Write Derek at drksmart @ gmail.com
Write Phil at phil.bencomo @ gmail.com
Stroke of Luck
by Derek Smart
There's a piece in the Daily Herald today about Derrek Lee's fine start and how a different workload this spring helped him get more comfortable at the plate earlier than in the past. Here's an excerpt:
Knowing Derrek Lee's major-league career was marked by slow starts to this point, Cubs manager Dusty Baker had a plan for spring training.
"We wanted to get him as many at-bats as possible," Baker said.
Lee had 53 at-bats in 23 Cactus League games and hit .358. He has carried that stroke into the National League season and sits at .364 with 2 home runs and 11 RBI after the first nine games.
We've seen this explanation nearly everywhere, and it makes intuitive sense. After all, if Lee never got going until later in the year, maybe it was because he hadn't worked the kinks out by the end of spring. So, thinking about that, the Cubs gave him some extra reps in Arizona and now it's begun to pay off. Except...
So far this month, Lee is hitting .333, which got a boost from his 4-for-6 effort on Opening Day. Baker tried to give Lee more at-bats this spring, and the first baseman batted .353 (19-for-53). But Lee laughed at that. He said his good start has nothing to do with Cactus League at-bats.
"This spring was the least amount of at-bats I had," Lee said Tuesday. "I think that's what helped. I felt really fresh. I felt great."
That little tidbit is buried in the April 12 Cub notes on the team's official site. I point out these differences, not to ridicule any of the authors of these pieces, as I don't think there's anything necessarily wrong with the conclusions they draw based on the information they're given, but instead, to point out just how hard we humans look for explanations for particular phenomena.
See, I'm deep into Alan Schwarz' excellent book, The Numbers Game, and the section I finished on the train this morning just so happens to deal with the emergence of the concept of luck in looking at players' performance. It's one of those fortuitous confluences of different aspects of your existence, where one experience speaks to another, informing each other to create a deeper understanding of the individual ideas.
Lee could have had more at bats, he could have had fewer at bats, he could feel more finely tuned, he could feel more fresh, he could have changed his physical approach, he could have changed his mental approach, but more likely than not, what we're seeing merely reflects the fact that a man who has hit .273/.371/.502 since 2002 is unlikely to repeatedly hit well below those averages during a consistent point in the season.
When a man has never performed well during a particular span of time, it's natural to look for explanations, but sometimes in doing so we're spinning our wheels. Lee might have made important alterations to his routine that have allowed him to flourish in these early months, but if you believe in some of the statistical research done in recent years, it was almost bound to happen eventually no matter what Lee did.
In other words, at some point, through no fault of his own, Lee's luck was almost certain to change. And whether you buy into that, or one of the two contradictory explanations quoted above, the only thing that really matters is that he's producing at a high rate right now. That, and the hope that his luck never runs out.