How “Cluster Luck” has impacted the Blue Jays early season success

For many of us, sports offer a pure, unfiltered test of skill. When great athletes do something extraordinary, we can marvel at their natural talent, even daydream about what it would be like to hit 450-foot home runs ourselves.

For others, sports offer a pure, unfiltered test of will. When great athletes do something extraordinary, we can marvel at their perseverance and determination, and be wowed by their ability to overcome pain and adversity when the stakes are highest.

When it comes to breaking down individual and team performances in sports, there’s a third element that’s always in play. We may prefer to think of our favorite players and teams as being driven entirely by skill and will, but there’s no getting around the enormous impact of that third factor: luck. You can’t win without it.

Crunch the numbers on the 2018 MLB season, and one team stands out as being far luckier than any other in one key metric. That team is the Blue Jays, and the stat is Cluster Luck.

As any baseball fan from T-ball to the big leagues can tell you, hits tend to lead to runs. But contrary to popular myths about clutch (or unclutch) hitting, players and teams have little control over when they collect those hits. So when a group of hitters fares particularly well in clustering hits together in the same inning, or a group of pitchers fares particularly well in scattering hits across multiple innings, we can conclude that there’s a lot of luck in play.

Sports statistician and analyst Ed Feng tracks every major league team’s results when it comes to clustering hits (for hitters) and scattering hits (for pitchers), using a stat called Cluster Luck. By that measure, the Jays hitters have scored about 18 more runs than you’d expect if their hit clustering occurred at league-average levels. Blue Jays pitchers have allowed about 12 fewer runs than you’d expect if they’d scattered their hits allowed at league-average levels. All told, the Jays have derived a benefit of about 30 runs this season from random hit clustering and scattering alone.

That makes Toronto the luckiest team in baseball so far in 2018 by a wide margin.

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