More about Luck and Baseball

In “Luck and Baseball, One More Time,” I make the point that

it takes a lot more than luck to succeed at almost anything, from winning high office to making millions of dollars to painting a masterpiece to building a house to cutting hair properly. To denigrate the rich and famous by calling them lucky is to denigrate every person who strives, with some success, to overmaster whatever bad luck happens to come his way.

The backdrop for that claim is some statistical evidence from the history of major-league baseball:

In the 111-year history of the American League, 60 different players have led the league in batting. Those 60 players have recorded a total of 367 top-10 finishes in American League batting races over the years — an average of 6 top-10 finishes for each of the players. It is not surprising, therefore, that most of the 60 players also compiled excellent career batting averages. Specifically, through 2010, 57 of the 60 had made at least 5,000 plate appearance in the American League, and 43 of the 57 are among the top 120 hitters (for average) — out of the thousands of players with at least 5,000 plate appearances in the American League. Were those 43 players merely “lucky”? It takes a lot more than luck to hit so well, so consistently, and for so many years.

Here is more evidence to the same effect. Two days ago, a young pitcher for the Chicago White Sox named Philip Humber threw a perfect game against the Seattle Mariners. Humber’s was the 19th perfect game since 1893, when the distance from the pitcher’s plate (rubber) to the back point of home plate (where the foul lines intersect) was increased to 60 feet, 6 inches. The 19 perfect games were pitched by 19 different men. And the total number of major league games played from 1893 through today numbers well above 300,000, which means that the potential number of perfect games (if thrown by both teams’ pitchers) is well above 600,000.

Aha, you might say, a perfect game is a matter of luck. Well, it may be partly a matter of luck, but baseball (despite some elements of randomness) is a game of skill, applied intentionally. A perfect game, like many other aspects of baseball, is the residue of the applied skills of pitchers and fielders, just as (the prevalent) imperfect game is the residue of the applied skills of batters and base runners.

The element of skill involved in pitching a perfect game is evidenced by the fact that most of the players who have pitched perfect games are the holders of above-average to exceptional pitching records:

Career Record*
Year of perfect game Pitcher Seasons played Wins Losses W-L % ERA+** Hall of Fame?***
1904 Cy Young 1890-1911 511 316 .618 138 Yes
1908 Addie Joss 1902-1910 160 97 .623 142 Yes
1922 Charlie Robertson 1919-1928 49 80 .380 90 No
1956 Don Larsen 1953-1967 81 91 .471 99 No
1964 Jim Bunning 1955-1971 224 184 .549 114 Yes
1965 Sandy Koufax 1955-1966 165 87 .655 131 Yes
1968 Catfish Hunter 1965-1979 224 166 .574 105 Yes
1981 Len Barker 1976-1987 74 76 .493 94 No
1984 Mike Witt 1981-1993 117 116 .502 105 No
1988 Tom Browning 1984-1995 123 90 .577 98 No
1991 Dennis Martinez 1976-1998 245 193 .559 106 No
1994 Kenny Rogers 1989-2008 219 156 .584 108 Not yet eligible
1998 David Wells 1987-2007 239 157 .604 108 Not yet eligible
1999 David Cone 1986-2003 194 126 .606 121 No
2004 Randy Johnson 1988-2009 303 166 .646 136 Not yet eligible
2009 Mark Buehrle 2000- 162 121 .572 120 Active player
2010 Dallas Braden 2007- 26 36 .419 102 Active player
2010 Roy Halladay 1998- 191 93 .673 139 Active player
2012 Philip Humber 2006- 12 10 .545 110 Active player
Combined W-L 3319 2361 .584
* Through April 22, 2012.
** Earned run average adjusted for ballpark and the league’s mean ERA in each season. An ERA+ of 100 is therefore an average performance over a career; ERA+ >100 is above average; ERA+ <100 is below average. (Details here:
*** Membership in the Hall of Fame is noted for the sake of completeness, though it is not conclusive proof of greatness. (See:;

The point of this excursion into baseball is stated in an old post of mine:

A bit of unpredictability (or “luck”) here and there does not make for a random universe, random lives, or random markets. If a bit of unpredictability here and there dominated our actions, we wouldn’t be here to talk about randomness….

Human beings are not “designed” for randomness. Human endeavors can yield unpredictable results, but those results do not arise from random processes, they derive from skill or the lack therof, knowledge or the lack thereof … , and conflicting objectives…

In baseball, as in life, “luck” is mainly an excuse and rarely an explanation….

Related posts:
Fooled by Non-Randomness
Randomness Is Over-Rated
Luck-Egalitarianism and Moral Luck
Luck and Baseball, One More Time