Kobritz: Is baseball a game of skill or luck
Beyond the Lines
Branch Rickey, one of the greatest pioneers in baseball history, famously said, “Luck is the residue of design,” the result of planning and hard work. While the benefits of hard work are undeniable, it doesn’t always lead to the result you desire. Sometimes, the only explanation for success is plain old luck, which often happens in sports.
We saw multiple examples of luck in this year’s American League Championship Series between the Boston Red Sox and Houston Astros. The series featured the two winningest teams in MLB this season, both setting franchise records for wins, 108 for the Red Sox and 103 for Houston. With no apparent team weaknesses, the defending league and World Series Champion Astros were favored. But behold the baseball gods, i.e., luck.
In baseball, the goal is to win games, regardless of the number of pitches, hits, runs, errors or “bad breaks.” Teams can out pitch and outhit their opponents, but those stats don’t guarantee wins. A hit that doesn’t drive in a run or lead to a run scored may be a measure of a player’s skill, but it’s no different than an out that doesn’t lead to a run. In other words, such hits are nothing more than meaningless stats. Ultimately, only one stat counts: outscoring your opponent in a game. A “W” by any means is still a win.
Like other sports – golf, tennis, track and field among them – baseball is a game of inches. Several plays in the Houston-Boston series turned the tide in Boston’s favor. In the bottom of the ninth inning of game four with the bases loaded, Astros third baseman Alex Bregman smoked a line drive to left that Boston leftfielder Andrew Benintendi caught inches off the ground, ending the game. Had the ball eluded Benintendi – been hit a mere inches in either direction - Houston would have tied or won the game. But the Red Sox won, the only meaningful statistic in the game.
Earlier in game four, the Astros’ Jose Altuve was called out on fan interference. Had the ball been hit six inches further, it would have been a home run, giving Houston two runs.
In game five, Houston’s Justin Verlander gave up a three-run homer to Boston third baseman Rafael Devers. Luckily for Boston, the game was played in Houston instead of Boston, where the ball would have scraped the leftfield wall for a double instead of a home run, leading to the game-winning hit in a 4-1 Boston victory.
If we’re counting stats, the Astros outhit the Red Sox in the series, had a better on-base percentage, a better slugging percentage, and based on most metrics, outpitched the Red Sox. Were they a better team? If your definition of better is more skillful, maybe. But if better is defined as more wins, the answer is obvious. The record books don’t account for luck. They will forever show Boston dominated Houston in the only stat that counts: they won more games than the Astros and moved on to the World Series.
Jordan Kobritz is a non-practicing attorney and CPA, former Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog, sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Kobritz can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.