You've got a round bat, and you're trying to hit a round ball that is not only coming at you at speeds upwards of 90 MPH, but is also twisting, darting, dropping, and breaking along its path. You've got to time the swing just right to "barrel it up" and not cut under it (pop out), or over it (ground out), and even if you do manage to square everything up, there are nine guys with gloves covering the majority of available space on the field.
No wonder even the greatest hitters of all time failed far more often than they succeeded.
Skill will get you most of the way there: timing, mechanics, pitch recognition, etc. The higher the skill level, the more a player can take luck out of the equation, but luck will always be a factor. Once the ball is struck, where it lands is largely up to fate, or karma, or whatever jinx is currently at work.
And we're just talking about one batter. It gets even more hairy when we're talking about the number of hits that are required in one inning in order to score a run. Little wonder that the American League average is only 4.2 runs per game.
But how much luck is really involved in how teams are performing right now? The Tigers are still first in the American League in batting average and on-base percentage, yet their 327 runs is barely hovering over the league average of 323. How is that possible?
The answer might lie in their hits-to-runs ratio. After three months of play, in the American League it takes 2.026 hits to produce one run. That's the baseline average, and it makes it slightly easier to do comparisons when we put it this way: on average, 49.4 percent of hits produce a run in the AL.
The Tigers are currently experiencing a bit of bad luck (or were just missing Victor Martinez's bat), in that only 46.1 percent of their hits result in runs. By contrast, the Blue Jays are a model of efficiency, producing runs on 60.5 percent of their hits -- which is precisely why they have an AL-leading +86 run differential, while the Tigers are struggling to get their run differential out of the negative numbers.
Based on this hits-to-runs efficiency model, the AL Central currently grades out like this:
These numbers have direct application to what is happening in the standings. The White Sox, still laboring in last place at 12.5 games behind, are 39 runs below average based on the number of hits they've collected. The Twins are nine runs above average, and the Tigers are 23 runs below. In the case of the White Sox, it's not difficult to see why: they have an AL third-worst team batting average, and their team on-base percentage is the second lowest in the league. For the White Sox, it's not so much about bad luck as it is bad skills.
The Twins, on the other hand, are a couple clicks below league average in batting (.249 vs .253), and are well below league average when it comes to getting on base (.302 vs .315). Is it their slugging, then? No, the team's .390 slugging average is ranked at 11 out of 15 teams. So what is it, then? Most likely, it's a run of good luck, pure and simple.
Likewise with the Tigers, their deficit of 23 runs in the face of their league-leading batting average and on-base percentage can be partially explained by a slugging percentage that ranks fifth in the AL, but most of this has to be written off to bad luck. It's not "normal" for a team to ground into so many double plays.
The Future Looks Good
By taking the hit and run totals each team has accumulated so far, we can apply this efficiency formula to each team's projected number of hits and runs, and (using a variation on the Pythagorean Expectancy formula) arrive at a rough estimate of each team's final win/loss record based solely on offensive performance:
Keep in mind that these totals are based only on runs scored, and do not account for runs allowed by the starters, bullpen, and defense. This also assumes that each team continues playing at its current level of skill/luck, and that is certainly bound to change. The Twins will come back to earth, and the Tigers will make up that ugly run differential. The Royals are also playing below average despite having the second-best batting average in the league, although their on-base percentage (6 of 15) and slugging (6 of 15) are lower than the Tigers' numbers.
The Tide is Turning
Overall, the Tigers have scored 23 fewer runs than they should have, given the number of base hits they've amassed. But if we break down that total even further, we find that most of the bad luck came in May:
Actual Runs Scored
Expected Runs from Hits
As we can see, May was a terrible month for running into bad luck, no doubt helped along by the ailing (and then missing) Victor Martinez. In May, the Tigers lost the equivalent of two extra games because they couldn't convert their hits into runs scored. April was also a negative month, and yet the Tigers posted a record of 15-8, while they're breaking even in June despite scoring precisely the number of runs they should have scored. That should give us some idea of the value of good pitching. (For the first part of April, Shane Greene pitched like a god with a chip on his shoulder.)
The good news is that the Tigers seem to be coming out of the bad-luck funk, and should regain the offensive edge over the Royals. After that it will be down to the two teams' starters and bullpen.
Should make for an exciting trading season, eh?