5 May 2008: Pluck and Luck

Monday, May 05 2008 @ 01:54 AM EDT

Contributed by: Magpie

It's early days yet, but that Evil Ghost that haunted 2005 seems to have risen from the old crypt and is loose in the Rogers Centre again.

That would be whichever malevolent spirit it is that requires that the Blue Jays lose at least two of every three close games they play in. After a month and a couple of days, the Jays sport a 3-8 record in one-run games. They've scored more runs than the Orioles and given up fewer. But Baltimore has the exact opposite record - the Orioles are 8-3 in one-run games - which is why they're ahead of Toronto in the standings.

It could always be worse - Seattle's lost 8 of 9 one-run games, and Atlanta's yet to win a single one, despite being in nine of them. But it's irritating nonetheless.

In 2005, of course, the Blue Jays became just the third team in history to outscore the opposition by more than 70 runs over the course of the season, yet still post a losing record. There are now four, as the 2006 Cleveland Indians achieved the same depressing feat. This happened just twice in the previous century, to the Cincinnati Reds in 1955 and 1958.

None of these teams were good in one-run games - how could they be, after all? As it happens, the 1955 Reds, who went 17-21 in one-run games, were the best of this Gang of Four in close games. And none were worse than the 2005 Jays, who lost 31 of 47.

At the time I said with verve and confidence that this was a one year fluke. Bizarre swings in a team's record in one-run games are largely a matter of random chance. Luck. A roll of the dice. And that's not something that persists from year to year. And time told the tale - in 2006, the Blue Jays were a very impressive 20-10 in one-run games, and in 2007, they went 29-25.

But as you can imagine, that grisly 16-31 mark in one-run games in 2005 prompted me to give the matter a closer look. While it has long been generally understood that random chance really does provide the only reasonable explanation for the phenomena, it did seem worth the trouble to investigate some other possibilities. But the teams that do well in one-run games have nothing else in common; some have a good bullpen, but some don't; some have good hitters off the bench, but some don't; some have shrewd and experienced managers, but some don't; some have offenses built around the home run, but some don't; some like to play small ball, but some don't. They have nothing in common, except their luck.

And similarly the teams that do badly in one-run games have nothing else in common either. some of them have good bullpens, some of them have good hitters off the bench, some of them have shrewd and experienced managers, some of them have offenses built around the home run, some of them like to play small ball. And some of them don't. They also have nothing in common, except their luck.

Well, we resist as vigorously as we can the notion that in the end so much of this comes down to a roll of the dice, random chance. Luck!

It is, however, by far the most reasonable explanation. Think about it. You don't lose by eight runs because you didn't catch a break - you lose by eight runs because you weren't very good that day. But the breaks of the day can cause you to win (or lose) by one run - when the game is close, when two well-matched teams (and at this level, all the teams are reasonably well-matched, from worst to first) both give a quality performance, anything can happen.

This is because the impact of random chance is sufficient to overwhelm the impact of overall quality.

We resist the notion anyway. It seems such a cop-out - instead of identifying and understanding what has happened and why, we're supposed to throw in the towel? Surely we can do better than that?

More subtly, the notion that random chance plays so crucial a role in the fortunes of the team simply slams a stone wall in front of our own pretensions to explain everything, and account for everything. There's no explaining how the dice are going to roll, there's no understanding it. It cuts us off - we have to let go, and watch what happens. The game can not be controlled, or predicted, or understood.

I nicked today's title from a story by the great Roger Angell, in the course of which he makes the following neat observation on George Steinbrenner:

What makes any hard-fought, well-played game so attractive and interesting is the perfect unpredictability of the outcome when a player is up at the plate or on the pitcher's mound.... But Mr Steinbrenner doesn't appear to find any pleasure in that moment; in fact, he can hardly bear it when his carefully selected, highly paid athletes actually have to go out there and play, and he and they and all the rest of us must wait to find out what will happen.

We have to surrender, too. It is irksome to suppress our inner Steinbrenner and acknowledge that there simply are things we can not know and can not account for. But we had best do so, or this game will drive us as crazy as it's driven Boss George.

It's not about character. Retired ball players often like to say that character is why a player succeeds, and I have no doubt that they believe what they're saying. Why wouldn't they? If their success was because of their superior character, it lets them persist in believing that they are superior human beings rather than people who lucked out in the genetic lottery. But baseball is not a game where you're more likely to succeed if you dig down deep and find a way to try harder than the other guy.

Baseball's a game where you're more likely to fail if you do that.