Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 9/14/12

[In case you need a soundtrack for this post.]

The Cincinnati Reds have had a number of surprising heroes as they have pulled away from the field in the 2012 National League Central despite losing one the best players in baseball, Joey Votto, for a substantial chunk of games (although Votto has still managed to be worth about five wins this year). In addition to the expected contributions of players like Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce, and Mat Latos, the Reds have been the beneficiary of a number of performances that have, in varying degrees, been much better than one might have expected from players such as Johnny Cueto, Aroldis Chapman (still ridiculous to look at his numbers), and Todd Frazier.

Perhaps the most surprising Reds overperformer has been Ryan Ludwick. After bottoming out in San Diego and Pittsburgh last year, Ludwick has hit .275/.345/.534 (132 wRC) with 25 home runs for the Reds so far in 2012. Is Ludwick (and, by extension, the Reds) just getting “lucky,” and if so, what does that even mean?

How surprising is Ludwick’s comeback? Well, back on June 15, our own Paul Swydan saw the Reds’ left field situation as one in need of improvement. Let’s be fair to Paul, though: Ludwick was sporting a .316 wOBA at the time, which won’t really cut it for a full-time corner outfielder on a contender. Paul wasn’t the only one unimpressed with Ludwick early in the year. When Mike Newman compared Yankees prospect Tyler Austin to Ryan Ludwick in May, some of the comments in response were rather frosty.

However, while those reactions seem rather funny now, and while Ludwick some nice seasons with the Cardinals a few years back, it is worth keeping in mind that seeing Ludwick as not-so-great made sense earlier in the season. It was not just Ludwick’s lackluster performance early in the season that made him look bad, either. After a surprisingly great 2008 season and decent 2009 for the Cardinals, Ludwick started 2010 well. However, the Cardinals decided they needed pitching (Jake Westbrook) more than they needed Ludwick in right field, and Ludwick ended up in San Diego as part of a three-way trade.

As Marc Normandin put it a few weeks ago in a post about Ludwick’s big second half, “Ludwick looked like he had aged 10 years on the flight to San Diego.” He managed just an 80 wRC+ the rest of the season, and was barely better for the Padres in 2011, give them a 92 wRC+ in 425 plate appearances. Yes, the Padres’ home park is brutal for hitters, but as the park-adjusted numbers show, it did not seem to be just the park. The point was driven home when Ludwick was traded to Pittsburgh and was still terrible (86 wRC+, albeit in a relatively small sample in his time as a Pirate).

Prior to 2012, Ludwick’s good performances were not that far in in the past, but things did not look promising. After all, he was 31 at the beginning of this season. The main thing that made him a valuable performer at his best — his power — had been absent for a couple of years. Yes, some regression to the mean was to be expected, but preseason projections systems, which weight past performances, regress, and so on, were not terribly high on Ludwick. Prior to the season, ZiPS projected Ludwick for a .326 wOBA, Steamer for .328, and Marcel for .307. The Fans were not too excited, either, putting Ludwick’s true talent at a .315 wOBA. None of those numbers are very impressive for a corner outfielder. Yet here we are with a couple of weeks left in the season, and, as mentioned earlier Ludwick is hitting .275/.345/.534 for a 132 wRC+.

One could take this in many directions: the acknowledged limitations of projections, the possible role of the Reds scouting department, the effects of the Padres’ park on hitter. Those are all worthy topics, as is noting how Ludwick (and Todd Frazier) basically filled the “Votto void” while the Reds awesome first baseman was out.

However, I would rather end by reflecting on how Ludwick is an occasion for another reflection about the meaning of “luck” in baseball. That term gets thrown around a fair bit — probably too much — by wanna-be saberists like myself. It can mean a lot of things, and we are not always as careful as we should be. One of the primary ways “luck” should be used in a baseball context is to refer to random variation around a player’s true talent. That is is relevant in the case of Ludwick — random variation in observed performance is the reason why regression to the mean an essential part of statistical projection. Ludwick was probably subject to “bad luck” in 2010 and 2011, and is probably the beneficiary of “good luck” this year.

But beyond the (somewhat trite and boring) point that Ludwick’s true talent probably lies somewhere between his 2011 and 2012 numbers, there is another dimension of luck (I’ve already gone over my quota of scare quotes) involved. From the team perspective, did the Reds’ front office just luck out in getting a good year from a player whose bat looked dead and buried at an age when a resurrection is unlikely? Again, there are factors here (e.g., professional scouting) to which we do not have access. I am not dismissing those. But we can reasonably infer from Ludwick only getting $2.5 million guaranteed that few teams (probably including the Reds) saw Ludwick’s big year as likely.

So yes, it does seem that the Reds got fairly lucky here. Teams do this all this time. For example, the 2010 Giants got Aubrey Huff on the cheap (and he was only their second choice to Adam LaRoche, if you remember), and he put up the a 143 wRC+, the best of his career, on the way to the World Series. They also picked up the remains of Pat Burrell, who looked finished with the Rays, during that season, and his put up a 119 wRC+ for them. Anyone can think of similar examples.

Random variation (probably) played a big factor in the success of these budget pick-ups and thus the success of the teams. Of course, the Reds are eleven games up on the Cardinals with a couple weeks left in the regular season, so they probably would end up winning the division even if Ludwick had pulled a repeat of 2011. But what if he had? Well, the Reds only guaranteed him $2.5 million ($2 million for 2012 with a $0.5 million buyout for 2013). That is not exactly chump change, but it is not the kind of thing that would usually prevent a team from benching a player or even eating his salary after a DFA or trade. It was a similar situation with the Giants and Huff and Burrell in 2010 (no comment on the Giants and Huff’s post-2010 contract).

The Reds, like all teams, have been the beneficiary of luck in 2012, as the example of Ludwick attests. Like all teams, they have have also been fortune’s victim — as the injury to the usually-healthy Votto illustrates. Winning teams are usually well-planned, but they also usually need a bit of pixie dust. However, those teams that risk very relatively little when they roll the dice — as the Reds did with Ludwick — are more likely to come out on top than those who do not. It is an old story, but one worth retelling: consistent luck really is the residue of design.

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