Luck and bad players -- links

By Jason Wojciechowski on July 8, 2010 at 12:20 AM

Today's links, despite the misleading title, aren't really related, except insofar as they're both about baseball and they're both a few days old. (As an aside, I've decided to make this blog yet more focused -- the title, after all, is Beaneball. That doesn't really work if I spend half my time here writing about the Lakers. Basketball posts, including Lakers playoff rants, will end up on The Woj instead. This blog won't be limited to the A's, but it will be limited to baseball.)

First up is Will McDonald at Royals Review asking "Are We too Hard on [Willie] Bloomquist?" I'm not terribly interested in that question, to be honest. The portion of the piece that grabbed my eye, though, was this:

As weird as it sounds, if Bloomquist was 20% better, he'd probably be out of baseball right now. If Bloomquist had been a slightly better hitter in the minors, I doubt the Mariners would have so quickly made him into a utility player, not wanting to mess up a potentially decent 2B. Now a 20% better Bloomquist still wouldn't have ended up as a useful Major League infielder, and he would have been viewed as a failed 2B prospect. If this guy can't hit enough to play 2B, there's no point in making him an OF. But because he was worse, he emerged as a jack of all trades, because he had no potential to lose.

That's a really interesting thesis, and it's one I think I buy. With certain exceptions, teams tend to treat super-sub players with a focus on the "sub" rather than the "super". Chone Figgins comes to mind as an exception, of course, but I'm not sure I can come up with any others. The players who develop enough defensive facility to function anywhere on the field are those who were never given a shot in the majors (or the high minors, often) to just settle into a position and develop.

Beyond Willie Bloomquist, though, what does this mean? Does Chone Figgins prove that even players with offensive potential can be moved around without significant fear that their development will be retarded? I don't know if we can go that far -- don't forget, Will Carroll includes a "position switch" factor in his injury system because there is (apparently, at least) some evidence that switching positions does create some additional risk.

Maybe the lesson is that teams should be both less and more indulgent with that player who is Willie Bloomquist + 20%. One could simply say "teams should get better at recognizing which hitters aren't going to make it as everyday starters in the bigs", but that's not helpful -- of course they should. That's the entire program of a front office. So given that this is a lot easier said than done, perhaps the piece of advice is that unless a guy has a surefire bat, if they have the ability to move around the field, maybe you should try moving them around the field. Imagine a team that develops an Albert Pujols at first, a Colby Rasmus in the outfield, and then a whole bunch of guys who can move around the field, playing at two or three different positions, giving the manager all sorts of splits flexibility to match up lefty-righty, groundball-flyball (thinking about both offense and defense here), what have you. If nothing else, that'd be pretty fun, right?

Link number two is Phil Birnbaum at Sabermetric Research on July 4th discussing the role of luck in sports. He praised a Canadian writer for recognizing what he called "macro luck" (a blown call by a referee late in the game, Diego Maradona's Hand of God, etc.), but wished that we'd also recognize "micro luck" when discussing and analyzing sports.

I don't like those terms -- the two kinds of luck Birnbaum is discussing are the same except for the optics. A pass that goes awry by two inches, resulting in the difference between a chain of passes leading a minute later to a shot on goal and a turnover, is not different, in my mind, from a penalty kick that just misses, ending the match. They just happen at moments of different leverage and (thus) different levels of fan and media focus.

I don't want that nitpick about terminology to undermine Birnbaum's completely correct point, though: we can't talk about a pitcher getting lucky when an umpire gives him an extra inch outside or a fielder getting unlucky when a ball hits the third-base bag directly in front of him unless we're also willing to recognize that every single play, every single physical motion involves imperfection, thus uncertainty, thus luck.

This doesn't mean we have to stop talking about how a player is good or bad, or a performance is good or bad, but my horse in this particular race is that I'd hope it can help us remove the morality from sports. A player is not a better person than another because his three-point shot was two inches more on target than another player's. That is the discourse of sport, but I think it can be changed.