The imperfect game, Part 5 of 5: The irrational quest to tame chance

Posted on June 10, 2010

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Are the businessmen in charge of baseball trying to manage their precarious pre-modern brand by preserving its quaintest features? Or is there a recognition by the high-priests in charge that we have to reconcile ourselves with the essential element of luck and chance that is shot through the game of baseball.

Those who passionately want to remove the element of good and bad luck generated by umpires’ blown calls are fooling themselves if they think this will significantly change the role of luck and chance in baseball.

Take the very idea of the perfect game, or Galarraga’s imperfect game for that matter. A perfect game is a perfect storm of luck. After the fact, we will glorify the pitcher. We will want to explain the event — even when pulled off by a normally less-than-dominant pitcher like Galarraga or David Wells — in terms of how dialed-in the pitcher was on that occasion. Within 24 hours of the event we might give some particular credit to a fielder or two who made improbable plays to preserve the no-no. But looking back, it will be all about the pitcher (or maybe the pitcher-catcher tandem if the catcher himself has the right reputation or is famous for paradoxical aphorisms).

But this is crazy. Of course the pitcher has to be good on the night to be that lucky. There is no reason to think that he was any better than a pitcher who gives up a couple of hits over the course of nine innings, or whose full-count pitch in the second inning was called a ball. Every play in baseball involves probabilities. Any pitch can be hit for at least a bloop single if the batter guesses right and swings right, or even if he guesses wrong and swings wrong but has the bat connect with the ball. Even on a pitcher’s best night, there will be several pitches that don’t go exactly where the he intended them to go. Fielders position themselves to have the best chance of making a catch, but it is no sure bet; nor is their reaction to where the ball is going after it connects with the bat. There are unpredictable bumps on the infield that will turn a routine groundball out into a seeing-eye single or a fielder’s error. And so on.

There’s a reason why there have only been 20 perfect games, and it is not because those 20 pitching performances somehow stood above all others in any significant way. It is because you have to be incredibly lucky — including lucky enough to get good calls from umpires (not to mention an increasingly favorable strike zone in late innings).

There is something perverse about all of this focus on one of those chance events — Joyce’s call on Galarraga’s 27th out. Hundreds of stars had to line up that night, and many of them were entirely out of Galarraga’s control. And again, some of them were surely gifts from the home-plate ump.

It is not clear that all baseball fans can reconcile themselves to the deeply chancy nature of their sport. When things go well for their team or favorite players, they want to think that things “happen for a reason.” Indeed, when things don’t go well, they also want to think there was an identifiable reason — like the injustice of a bad call, the ineptness of a mediocre manager, the petulance of an overpaid star who can’t come through in the clutch or, if all else fails, a “curse.”

In baseball as in life: we need stories that explain complex events with large elements of randomness, or at any rate, with factors we can’t possible understand or predict. And we construct these narratives in terms of the intentions, virtues, and vices of a relatively small number of actors. Our world makes more sense that way; it’s more meaningful.

And of course these explanations are often not entirely wrong. Sometimes, as in our explanations of a perfect game, they are just incomplete, simplistic, and overly deterministic. But if we think we are going to significantly reduce the element of chanciness from baseball by relying more on replays, we are deluding ourselves. It is possible that the difference between those who simply cannot understand why baseball doesn’t embrace the use of replay the way the NFL does, on the one hand, with many of those who strongly resist, on the other, is that the latter have come to embrace, or at least reconcile themselves to, baseball’s fickle and often unfair heart.

The howls of protest to change the rules of baseball to prevent a particular kind of injustice (in this case, taking away a supposedly perfect game from a pitcher’s record) look a lot like the reactions that lead to movements for various kinds of regulatory reform in business and politics. For good reason we want to reduce risks and arbitrary unfairness in our world, and we often go about this in a rather ad hoc way. Some firms collapse in a “wave” of accounting scandals? Let’s make tougher rules for reporting and auditing. Terrorists use commercial airplanes in suicide bombings? Beef up airport security. Another terrorist brings explosives aboard in his shoes? Make passengers put their shoes through scanners. Banks contribute to the financial crisis by slicing and dicing mortgage-backed securities? Add some new specific rules for how exactly they can slice and dice mortgage-backed securities in the future. A deep-water oil well starts blackening the coast line? We’ll see.

I’m not implying that any of these responses are bad ideas. On the contrary. But it does seem like a rather disorganized way of going about coping with risk and unfairness. We seek comfort in the illusion that our world is generally less full of risk and unfairness than it is; and we get shocked when risk and unfairness raise their very specific, identifiably ugly heads. The illusion is preserved when we feel that, if we could just patch up the cause of this latest mishap, we will once again be reasonably safe. So most baseball fans suddenly think that pitchers will be much less likely to be deprived of perfect games in the future if we can take the ump out of the equation. Yeah, that should do it.

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