Thursday, December 21, 2017

Baseball: A Balance of Skill and Luck 12/21/17

Hey baseball fans!

I watched a video on Vox's Youtube channel about the major American sports and how luck-oriented or skill-oriented they are. The video was based on a book called "The Success Equation" by Michael J. Mauboussin and in it, he explains why mathematically each sport lies where it does on a luck-versus-skill linear graph that he himself constructed. There's a lot of very interesting math involved, but let me just say this: all five sports on the graph (baseball, football, basketball, hockey, and soccer) all vary in terms of which concept, skill or luck, is a bigger factor, but baseball is the sport that's right smack in the middle of the other sports. Why is that? Without getting numbers-crazy, here's my explanation.

I think the bottom line is that baseball is really a game of inches, like football (which would explain why it too is located relatively in the center on the luck-skills graph amongst its fellow sports). It takes extreme precision and reaction time to hit a baseball; hitting a ball just millimeters away from the optimal area can turn a home run into a popup and a standard-speed fastball travels from the pitcher's hand to the catcher's mitt in about the time it takes for your eyes to blink. Developing the skills to even just make contact with a baseball requires a lot of effort and the same thing goes for pitching. If a pitch is even just a little bit off from the pitcher's desired location, then he heightens his risk of giving up a hit. Whether one is on the mound, in the batter's box, or even on the field, the main disciplines of baseball take time to master, which is why it's very rare to see an MLB draftee make his MLB debut soon after being drafted.

However, while the internal factors of a given play are more skill-oriented in baseball, the external factors are more luck-based. What if a good hitter faces an even better pitcher? What if that pitcher misses his spots and the hitter is blessed with a base hit? What if a key player on a team's roster gets injured right before facing a worse team? What if a fielder randomly makes an error that grants the other team an advantage? There are way too many variables that go into every moment of a baseball game to determine that the better team will always win, which is what makes the game so exciting.

One of the most interesting points made in the book by Mauboussin is how the rules of each game play a heavy role in a sport's placement on the luck-skill graph. Baseball is like hockey, in that the best hitters have the ability to impact a game just as much as the worst ones in a lineup, because a batting order is rotational. But baseball is like basketball in that a single player (in this case, a pitcher) has the time and position to completely take over a game. There's a sense of randomness that goes along with each baseball game, but it's still fair to say that a team of players with better stats is already favored to win a game over a team with inferior players.

Probably my biggest takeaway from the video is the fact that baseball's playoffs are the most random out of any sport, meaning that the winner of the World Series is not guaranteed to be the best team in baseball, not even in the slightest. Some people might view this as detrimental to better teams that deserve a championship, but I believe that because of baseball's balance of skill and luck, this randomness adds an entirely new factor to the graph: being clutch. In baseball, it's not the best teams that win, but rather the teams that want it the most and actually show up when games matter most. That's why I love baseball so much; it has the innate ability to turn nobodies into somebodies as quickly as it turns favored teams in April to September into losing teams in October.

Thanks for reading this post and I hope you enjoyed it. Check back soon for more of "all the buzz on what wuzz."

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