Winning the World Series-Determination, Grit and Luck

Pedro Martinez and Andy Pettitte are the likely starters for game six of the World Series on Wednesday night. Pettitte against Martinez provides the best storyline of any pitching matchup of this World Series. The Cliff Lee-CC Sabathia matchup in game one featured two great lefty aces, but Pedro against Pettitte in Yankee Stadium one last time has far more history and pathos. While most Yankee fans would have been very happy to see their team wrap it up last night in Philadelphia, beating Pedro Martinez one last time in Yankee Stadium to win the World Series is about as good as it gets. For Yankee-haters, seeing Martinez beat the Yankees in their brand new stadium, and deny them their 27th World Championship, would be just as sweet.

We will not know the outcome of the game, or of the series, until the Yankees and Phillies play the remaining game, or games. Interestingly, while it is impossible to know who will win, we already know why the outcome will occur.  There are three possible remaining outcomes to the World Series: the Yankees win in six games, the Yankees win in seven games or the Phillies win in seven games.

If Pettitte outpitches Martinez, or if the Yankee offense proves too much for Philadelphia in game six, the Yankee victory will be attributed to Pettitte’s determination, the Yankees ability to bounce back “as they have done all season long” and the coolness under pressure of whoever delivers the big hit. Game five will be dismissed as an aberration which the Yankees did not expect to win against Cliff Lee anyway.

A similar storyline will emerge if the Yankees win in seven games.  In that case, Sabathia will be the one with grit and determination, but the Yankees will be hailed again for their ability to bounce back “as they have done all season long”, as well as inevitably, their drive and understanding that anything less than a World Championship wasn’t good enough for their fans or their city. In either case Joe Girardi will be lauded for his confidence and willingness to stick with his three man pitching rotation in the face of criticism.

If the Phillies manage to beat Pettitte and Sabathia in New York, Girardi’s stubborn refusal to be flexible and insistence on using only three starters throughout the whole post-season will be at fault, but the larger story will be the determination of the Philadelphia Phillies, their unwillingness to quit and the importance of momentum.

All of these explanations are, of course nonsense, based on seeing causalities where they don’t exist and making assumptions about behavior and motivations that simply are not true. Is it even remotely plausible that the team that loses will have done so because they didn’t try hard enough, or that the team that wins will have done so because they were more determined?  Baseball players at the Major League level are all determined, hard working and possess extraordinary drive, otherwise they wouldn’t be there. Nobody works all year, and in many cases all their lives, to get to the World Series and then stops caring.  Even when it looks that way (Robinson Cano) it is not the case.

Momentum is a similarly bizarre notion with little foundation in empirical reality.  So far in a five game series, the team that won the previous game has won twice and lost twice.  If the Phillies win will it really because momentum suddenly mattered?

These platitudes are, on some level harmless. They also create a narrative that, when fleshed out by good personal stories, is very appealing. However, they should not be confused with serious analysis. Moreover, they obscure some more important points about the game. The first is that sometimes teams win simply because they are better.  That, more than anything, clearly explains how the Phillies and Yankees vanquished their LCS opponents. However, arguing that one team beat the other in the World Series because they were better is probably true, but doesn’t quite qualify as analysis either.

Another issue which these platitudes overlook, or more accurately substitute for, is luck.  Baseball mixes skill and luck in a way that is agonizing to watch when your team is losing and invigorating when your team is winning.  The difference between a curveball that breaks for strike three or hangs for a double off the wall can be due to a breeze in front of home plate.  A well hit grounder can be a run scoring single or an inning ending double play depending on where an infielder is standing.  In a game where approximately 250 pitches are thrown, the umpire is going to get some wrong. A blown ball-strike call by an umpire on a 2-2 pitch is a matter of luck for the pitcher and hitter, but can have tremendous bearing on the outcome of the game.

The desire to downplay the import of luck is natural. It is disturbing to think that two teams work so hard for so many months, only to have the championship decided by a matter of luck, but that is often what happens.  It is more disturbing, however, to imply that teams lose because their players don’t try hard enough, which is exactly what is implied when winning is explained by greater determination.