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This Time, Houston Was Blessed More by Luck Than by Stolen Signs

The victory parade over, let’s look at whether luck had more to do with the Astros’ success than Astro fans want to admit

The Houston Astros are the 2022 Major League Baseball (MLB) World Champion — this time, as far as we know, without relying on electronically stolen pitching signs sent to batters by banging trashcan lids or using buzzers hidden under uniforms.

Now that the champagne has popped and the victory parade has been held, let’s consider the fact that maybe, just maybe, luck had more to do with the Astros’ success than Astro fans want to admit. Athletes and fans want to believe that the team that wins the World Series, Super Bowl, or any other championship is the best team that year. The reality is that in every sport — some more than others — outcomes are influenced by good fortune or bad. In football, fumbles bounce erratically; officials make inexplicable calls and non-calls; and star players get injured. In golf, balls that hit the green sometimes roll into a sand trap or water hazard; balls that hit trees may bounce into the fairway or into two-foot tall grass.

In baseball, I have written that

… batters have to decide in a quarter of a second or less whether and how to swing at a ball traveling 90+ miles an hour and possibly swerving at the last moment. Even if the ball is hit, the slightest difference in how that slender rounded bat hits that small round ball can make the difference between weak and solid hits. Even if the ball is hit solidly, it might go directly at a fielder or in between fielders. Even if the ball is hit weakly, it might be an easy popup or a bloop hit. A weak dribbler might stay fair or roll foul. Ground balls bounce off pebbles; fly balls are blown by gusts of wind.

The paradox of luck and skill is that competitions among the most skilled competitors are very likely to be determined by luck that is beyond the control of the competitors. If a major league baseball team were to play a high school team, we can confidently predict that the MLB team will win. If the Yankees play the Mets, however, predicting the winner would be like predicting the outcome of a coin flip.

In 2022 the Los Angeles Dodgers had one of the best regular-season records in MLB history. Even though they played a quarter of their games against cellar-dwellers (Washington, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Colorado, and Kansas City), they still lost nearly a third of their games.

When it comes to the postseason playoffs, with short best-of-3, best-of-5, or best-of-7 series, the better team doesn’t always win. The Dodgers, of course, lost their best-of-5 series to the San Diego Padres, who only won 55% of their regular season games.

Imagine that, instead of playing baseball games, the Dodgers and Padres had a coin-flipping contest using a bent coin that gave the Dodgers a 60% chance of winning each coin toss. In a best-of-5 coin-flipping contest, the Padres have a 32% chance of winning. If the Dodgers’ single-flip win probability is less than 60%, the Padres’ chances are even better.

It may seem silly to think of baseball games as essentially coin flips. But in short 3, 5, or 7-game series, the analogy is surprisingly apt. We might as well throw out the regular season records and flip coins.

Shortly before the 2022 season All-Star break, I wrote that

There were nine post-season series in 2021. One was a single-game play-off between the Red Sox and the Yankees who had identical 92–70 regular season records. In the other eight series, the team with the better record in the regular season won four series and lost four. Looking at individual games, the team with the better regular season record won 18 games and lost 18.

Looking ahead to the 2022 postseason playoffs, I wrote that “for those teams that make the playoffs, we might as well flip a coin to see who becomes World Series champion.” I was right. There were 11 playoff series in the 2022 postseason. The team with the better regular season record won 5 series; the underdogs won 6 series. There were 40 games in these playoff series and they split evenly with the favored team winning 20 games and the underdog team winning 20 games.

There was a lot of skill demonstrated by players on all teams. Professional baseball players are extraordinary athletes doing things that I, you, or other ordinary people cannot come close to doing. But that just makes luck all the more important. When two groups of extraordinary athletes compete against each other, it’s a paradox of luck and skill.

A lot of the luck that occurred during this postseason was easy to see; for example, balls that happened to be hit foul or not foul, catchable or not catchable. A more subtle part of Houston’s good fortune was that the Dodgers, who were 111-51 in the regular season, and the Atlanta Braves, who were 101-61, were coin-flipped out early. The National League championship was contested by two teams that had been distinctly mediocre in the regular season: San Diego (89-73) and Philadelphia (87-75). Naturally, the underdog Phillies won that flip-off.

Even though it was widely considered one of the biggest mismatches in World Series history, the Phillies still managed to win 2 of the first 3 games. Who knows what would have happened if the Astros had played the Braves or Dodgers. Luckily for Houston, we will never know.

You may also wish to read: Why did Shane Lowry win the British Open golf championship? Because someone had to. Even among the best golfers, luck is endemic. This is the paradox of luck and skill: the more skilled the competitors are, the more the outcome is determined by luck. (Gary Smith)


Gary N. Smith

Senior Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence
Gary N. Smith is the Fletcher Jones Professor of Economics at Pomona College. His research on financial markets statistical reasoning, and artificial intelligence, often involves stock market anomalies, statistical fallacies, and the misuse of data have been widely cited. He is the author of The AI Delusion (Oxford, 2018) and co-author (with Jay Cordes) of The Phantom Pattern (Oxford, 2020) and The 9 Pitfalls of Data Science (Oxford 2019). Pitfalls won the Association of American Publishers 2020 Prose Award for “Popular Science & Popular Mathematics”.

This Time, Houston Was Blessed More by Luck Than by Stolen Signs