Lucky Buck and the Madd Scientist

September 12, 2012 | Thyrl Nelson

Lucky Buck and the Madd Scientist

Despite all of the advances made in the last couple of decades related to baseball statistics and their implementation into game philosophy, despite our ability to explain, predict and define the successes and failures that we see on a night by night basis in Major League Baseball the two most important aspects of baseball success remain impossible to predict or to quantify. Above and beyond all else, success in baseball is and always will be the result of luck and timing.

As Crash Davis taught us all in “Bull Durham” so many years ago, the difference between a .250 and .300 hitter in baseball is just one hit per week; “A Gork, you get a ground ball, you get a ground ball with eyes. You get a dying quail, just one more dying quail a week and you’re in Yankee Stadium”. With one hit per week being the difference between good and great, the timing of that hit and the circumstances surrounding it become increasingly important.

 

Of course Seneca, a Roman philosopher who never saw a game of baseball taught is that “Luck is where preparation meets opportunity”. By stacking a lineup full of players with quantifiable and predictable skills you can compel luck and over the course of 162 Major League games you can expect that by stacking the deck in your favor with talent you can also expect that luck to take hold at enough of the right times to be successful.

 

Still, every once in a while a team like the 2012 Orioles comes along and just throws a wrench into everything that we thought we “knew” about baseball. To call the Orioles lucky might be an understatement. Sure, there’s a heart and an intensity to the team that seems to make them successful, but whether that’s the precursor to their success or a byproduct of it is at the least debatable.

 

The Pythagorean crowd has already written off this team’s success as lucky and therefore impossible to continue. Maybe they’re right. Actually they’re probably right, but you could pick any other team in baseball that you want and deem them unlikely to win the World Series (or even to get there) and you’d probably be right.

 

Even the fans that have grown tired of hearing about the luck of the 2012 Orioles are at a true loss to explain their success. While suggesting that the Orioles success this year has simply been lucky is a disservice to those who have performed so well in making it so, explaining it as the byproduct of a manager “hitting all the right switches” is equally insulting. So why have Orioles fans grown so disdainful of anyone looking to explain away their success as lucky, yet so accepting of the notion that it’s Buck Showalter’s uncanny ability to manage the game as the driving force behind the Orioles success?

 

Of all of the major sports in America, baseball may be the one in which the impact of the manager is most minimal. And the brand of baseball typically played in the AL East only serves to further diminish the impact of the manager. Writing the lineup cards and choosing the pitchers is substantially more impactful than simply shuffling a deck of cards or rolling dice, but once those cards are stacked or those dice cast the manager’s impact is over and it’s up to the turns and bounces of the principals to determine the outcomes.

 

As the Orioles battle the Rays in an AL East showdown pitting a once improbable and now perennial contender against an unlikely contender of historical proportions it is and will be sold as a chess match of baseball’s grand masters. Buck Showalter and Joe Maddon seem to get the lion’s shares of the credit for their teams’ successes because otherwise we simply struggle to explain those successes. But do they deserve the credit they get? And at what point does that credit to the manager begin to wear on those actually doing the winning?

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  1. waspman Says:

    You can enjoy it without explanation or understanding if you want. I get the idea you are probably not alone. But it is explainable and understandable.

    The first thing one must do is get the idea of “market correction” out of the conversation. Clinton in 1999 threatened regulation if Freddie and Fannie weren’t put to expanded use to help those who otherwise wouldn’t get a home loan. The threat worked and there was a flood of new buyers on the housing market. Housing prices went up. People cashed in on their new-found equity. Banks traded dubious loans. Eventually, people defaulted on their loans and there were more homes available than buyers. Housing prices went down. Some people who had “upgraded” owed more on their loans than what they had was worth. Construction went down. Inventories went down. Employment went down. These are examples of market correction.

    A coin is flipped heads eight times in a row. The ninth flip is still a 50-50 proposition (more or less). It is not “due to be tails” because of some corrective process.

    Sports is more like the coin flip except the variables are more numerous than one coin.

    A player may be streaky because that is his tendency. That’s where Showalter comes into play. That’s also where Duquette comes into play.

    Jones has hit 28 HRs. Eighteen have tied the game or put the Orioles in front. Showalter sees this and bats him fourth. Sure, Jones walk-strikeout ratio is still not all that good, and he still chases more unreachable breaking balls. But Showalter puts him in a position to succeed. And succeed Jones does. And so does Showalter. That’s not luck.

    Reynolds struggles with strikeouts but hits lots of meaningless HRs (many with his team up or down by at least four runs). But he bats well batting seventh. Showalter either bats him seventh or bats him sixth with another bopper (Davis) to follow. Showalter puts both of them in positions to succeed. Often enough, one of them does. That’s not luck.

    Roberts is the leadoff man except he has been injured a lot in recent seasons. Showalter puts Reimold in that slot when he was going well, and didn’t feel locked in with Markakis and what others had hoped he would be by later using him leading off because that is more the reality of Markakis — a number one or two hitter. That’s not luck.

    The Orioles are the wosrt fielding team in the majors. Although overall they are still the worst or very near that, they are in the top tier in recent months. Changes were made by Showalter to expidite that. That’s not luck.

    The Orioles have a core of regulars. They have a lot of “other” players who have some attributes. Showalter puts those players in position to showcase those attributes. That’s not luck.

    That’s also not just Showalter. Duquette has been a breath of fresh air as well. He made moves that individually created a shrug of the shoulders each time. Collectively, he has given Showalter Plans B, C and D. And neither is locked into a move they have made as being Thee Move. If something is not working, it gets discontinued.

    Not all that long ago, Uehara was traded from a crappy team and there was a great reaction as he was a big deal signing. Very recently, Gregg was designated for assignment and it’s barely back page news. Meanwhile, the collection of pieces and parts has made not only Baltimore a pennant contender, but has made Norfolk a winner for the first time as an Oriole affiliate and Bowie playing post-season baseball for the first time in a long time.

    Players at all levels are given the chance to develop. Players at all levels are given the chance at success. Not all of them do, but they are given that opportunity.

    This is different than what we saw prior to Duquette and Showalter. The Orioles acquire Scott, get a few good seasons out of him, then he departs without compensation. Same with Wigginton. Same with others. Meanwhile, it was throw the young pitchers out there and let them learn on the fly. Yeah. Learn to lose.

    Showalter won eight of his first nine games as an Oriole manager. Call it luck if you want, but Trembley never had that stretch in 470 games as Oriole manager. Showalter in 360 games as Oriole manager is 182-178 after the Orioles were 273 games under .500 since Gillick-Johnson. Showalter was top five for Manager of the Year in five of his 11 seasons as manager prior to coming to the Orioles. That’s not luck.

    And there are stats to back all of this up for those who want an explanation or to understand.

    What is luck is Showalter wasn’t MacPhail’s first (or at least second) choice. What is luck is Daddy Angelos wanted MacPhail to return and Duquette wasn’t on the radar when MacPhail reconfirmed he was bowing out. Somehow, Oriole fans got both. Now, that is luck.

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