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Colorado Rockies have been lucky, and that’s great

Being lucky is actually good news for this team

The Colorado Rockies currently have the best record in the National League. If you’re a Rockies fan, enjoy it! Sports are supposed to be fun and following a successful team is even more fun. Of course, there will always be questions of how they have been this good, and the more cynical will likely point to some version of “luck.” But since luck is an essential part of the game, this doesn’t have to be pejorative.

A few years back, Matthew Gross developed a way to measure team success that went beyond run differential or records in one-run games. He called it “Luck Factor” and, using tOPS+ (OPS for a team’s split relative to overall OPS, from Baseball-Reference) compared a team’s performance in high leverage situations (which tend to swing the results of games one way or the other) to their overall performance to determine just how timely they have been, both in producing runs and preventing runs. Luck factor is not a repeatable skill; hitting better or worse when the stakes are higher fluctuates over time, but given enough time, everything eventually balances out.

We’ll look at the state of things in 2017 first from the hitting side, then the pitching side. Here is how the National League has performed in high leverage situations at the plate. A tOPS+ above 100 means the team has been better than their overall OPS. So if a team has a tOPS+ of 110 that means they have been 10 percent better in high leverage situations than in all situations:

2017 National League High Leverage Hitting

Arizona .882 .328 123
Milwaukee .873 .353 120
Colorado .835 .349 120
Philadelphia .796 .323 117
San Diego .690 .261 110
New York .757 .275 107
Atlanta .750 .342 102
AVERAGE .736 .302 98
St Louis .739 .301 95
Washington .783 .329 92
San Francisco .610 .290 90
Cincinnati .730 .279 88
Miami .666 .276 86
Chicago .686 .275 85
Los Angeles .720 .336 85
Pittsburgh .591 .236 77
Stats as of May 23, 2017

Recall that batting average on balls in play (BABIP) tends to settle around .300 for any stretch of time, though that’s not the case for every player. Noting that we can see that the teams with the highest tOPS+ in high leverage situations are riding high on some great BABIP. The Rockies and Brewers have been the biggest beneficiaries on the BABIP front, but a high BABIP in high leverage situations hasn’t helped the Dodgers thus far.

Here is how they performed on the mound. A tOPS+ below 100 means the team has been better than their average split. So if a team has a tOPS+ of 90 that means they have been 10% better in high leverage situations than in all situations.

2017 National League High Leverage Pitching

Colorado .585 .268 63
Los Angeles .575 .250 69
Chicago .636 .283 73
Cincinnati .720 .271 88
Arizona .644 .279 90
St Louis .679 .291 91
Pittsburgh .732 .276 97
AVERAGE .747 .304 100
Washington .754 .321 101
Milwaukee .804 .341 101
San Francisco .753 .328 105
Atlanta .790 .285 106
New York .835 .326 109
Philadelphia .852 .278 112
Miami .894 .366 137
San Diego .956 .382 151
Stats as of May 23, 2017

This is quite absurd. The Rockies bullpen—which was the worst in baseball last year—has been dominant, and they’ve been especially dominant in the moments when it matters most. This is more or less what happens when you have your best relievers (Greg Holland, Adam Ottavino, Jake McGee) working in the high leverage spots and your, uh, less good relievers (Jordan Lyles, Chad Qualls) pitching in the spots that don’t matter as much to the outcome of the game. Even though Rockies fans can’t count on this lasting for the rest of the season, Bud Black deserves a ton of credit for managing the bullpen as well as he has to this point.

When you put it all together, here’s the luck factor calculations:

2017 National League Luck Factor

Team tOPS+, Batting tOPS+, Pitching Luck Factor
Team tOPS+, Batting tOPS+, Pitching Luck Factor
Colorado 120 63 57%
Arizona 123 90 33%
Milwaukee 120 101 19%
Los Angeles 85 69 16%
Chicago 85 73 12%
Philadelphia 117 112 5%
St Louis 95 91 4%
Cincinnati 88 88 0%
New York 107 109 -2%
Atlanta 102 106 -4%
Washington 92 101 -9%
San Francisco 90 105 -15%
Pittsburgh 77 97 -20%
San Diego 110 151 -41%
Miami 86 137 -51%
Stats as of May 23, 2017

The Rockies have been 57 percent better in all high leverage situations than they have been overall, a mark nearly three times higher than the third luckiest team based on these metrics, the Brewers. According to Gross, that’s the second highest mark he’s seen at this point of the season since he started tracking Luck Factor.

Looking at this, we can see how the Rockies, Brewers (25-19), and Diamondbacks (27-19) have built their success so far this year. We can also see why the Giants (20-26) and Pirates (20-25) have had such rough starts to their seasons.

Once again, Luck Factor is descriptive, not predictive, meaning that it describes what has happened thus far, but it cannot tell you what’s going to happen next. What it tells Rockies fans is this: yes, the team has been lucky to this point in the season. But anyone who watched the Giants win three out of five World Series titles can tell you that luck plays an important role, especially for good and successful teams.

The Rockies’ good fortune means they have already banked 29 wins that nobody can take away from them. If their luck factor drops to 0 percent from this point forward and they record a .500 record (which is what many thought was a reasonable expectation from this collection of talent), they will still be 87-75 and battling for a playoff spot.

There’s no shame in luck. It’s part of the alchemy of what makes just about every World Series champion. The Rockies have been good, and they’ve also been lucky. That’s a wonderful thing, and it could lead to something amazing.