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Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Luck? Smartypants Bill James Doesn't Think So 

This is just to keep things argumentative. I totally agree with your last post, Chris, but I'm going to dispute the very last thing you said: that the difference between five games here and there is "blind luck". I've heard this insistence before, and I'm sure it's easy to prove half-assedly, though I've never actually seen it done. I've also seen a lot of old baseball guys (the Joe Morgans of the world) have near-fatal strokes disagreeing with it.

Well, I hate to throw my hat in with Joe Morgan, but I'm with the old baseball guys, dammit. Sort of.

And I'm not the only one. Bill James, inventor of pythagorean standings and the ultimate smart-ass-baseball-obsessed-stat-whiz, came to the same conclusion some years ago. After spending decades trying to figure out how the hell stats become wins, he spun the world of baseball-obsessed-stat-guys on its head by starting with a brand new assumption: that the exact number of wins a team ends up with are a perfect reflection of the performances of the players on that team.

Not pythagorean wins, but wins. This implies that, after years of scorning the foolish assertions of "clutch performance" by the Joe Morgan Crowd, James essentially shrugged and decided they were right. Sort of.

There's one key difference between the way Joe Morgan sees clutch performance and the way James does. Morgan and his ilk drastically overestimate the importance of the odd clutch hit or "forced" double-play. Anybody who's heard him call a ballgame knows this. There's always some shlub he insists is going to be a star because he saw him hit a game-winning double a few months ago. Bill James insists on establishing the value of each of these discrete events statistically, then adding them up.

As a stat-minded person who failed miserably as a baseball player, I'd love to believe that there's no such thing as clutch performance. Because in the clutch, I always choked. But there is. You can't play any sport without knowing this. It's just that "clutch performance" is a much more complicated formula than people think.

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