Monday, April 16, 2007

Perspective and the Residue of Design

"Luck is the residue of design." - Branch Rickey

Could I possibly pick a more cliché quote with which to open a post? Probably not. Nonetheless, it's one of my favorite quotes and serves as an excellent introduction to a topic that tends to be very misunderstood: luck.

In baseball, attributing an event or series of events to "luck" is usually seen as either an excuse or an insult. It tends to offend people. It's often seen as a dodge to avoid tackling the real issue. Instead of analyzing underlying events, chalking something up to luck seems to be the easy way out.

The problem is that "luck" means different things to different people. Worse yet, it should mean different things to different people. These different perspectives are often the cause of misunderstandings when people start attributing "luck" to various events. Let's take a look at each perspective.
  • The Player's Perspective

    From a player's point of view, very little that actually occurs is lucky or unlucky because he is directly able to affect what's happening in the game. Sure, a bad bounce is bad luck and the opposing team's shortstop committing a throwing error is good luck, but the players directly influence events. Even the above examples require interaction from players: to be the beneficiary of a peculiar bounce, a batter must first put the ball into play. That's not luck; it's almost all skill.

  • The Manager's Perspective

    The manager's perspective is more removed than the player's perspective. For example, not only are bad bounces and fortuitous errors highly subject to chance, so are the things that his own players do. A manager can only send a pinch hitter to the plate, he can't will him to get a clutch hit.

    If I send by elite pinch hitter, Homer Offenwalker, a .450 hitter with power in close and late situations throughout his career (yes, I know this is unlikely to be a skill), to the plate with runners on second and third, two outs, down by one in the ninth inning, and he doesn't get a hit, was it a bad decision? Of course not. It's just unlucky that Homer came up empty that time. From Homer's perspective though, it's not luck. He failed, and a lot of that has to do with his skill as a hitter.

  • The Executive's Perspective

    Let's say you're the general manager of the Oakland A's. Your name is Billy Beane. Your shit doesn't work in the playoffs. You are famous for saying that the playoffs are essentially a crap shoot. Is this true?

    From your perspective, it mostly is true. Once a GM puts a team together, he has to sit back and watch it play. If his team clicks in the postseason, he's lucky. If it forgets to slide to avoid a tag at home plate, that's unlucky. As a GM, all you can do is put the best possible team on the field, you can't make them win.

    I feel that this is the crucial misunderstanding between a lot of fans, players, and analysts (objective or otherwise). When objective analysts talk about a team being lucky or unlucky, it's almost always a reference to the GM's perspective, not that of the individual players.

    A team winning more games or fewer games than expected from its run differential is highly subject to chance from an executive's perspective, but the player's are the ones making it happen. They directly contribute to each outcome. From their perspective, little of what happens is luck or chance.

  • The Fan's Perspective

    Most fans naturally assume another perspective, usually the GM's or manager's, when talking about baseball. We put ourselves in another person's position in order to critique their decisions. Most of the critique's that I make here are from the GM's perspective.

    But in reality, my perspective is even more subject to chance. Even the players that a GM acquires or the ticket prices at the ballpark are beyond my control. The only thing I can do is fork over money to make my team competitive.
What Branch Rickey means when he says, "Luck is the residue of design," is that he has no direct control over the events viewed as lucky or unlucky, but that his decisions, his design, put the pieces in place to influence that outcome. Keeping this in mind when I, and others, refer to random chance in an event will go a long way towards understanding the meaning of the analysis in question.

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