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Friday, May 29, 2015

Baseball Success: Skill, Luck, and Howard Cosell

I can't remember which World Series it was, but Howard Cosell was calling play-by-play and Hall of Fame pitcher, Jim Palmer, was color. At some point in the game, the team at bat loaded the bases on three bloop hits. Cowell, who didn't know a lot about baseball, remarked, "Do you think they'll pull the pitcher? He's been taking quite a pounding." To which Palmer responded, "Well, it's not as if they've been hitting the ball really hard, Howard."

Palmer's point, of course, is that there is a lot of luck in baseball. A pitcher can make a perfect pitch, fool the batter completely, but still with a bit of bad luck, wind up with a runner on base. Or, this case, runners on all three bases. It goes both ways, of course. A hitter can hit the ball on the nose every time up but end up with no hits in a game. I heard that once Joe DiMaggio hit four balls to the monuments at old Yankee Stadium and all were caught. All four would've been home runs in any other park baseball (except maybe the Polo Grounds), but if you only looked at the box score, you would might thin DiMaggio had a bad day at the plate.

Anyone who has played a lot of baseball knows this. Hitters often have to suffer through 10-20 game "slumps" when nothing falls in for a hit even though they're hitting the ball well. And pitchers will often see their ERA balloon even though the opposing hitters never hit a ball hard.

Until recently there wasn't a way to capture this difference between luck and skill, but a new technology employed by major league baseball can. In particular, new camera tracking technology can track a ball’s speed as it leaves the bat, which allows analysts to see whether hitters are hitting the ball well. Initial analyses indicates that there is a strong and positive correlation between how hard a player hits a ball and his production at the plate. And as a recent article at FiveThirtyEight points out, it can identify those batters who are experiencing higher than average amounts of bad (and good) luck ("Chase Utley is the Unluckiest Man in Baseball"). As the authors note, Chase Utley has been hitting the ball reasonably well, but so far this season, he hasn't had a whole lot of luck. In fact, he may be the unluckiest hitter in baseball:
Meet Chase Utley, the unluckiest man in baseball. The Phillies second baseman is cursed with a .115 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), meaning that about a tenth of the balls he puts on the field get him safely to base. An average BABIP mark is about .300, and while there is some variation between players, it’s usually on the order of a few dozen points, not 200. 
Some have argued that Utley ought to be benched. Given his age (36) and the wear and tear second basemen face, Utley could be in a steep decline. Statcast’s batted ball statistics say otherwise. Utley’s batted ball velocity is a little below average, not elite — but below average would be an incredible improvement from Utley’s .389 OPS (on base plus slugging average).
Although the statistic isn't perfect (e.g., it doesn't take into account how fast players run, which affects on base percentage), it is surely better than the old stand-by: batting average. Too bad it wasn't around when Howard Cosell was calling baseball games.

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