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On "Luck" And "Skill" And The Fine Line In Between

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OK that's not luck. That's suck.
OK that's not luck. That's suck.
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

First and foremost, this post is not intended to begin a flame war or a divide between the Luckiputians and the Skillcrips. I actually think that the line between luck and skill is infinitesimal and fascinating to try to dissect.

On AN lately, the "luck/skill" debate has come up most often in regards to the seemingly unlucky pattern of distributing runs in a way that allows the team to score much more than the opposition overall yet lose so many one-run decisions that the team stands at 13-23. Certainly, some of the A's urine-poor record in one-run games (I believe it is now 1-82) cannot be attributed entirely to the bullpen, especially in light of the A's sporting almost the same record in day games. We all know that the "day/night" split is an aberration that will regress, over time, to a far more normal spread.

However, today I'm not focused so much on the macro of "one run games" so much as I am interested in the micro "moment by moment" developments: which are luck based and which are skill based?

As a starting point, let's consider batted ball profiles. I would submit that whether a batter hits the ball "the other way" or "up the middle" is not entirely luck, as batters have some say in where they hit the ball. However, whether the ball they hit is right at the SS or two steps to his left? That's pretty much random.

Another pretty easy one is that ball blooped down the RF line dropping untouched. Whether it is an inch fair or an inch foul is attributable to luck. I would put Napoli's great leaping catch of Coco Crisp's searing line drive Monday night in that category: An inch higher or to Napoli's right and it's a two-run single that probably propels the A's to victory. Great play by Napoli, for sure, and nothing should be taken away from him on that. But the A's can rightfully feel unlucky that the ball was catchable at all.

Of course if you parse these things too closely you can start attributing most everything to chance. That hanging slider fouled straight back? It probably missed by literally about 1/4" from being scalded for a hit, extra bases, or even a HR. Same with many balls hit out of the park -- that same pitch, to that same hitter, is a routine fly ball or a foul back, if the bat is perhaps 1/10 of a second later or hits the ball 1/2" lower on the ball.

For me, I don't want to start looking at 1/4" on the ball or 1/10 of a second on the swing and celebrating the team's good fortune or bemoaning the team's back luck. The bloops on the line, the balls smashed right at fielders? I can see that.

So what about those pesky one-run losses? What about Billy Butler bouncing to 3B, and popping up to shallow RF, with a runner at 3B and less than two outs, and then singling his next time up with no one on base? Is that more evidence of bad luck? Was Butler fated to go 1 for 3 and by some curse randomly got the 1 at the wrong time? I don't think so.

I think in each at bat the hitter has some control over the at bat. Does he swing at the best pitches, does he take a solid approach? If he does, and he lines one to 3B I'm going to say that's unlucky. If he doesn't, and he pops it up on the infield I'm going to say that's just a bad at bat. If, like Josh Reddick in the same game, he gets a good pitch, misses good contact by that annoying 1/4" on the ball, and pops it up, I'm going to say, "It happens" but I am not going to say it's bad luck.

Is it necessarily bad luck to go 0 for 13 with runners in scoring position? I don't think so. I think it's unfortunate and I know it's not going to repeat itself very often, but to me that's not what bad luck means. A bunch of players having bad at bats the same day isn't bad luck nor is it a problem you have to worry about going forward. It just happens sometimes.

Those are some of my views on the distinction between events that are luck based and ones which are simply based in success or failure. Have the A's been "unlucky" this season? At times, sure: Fuld's single right at Trout so only one run can score followed by Davis' drive not getting off the wall or far enough to Trout's left or right? Coco's smash to Napoli? Oakland has certainly been on the short side of several breaks that have not gone their way.

Yet in so many of these agonizing one-run losses, the difference has been a key error or bad pitch selection, a bullpen meltdown, even players (I'm looking at you, Angel Castro) who have no business being on the roster let alone being in a high leverage situation.

My inclination is to say that so far, the A's have 30% gotten lousy breaks and 70% made their own lousy breaks. Your turn: Where do you make the luck/skill distinction at the micro and macro level? It's certainly far from obvious.