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:
|Year of perfect game||Pitcher||Seasons played||Wins||Losses||W-L %||ERA+**||Hall of Fame?***|
|1994||Kenny Rogers||1989-2008||219||156||.584||108||Not yet eligible|
|1998||David Wells||1987-2007||239||157||.604||108||Not yet eligible|
|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|
|* 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: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ERA%2B.)|
|*** Membership in the Hall of Fame is noted for the sake of completeness, though it is not conclusive proof of greatness. (See: http://libertycorner.blogspot.com/2006/10/anti-hall-of-fame-and-baseball.html; http://libertycorner.blogspot.com/2007/12/hall-of-famers.html.)|
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….