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?