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Are the Angels really 'baseball's luckiest team'?

October 1, 2008 |  2:32 pm

Los Angeles Angels outfielder Torii Hunter  talks to the crowd with a rally monkey on his back during the postseason rally at Angel Stadium Are the Angels really "baseball's luckiest team"?

That's what the Wall Street Journal's Darren Everson wrote two weeks ago, in one of many articles this year arguing that the team's run differential -- which normally would produce an 88-win club, not a 100-win juggernaut -- shows that Mike Scioscia's success is a matter of monstrous luck. "The Angels," Everson wrote, "just might be the luckiest team of all time."

Let's leave aside the underlying argument about whether overshooting their Pythagorean expectation is a matter of luck, repeatable skill or perhaps roster construction and the timing of injuries. I'm more interested in the apparently one-to-one correlation many number-crunching baseball analysts have between exceeding run-differential expectations and "luck." After all, if you think about it, there are many other broad categories of luck over an 162-game season. My list would include, in order:

1) Injuries.

2) A bunch of guys having career or fluke seasons all at once.

3) Happened to play in a soft division.

4) Had a better record than run differential would indicate.

Were the Angels lucky with injuries? Not particularly. Their No. 2 starter missed the whole season, their opening-day shortstop is out until 2009, their .300-hitting second baseman missed 70 games, and the minor league infield depth chart was emptied out on the big league roster.

Career seasons? Maybe Mike Napoli, but he was hitting his usual .220/.337/.485 until game 152, whereupon he went totally bonkers for 10 days (and hopefully more). Ervin Santana had a strong comeback year, but 16-7 with a 3.49 ERA isn't exactly unheard of for a 25-year-old who went 16-8 with a 4.28 ERA at age 23. Joe Saunders had gone 15-8 in 31 spot starts the previous two years; he went 17-8 in 31 full starts in 2008 (though he did shave more than a run off his ERA).

Really, the only player you can say performed at an are-you-kidding-me level was Jose Arredondo.

Angels outfielder Torii Hunter talks with bench coach Ron Roenicke during batting practice Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2008 as the team prepares to play the Boston Red Sox for the American League Divisional Series Wednesday at Angel Stadium

Soft division? Yes, for the first time in Scioscia's reign, the American League West did not at least tie for the best record in the AL. This may indeed have been a lucky thing, but cutting both ways: It's easier to beat up on mediocrities, but you also become a better competitor when you have better competition.

So were the Angels baseball's "luckiest team"? Until I see their smartypants critics introduce other measures of "luck," while demonstrating to me beyond a shadow of doubt that Scioscia's three-year run of exceeding run differentials is truly an unrepeatable skill, then I'm going to vote no. But however you slice it, the team's all-time best record gave them the time to heal injuries and set up the playoff rotation. In that sense, I'd much rather be lucky than good.

(Editor's note: For Dodgers updates, check out The Times' Blue Notes blog.)

-- Matt Welch

Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason.

Top photo: Los Angeles Angels outfielder Torii Hunter talks to the crowd with a rally monkey on his back during the postseason rally at Angel Stadium. Credit: Kirby Lee / Image of Sport-US Presswire Lower photo: Torii Hunter talks with bench coach Ron Roenicke during batting practice Tuesday as the team prepares to play the Boston Red Sox in the American League divisional playoff series today at Angel Stadium. Credit: Alex Gallardo / Los Angeles Times.

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