Monday, March 31, 2008

Lucky Guesses

As everyone makes their picks for playoff teams and division finishes, I want to ruminate a bit on the most important quality of a champion:


I'd like to be able to say that having good players and coaches matters more. Certainly, having great players and wise managing decisions improves a team's odds of success. But playing well isn't enough. The best team does not necessarily win the championship. Just ask the 2006 Mets and Tigers. The champion is the team that plays well enough at the right time and gets the breaks.

Example: The Red Sox were the best team in baseball last year by a lot of measures. Yet they were nearly beaten by the Indians. In the 7th game of the series, a ball hit just fair over 3rd base caromed off the wall into no-man's land in short left field. With speedy Kenny Lofton on second base, the Sox were helpless to stop him from coming home with the tying run. But he didn't come home, because the 3rd base coach inexplicably held him up. The Indians stranded him there, and the Sox went on to pad the lead and win the game.

How would that game have been different if Lofton had scored there? What a huge momentum change and emotional lift for the Indians! But the Sox didn't have to face it, not because they did something right, but because the Indians screwed up. Lucky.

Example: On their march to the post-season, the Indians had an incredible succession of breaks, culminating in a plague of insects descending on the Yankees in game 2 of the Divisional Series. Another break you may not be aware of: while Scott Baker was pitching his near-perfect game at the end of August, I was in Chicago for a friend's wedding. The White Sox-Indians game was on in the pizza joint where we had dinner. Trailing 5-2 in the bottom of the 8th, the Indians had runners at the corners with 2 outs. The batter hit a lazy two-hopper to short - inning over, say hello to Bobby Jenks in the 9th! Except that the second hop hit some sort of divot on the infield dirt and bounced about ten feet to the right. The SS, who was in the correct fielding position for a normal bounce, could do nothing to prevent the ball from rolling into left field. A run scored, the inning extended, and the Indians would rally to take the lead and win the game.

I give the Indians credit for making that extra out count and stringing a couple more good ABs together when they had the opportunity. They were a very good team last year, and should be again in 2008. But the White Sox deserved to be out of that inning with a 3-run lead to hand to their closer. The only reason the Indians had the opportunity to be so good that night: luck.

The Rockies, as well as they played last September, needed a dicey call by the home plate ump to make the playoffs. The White Sox got their own dicey plate-ump call in the 2005 ALCS. The 2006 Cardinals were perhaps the weakest team to ever win the World Series. How lucky were they that the Tigers' pitchers threw the ball all over the infield? That Granderson slipped and fell in center field? As for the magnificent 2006 Twins: when Nick Punto is hitting .290 and Dennys Reyes has a 0.89 ERA, things are probably falling your way.

Predictions about pennant races may be based on reputation and past performance of players, or more scientific methods like PECOTA or Pythagorean scoring. Those metrics are usually close, but in the cases where they're off, dumb luck is the biggest reason. Crazy things happen in the course of a baseball game that have nothing to do with the ability and performance of the players. There is no way to predict which teams will benefit, and which will be harmed.

I made some projections about numbers I expect the Twins players to put up. Over the course of a long season and career, one can make reasonably educated guesses about an expected statistical performance. But when it comes to predicting wins and losses, the numbers don't tell the whole story. It's not just how many runs you score, but when you score them. That's how Seattle and Arizona could be way over .500 despite allowing about as many runs as they put up.

So when I'm asked who I think will win in 2008, I feel like what I'm really being asked is, "Who do I think will be luckiest this year?"

(Shrug) Why not Tampa?

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