What role does luck play in sports? Coaches and athletes try to remove luck from the equation as much as possible.
Luck has been described as shorthand for random process.
Is the outcome of a coin flip luck? Not in a strict technical sense, because it is dependent on its original position, the rate of spin imparted, the height of the toss, etc. But the outcome cannot be controlled, and even if the coin lands heads-up 10 times in a row, there’s still a 50/50 chance the coin will land tails the next time it’s flipped.
In almost every sport there are many processes similar to a coin flip.
For example, consider a punt that lands on the 5-yard line. It could roll to a stop on the 2-yard line, bounce back to the 10-yard line or roll into the end zone for a touchback.
According to advancednflstats.com, “Once the punt hits the ground it is no longer under the influence of the punter in any way. Over time the randomness will average out and good punters will tend to prevent more touchbacks. But where this one punt lands today, in this one game, right now, is partly random.”
If you don’t think randomness can’t play a strong role in the outcome of a single game, consider that in an evenly matched game, each team hits nine singles. However, Team A happens to bunch its singles in the first three innings and goes hitless for six. Each inning of three singles produces a run.
Team B happens to hit one single an inning, resulting in zero runs. Team A wins 3-0, although technically each team performed equally well.
The total number of hits by a team is controlled by the interaction of skills between batters, pitchers and defense—certainly not luck. But who can control the timing of the singles and when the hits occur?
If batters could choose when their hits occurred, everyone’s average would be better when runners are in scoring position.
Again, according to advancednflstats.com, “Baseball managers have understood this effect for generations. This is partly why a team’s lineup is constructed with its best batters bunched together in order. It maximizes the probability that hits will come in bunches. The technique skews the random distribution positively, but does not reduce the randomness of the process itself.”
There’s nothing logical in trying to explain why the Royals’ bats usually go silent when Zack Grienke pitches. Is Grienke simply a victim of bad timing or bad luck? They say everything evens out over the course of a 162-game schedule, but I’m not so sure.
If you still don’t believe in luck, that’s understandable. Luck implies superstition, and I don’t subscribe to that either.
In “Men at Work,” George Will’s first baseball book, he decries attribution of athletic success solely to God-given talent a “false and pernicious myth” because “for an athlete to fulfill his or her potential a remarkable degree of mental and moral discipline is required.”
What matters, then, is passionate devotion to a task such that all of one’s life is oriented toward success at that task. Thus, Will’s moral imperative: “Be as intelligent as you can be at whatever you are doing.”
There are many things that can’t be attributed solely to skill. Who can predict when a baseball will hit a small rock just before an infielder is about to make a routine play, or when the sun gets in the eyes of an outfielder, causing him to miss the ball? Who can predict when an umpire is going to miss a call at a crucial time? Who can predict when a player trips and falls for no apparent reason?
Baseball managers, basketball and football coaches try to improve their odds by careful planning and meticulous preparation. But they can’t close the gap entirely. The games are still appealing and unpredictable, precisely because the luck element will never go away.