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A Thought On Day 14 Of The 2011 MLB Playoffs


There were two baseball games today. Two hugely important baseball games, since - and I don't know if you're aware of this - it's the playoffs. Today featured games from each League Championship Series. Each League Championship Series! The two teams who win will meet for the title!

But while the Rangers and Tigers played nine innings, and then the Brewers and Cardinals played nine innings, I think today really came down to a span of about four or five minutes. The Brewers/Cardinals game was fine and all, but it wasn't the most exciting baseball game I've ever watched. And then with the Rangers and Tigers, there was Justin Verlander throwing too many pitches, and Nelson Cruz homering again, but the big story came in the sixth.

For anybody who didn't watch: the score was 2-2 in the top of the sixth. The Rangers had the bases loaded and one out, with Ian Kinsler stepping to the plate. The feeling at the time was that a run or two would be enough to send the Rangers to the World Series, but Kinsler hit a grounder to Brandon Inge at third, where Inge stepped on the bag and threw to first to complete the 5-3 double play.

That was a miracle escape. Then in the bottom half, Ryan Raburn led off with a single. The next batter was the ever-dangerous Miguel Cabrera, but Cabrera hit what looked like a routine double play ball to third. Just as Adrian Beltre got in position, though, the ball bounced off the base and sailed over Beltre's head, rolling into left field for an RBI double. All of a sudden, the Tigers had the lead, and they wouldn't look back.

That was the story. Two groundballs to third in the span of a few minutes. The Tigers got the good one, and the Tigers got the win, forcing a Game 6 about which the Mariners fan in me is happy, but about which the person in me who wanted a free Saturday is rather upset.

What I want to talk a little about here before I fall asleep is the luck aspect. It was said almost immediately that Cabrera and the Tigers got lucky. I mean, a sure double play bounced off of a base and over the defender's head. That's luck, right? A Google News search for Rangers + Tigers + luck yields about 500 results over the past day. Said Cabrera himself:

"I was lucky, I was lucky," Cabrera said. "But like I say, it's better to be lucky than good."

Added Ian Kinsler:

"I think it's unlucky that the ball hit the bag, but that's the way it went tonight," said Kinsler, fully expecting to make the catch-and-turn for a sure-fire double-play.

I should say now that I don't know if I necessarily believe what I'm going to type. This is just a thought. Consider it me advancing one possible argument.

But: is luck really the right word? Is it really fair to say that Miguel Cabrera got lucky?

Here's what happened: C.J. Wilson threw a certain pitch. Miguel Cabrera hit it in a certain way, such that the ball bounced towards third, hit the base, bounced up, and sailed into left. The fact that the ball hit the base and bounced up is what's considered lucky.

But consider now a groundball. Another groundball, hit, say, to the hole. It's a groundball that ends up just out of the shortstop's reach, and it rolls on into the outfield for a single. It was that close to being kept in the infield and turned into an out, but instead it got through. Is that lucky? Nobody ever calls those hits lucky.

Why not? What's the difference? In both cases, the batter ends up with a hit, having avoided making an out by the narrowest of margins. A ball hitting off of a base is *weirder*, but just because it's rare doesn't mean it's lucky. Our custom is to give batters credit for the balls they put in play. Miguel Cabrera put a ball in play just right, such that it hit the base and bounced over Beltre's head. Why is that different than Miguel Cabrera putting a ball in play just right, such that it rolls past the shortstop, or drops in front of the right fielder? Baseballs are allowed to hit bases. It's part of the game. It's not like the Tigers won because a bird crapped on C.J. Wilson right as he was throwing a pitch and he wound up throwing a meatball that Cabrera crushed out of the park.

The odds of a baseball hitting a base and bouncing the way that Cabrera's bounced are slim. Slim odds do not mean luck. The odds of a baseball landing *anywhere* are slim. You've seen countless bloop singles into center field, and many of them look alike, but each of them has landed in a different place, the odds of which were very very small.

This really isn't a big issue. I'm approaching a thousand words on something that isn't a big issue. Ultimately, whether or not people refer to hits like Miguel Cabrera's as lucky isn't a real big deal. But I'm personally not a big fan of the word luck, and the way that it's used in baseball commentary and analysis. It seems to me that very little of what takes place on a baseball field is ever lucky. Weird, or rare, or unsustainable, sure, but lucky? I don't know. I don't think so.