Saturday, May 1, 2010

Lucky Strikes: Baseball and Bowling

Baseball. Bowling. Homer. See what I did there?
I'm in a bowling league. I am not good. My form is awful. My entire game is inconsistent, from my approach to my release to my follow through. Sometimes the ball hooks like a drifting frisbee. Other times it sails straight as a hanging Grabow slider.

But the crazy thing about bowling is, you don't have to be good. I mean, if you're good, you will, with very few exceptions, always bowl  a better series than I do. I will rarely bowl a better game than a really good bowler does, but it happens. And there are plenty of frames in which I'll bowl a strike while a far superior bowler leaves a pin or two standing. I've seen five year olds bowl strikes (sans bumpers). I've seen guys with near-200 averages bowl gutter balls or even sub-80 games.

It's a simple fact of bowling that superior skill and even superior execution doesn't always yield superior results—it usually does over the course of time, but most definitely not every time, especially in smaller samples.

The more I bowl, the more it reminds me of baseball.

I don't think I'm telling you anything you don't already know when I say that superior skill and execution don't always yield superior results in baseball, because you know that luck rears its pretty or ugly or pretty ugly head all the time. But more often than not, we judge someone's talent level (or at least the quality of their execution in a specific instance) on results we know to be affected or even completely determined by luck. We know better, we just forget.

Here's an example from the lanes: aiming for the traditional pocket between the 1 and 3 pins, I miss my target to the left by almost a foot. The execution: bad. The result: awesome. I get a "Brooklyn" strike, landing the ball between the 1 and 2 pins. Oddly enough, if I had missed by just an inch, I could easily have wound up with the dreaded 7-10 split, one I have no hope of sparing. The uneducated observer would say I did well. The learned bowler would say I got lucky. But somehow everyone would look at the resultant score and go on thinking I was having a better game than the great bowler with the split.

Similar things happen all the time in baseball on both sides of the ball. Derrek Lee had the game-winning single  in Saturday's game against the Diamondbacks, and it was probably the second-worst hit he put in play, a ground-ball single through the hole at short. It could have easily resulted in a double play. His worst was his other single, a blooper to right center. Both his fly outs to right were hit harder than either of those two hits, but the results were worse. His strike out was a gutter ball (those pretty much never work out).

And that's just balls in play. You know how when a hitter fouls a ball straight back, we're supposed to take that as a sign he was "right on it" from a timing standpoint and "just missed it" with his swing location. Great. But I have to assume that if he had split the difference between absolutely nailing it (homer, maybe?) and just missing it (foul straight back), the result would have been a nice high pop fly. Hit it perfectly, it's a homer. Miss by a lot, it's a strike (but not the bowling kind that makes you happy). Miss by a little less, it's an out. Your degree of success does not reflect the precision of a player's execution.

Obviously the same breaks work for or against pitchers, too. Every now and then you'll see a batter take a fastball for a called third strike right down the middle, a pitch that was much more hittable than he expected. Everyone knows the pitcher got lucky, but no one curses him for his poor execution; we're happy with the results. Cue the announcer, "He found a way to work out of it."

The other factor is timing. Here's the bowling scenario: A good bowler begins the game with 3 consecutive strikes, a feat worth 60 pins plus twice the pinfall on the next ball and the pins knocked down by the ball after that. If the next two balls are also strikes, the total in the third frame would be 90 pins. Me? I bowl three strikes in the 10th frame, and I'm totally stoked. That feat nets me 30 pins. Same execution as the good bowler (for those three throws). One half, or possibly one third of the score. That's bad timing.

It's painful to revisit how this plays out for the Cubs. Wednesday against the Nats, the Cubs had 9 hits, drew 4 walks, and benefited from 1 Washington error. Cub pitchers yielded 4 hits, one walk, and no errors. Cubs lose 3-2, but who had the better game? Who exhibited superior talent? You could argue that the Nationals did, since two of the Washington hits were homers. But still, the Cubs did enough things right to score a lot more runs; they just did them at the wrong time.

I know this isn't all a matter of luck. Just like better bowlers will come through more consistently, better baseball players will post superior results because of their consistently superior execution, although they'll be rewarded for plenty of their screw-ups along the way. It's part of what makes baseball so fun to watch: it's unpredictable. Not only will inferior players succeed and bad teams win rather often, but sometimes it will be their mediocrity that causes the wins.

So why am I saying all this? Because it's hard to evaluate how well the Cubs are playing. They play well and lose. They play badly and win. There are stats that help tell the story a bit better, but I don't even want to talk about them right now. I just want to acknowledge that . . . well, that I'm not a good bowler. I'm not a good judge of baseball talent (or choosing baseball teams to follow, for that matter). Sometimes the best I can do is just enjoy it and try to learn from people who are better than I am.


  1. Great analogies here! One of my biggest pet peeves of the season so far with the Cubs has been runners left on base. But that is just as nebulous as the things you mentioned. If you leave only a few runners on base is it because you drove all of them in, or because you never had any in the first place? Might leave 30 runners on base but if the Cubs win no one really cares about those that were stranded. Just like no one cares that Lee came thisclose to the double play yesterday. I like your gameplan. Watch, listen, learn, and of course always hope!

  2. I am a 9-ball enthusiast. I can hold a table for hours, picking off challenger after challenger, right up until I am challenged to 8-ball. It's not that I'm bad at 8-ball, it's that I'm bad at pool. It's easier to shoot with fewer balls on the table, and 9-ball allows slop shots, so people think I'm good. I'm not. I'm lucky.

    People have mocked the Cubs announcers for saying that Aramis is taking good swings or making good contact because he's not getting hits. These guys pay much closer attention than the rest of us; they see that even through his struggles, he's still capable of executing well even if he comes up empty. OTOH, Theriot is - like me - a mediocre player with luck. The lucky player looks good, while the good player having a bad month looks awful.

  3. Thanks, and that's a great point about runners stranded. It's next to
    impossible to score runs consistently without also leaving some on base
    along the way. The first six innings of yesterday's game exemplified how
    to get as few runs out of as many baserunners as possible. Of course
    it's frustrating, but it's the nature of the game. You don't get to
    choose when you'll get hits and when you won't. (You can usually avoid
    oversliding second base, but that's another story.)

  4. I love the analogy and the application to Aramis and Theriot. Ramirez
    was definitely off at the beginning of the year, but he has been
    swinging the bat better despite no noticeable improvement in results.
    And I would argue that Theriot, since he does put so many balls in play
    (few homeruns, walks, and strikeouts) is more heavily dependent on luck
    than almost anybody. That would explain why his hot and cold streaks can
    be so unpredictable, even when nothing in his approach or execution
    changes all that much.


Spill it.

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