of sportswriting (which, okay, he wasn’t bad, but he also wasn’t this guy).

Here’s to hoping that, when things regress to the mean, I’m able to hold down a spot in the rotation.

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Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

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Kevin S.
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Kevin S.

Did you pay royalties for abuse of the Posterisk?

Mike I
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Mike I

I’m not entirely certain that it was Joe Posnanski who invented the footnote.