95 percent pie chart

The Timeless Game (and, maybe, the myth of closers)

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Some years ago, my buddy Chardon Jimmy and I wanted to have T-shirts made that simply said: “Twenties Happen.” This is a Strat-o-Matic reference. In Strat-O baseball, when something is close to a sure thing — say a pretty fast guy scoring from second on a single with two outs — the game would often give you a “1-19” chance. That meant you would roll the 20-sided die, and assuming you rolled a 1 through 19, the runner would score.

But, we found, sometimes you rolled 20 (at which point the batter was thrown out — maybe he fell down or something). In fact, it happened five percent of the time. This has something to do with math.

That five percent, in case you are wondering, is also the same percentage of the time that baseball teams trailing going into the ninth inning come back and win the game.

There are two baseball phenomenons that are fascinating me these days. The first I’ve written about before: Teams leading going into the ninth inning have been winning 95% of the time more or less since the dawn of time. Yes, strategies change. Players change. Equipment changes. The use of relief pitchers evolves, the preparation of hitters evolves, the data used to set up defenses evolves, the game itself evolves.

In 1948, teams won 738 of 776 games they led going into the ninth. That’s 95%.

In 1968, that crazy year of the pitcher, teams won 1,315 of the 1,381 games they led going into the ninth. That’s 95%.

In 1977, when I was 10 years old and Duane Kuiper hit his only home run, teams won 1,788 of their 1,876 games. That’s 95%.

In 1989, when reliever Mark Davis won the Cy Young and Tony La Russa and Dennis Eckersley ushered in the era of the one-inning closer, teams won 1813 of 1890 games. That’s 95%.

In 2000, when the home runs were flying like balloons before a Super Bowl, teams won 2,081 of 2,190 games. That’s 95%.

Last year, teams won 2,032 of 2,137 games. And that too is 95%.

I have often thought that this all suggests that managers and general managers and players and writers and most of the rest of us are kind of fooling ourselves when making such a big deal out of closers or late game strategies or any of that stuff. The utter consistency of 95% suggests that the game has more or less drawn that line. Teams as a whole will win 95% of the games they lead going into the ninth. The rest is just rooting for good weather.*

*In case you want more involved numbers, going back to 1947 the win percentage is EXACTLY 95%. It rounds up or down to 95% every single decade since the 1950s — it goes as low as 94.6% and as high as 95.3%. But here’s the better point: There has never been a full season, not one since we have the numbers, where the entire league won 25 games over or under expectation. That’s in thousands of games. Baseball is so unpredictable on the micro-level, but you can say with certainty that at the end of this season, teams will lead 2,000 or so times going into the ninth and they will win 1,900 or so of those games. It happens every year.

Of course, there will be good and bad weather for individual teams. Some teams win every game they lead going into the ninth — that’s usually good for an announcer discussion in the postseason. Some teams blow an inordinate number of ninth-inning games. Then, even this often is beside the pint. Last year’s Florida Marlins won 98% of the games the led going into the 9th inning (wow!) which was a better percentage than Boston, St. Louis, Atlanta, Oakland, Pittsburgh, Detroit — you know, the best teams in baseball.

The Marlins still lost 100 games. Because they didn’t lead very much going into the ninth inning.

Yeah, those first eight innings still matter a lot more than the ninth..

Now, many people will say — and I understand this theory — that it’s only because of the game’s evolution that teams still win 95% of the time they lead into the ninth. In other words, they are saying that the newer strategies — the use of closers, the shifting of defenses, the study that now goes into the game — is the REASON that teams still win 95% of the time. This argument states that if you suddenly went back to the old days and stop using one inning closers and had your starting pitcher throw nine innings a lot and so on that your would be behind the times and would definitely lose more than your share of ninth inning games.

Maybe. But I have to say: I don’t think so. I tend to think more and more that all this ninth-inning scrambling (just like relentlessly watching pitch counts and shutting down starters after a certain number of innings) is more of a way for managers and teams to FEEL in control than it is about actually GAINING control. I think baseball, like every other sport, like more or less everything in life, follows the path of logic. it seems logical that teams using closers would win a la much higher percentage of the time than teams sticking with their starter or some three inning reliever. It seems like it HAS TO BE that way. But, some of these numbers suggest, it isn’t that way.

Give you another example, the second thing that fascinates me. I was absolutely convinced that quality starts were down in baseball. They HAVE to be down? I mean everything in starting pitching is down. Complete games are down. Shutouts are down. Wins are down. There have been 11 20-game winners the last five years combined. There were more than that in 1969 alone.

So, sure, the quality start HAS to be way, way down.

Except … it isn’t. Like with the ninth inning win, there a consistent statistical rhythm to quality starts. It’s not quite as consistent, but it’s close. Since the beginning of the live ball era, these two things have been true:

– About half of all starts end quality starts (that is: six innings pitched, three earned runs or less).
– Teams that get a quality start win about two-thirds of the time.

That’s the formula. Like I say, it fluctuates. In the 1960s, when pitching was king, pitchers threw quality starts 56% of the time. But because runs were so rare, those teams only won 64% of their quality starts.

In the 10 or so years of Bud Selig’s Power Hour — 1994 to 2004 — pitchers threw quality starts fewer than half the time but because so many runs were being scored they won 68.5% of the time.

So it will bounce around some. But in more normal times — if you assume the 1950s, 1970s, 1980s, and recent years are more normal — pitchers throw quality starts half the time (actually 52% or so) and teams win two-thirds of those. This was true in 1932, true in 1935, true in 1939, true in 1948, true in 1955, true in the expansion year of 1961, true throughout most of the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s until the strike. And it’s true now.

Last year: 52.8% of all starts were quality starts. And teams won 65.4% of the time.

The year before that: 52.1% of all starts were quality starts. And teams won 68.3% of the time.

The year before that: 53.6% of all starts were quality starts. And teams won 66.1% of the time.

All of this fascinates me because I”m fascinated about the idea of baseball timelessness. It’s something baseball fans talk a lot about — or at least the baseball fans I know. We talk about how 90 feet remains so perfect — a ground ball to short is an out in 1920 and today. We talk a lot about 60 feet 6 inches and how well that has held up (with a few alterations through the years to mound height and strike zones and so on). Baseball is the only game that pretends to share time; few serious people seem to believe that 1972 Dolphins or 1964 Celtics, as constructed, could play the game with today’s Seahawks or Heat.

But the 1965 Dodgers? With Koufax and Drysdale? You bet.

And one of the cool things about baseball is that the numbers often back this up. If tomorrow, every team in baseball decided all at once that every strategical advancement of the last 30 years is wrong and that everyone should basically run their team the way Earl Weaver or Billy Martin did in the 1970s, well, it would take some time to for all of us readjust. But the game itself, I think, would look the same.

Video: Bryce Harper launches a homer into the upper deck

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 24: Bryce Harper #34 of the Washington Nationals looks on against the New York Mets at Nationals Park on May 24, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper has had a tough month of May. Opposing pitchers have become increasingly unwilling to throw hittable pitches in the strike zone for him, and he’s had trouble adjusting. Entering Thursday’s action, Harper was hitting .194/.454/.306 with two home runs in 97 plate appearances this month. 31 of those plate appearances ended in a walk, nine intentionally.

Harper finally got a pitch to hit in the sixth inning against Cardinals starter Mike Leake. Leake threw a 1-1 curve and Harper promptly launched into the upper deck at Nationals Park. It’s Harper’s 12th homer of the year.

Jackie Bradley, Jr.’s hitting streak ends at 29 games

BOSTON, MA - MAY 25:  Blake Swihart #23 of the Boston Red Sox congratulates Jackie Bradley Jr. #25 after he scored a run against the Colorado Rockies  during the fifth inning at Fenway Park on May 25, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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Red Sox outfielder Jackie Bradley, Jr. was unable to continue his hitting streak on Thursday night, going 0-for-4 out of the leadoff spot against the Rockies in an 8-2 loss. He hit a deep fly ball to right field in the first inning, missing a home run by a few feet. He hit another deep drive in the fifth, but it was caught in front of the wall in center field at Fenway Park by Charlie Blackmon. In his final at-bat, Bradley weakly grounded out on the first pitch from Jon Gray to lead off the eighth inning.

Bradley’s 29-game streak tied Johnny Damon for the fourth-longest streak in Red Sox history. Dom DiMaggio still has the longest in club history at 34 games.

Shortstop Xander Bogaerts was able to extend his hitting streak streak to 19 games. He went 1-for-3, hitting a line drive single in the first.

Softball legend Jennie Finch to manage a professional men’s baseball team

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 03:  Jennie Finch attends a press conference at Marathon Pavilion in Central Park on November 3, 2011 in New York City.  (Photo by Andy Kropa/Getty Images)
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Softball legend Jennie Finch will make history on Sunday when she will serve as a guest manager for the Bridgeport Bluefish of the independent Atlantic League. She will become the first woman to manage a men’s professional baseball team.

In the club’s announcement, GM Jamie Toole said, “We are really excited to have Jennie come out and manage the team. She is an incredible athlete and a wonderful person, and we hope our fans will enjoy seeing her in a Bluefish uniform for the day.”

Finch won the 2001 Women’s College World Series with the University of Arizona. She won the gold medal with Team USA in the 2004 Summer Olympics and silver in the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Finch is only managing one game, but it’s still a positive step for inclusiveness in professional sports. Hopefully, in the future, we see more women in sportswriting, broadcasting, coaching, and front office positions.

Mike Moustakas out for the rest of the 2016 season with a torn ACL

KANSAS CITY, MO - APRIL 21:  Mike Moustakas #8 of the Kansas City Royals hits a single in the first inning against the Detroit Tigers at Kauffman Stadium on April 21, 2016 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
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Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas has been placed on disabled list with a torn right ACL, the club announced on Thursday. He is expected to miss the rest of the season, per MLB.com’s Jeffrey Flanagan. Outfielder Brett Eibner has been recalled from Triple-A Omaha.

Moustakas suffered the injury colliding with teammate Alex Gordon attempting to catch a foul ball. Gordon suffered a fractured scaphoid bone, which will keep him out of action for three to four weeks.

It’s a tough break for Moustakas as he missed time earlier this month with a fractured thumb. He lands back on the DL hitting .240/.301/.500 with seven home runs and 13 RBI in 113 plate appearances.