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.

And That Happened: Wednesday’s scores and highlights

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 28:  Mark Teixeira #25 of the New York Yankees celebrates his game winning ninth inning grand slam home run against the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium on September 28, 2016 in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Yankees 5, Red Sox 3: Congratulations to the Red Sox, I guess. They won the AL East thanks to the Blue Jays loss while this game was still going on, but they were deprived of the right to woop and holler on the field in New York given Mark Teixeira‘s stunning walkoff grand slam with two outs in the ninth. The Yankees were down 3-0 heading into the inning. The Yankees staved off elimination for another night. It will come, but in the meantime this was their 82nd win, ensuring a winning season at the very least.

Orioles 3, Blue Jays 2Hyun Soo Kim hit a ninth inning pinch hit homer which gave the Orioles a 3-2 lead and, eventually, 3-2 win over the Blue Jays. It simultaneously gave the Red Sox the American League East. Not too bad. Unless you’re a Jays fan, that is. For the O’s, it kept them a game ahead of the Tigers in the Wild Card and pulled them to within a game behind Toronto for the top slot.

Tigers 6, Indians 3: The Tigers likewise keep pace with Baltimore, thanks to a tiebreaking three-run homer from Miguel Caberea moments before the game was stopped on a very rainy night in Detroit. It ended up being shortened to a five inning affair. There was an earlier stoppage of 45 minutes before the 72 minute delay turned into the end of the game. If the Indians hadn’t already clinched the Central I’m guessing they’d be pissed about this, but at least this way they got to go back to the hotel and relax.

Mariners 12, Astros 4: Robinson Cano hit a three-run homer in the first inning and the M’s added four more before the Astros scored their first run, making this one a breeze. The pile on led to a win which kept Seattle two games behind Baltimore for the second Wild Card slot.

Mets 5, Marlins 2: Jay Bruce and James Loney homered as the Mets give themselves a one and a half game lead over San Francisco for the NL’s top wild card spot. The Marlins’ pregame routine for this one was Jose Fernandez’s funeral, so it’s understandable if their heads weren’t completely in this one.

Reds 2, Cardinals 1: Cardinal-killer Anthony DeSclafani allowed only one run over six innings as Adam Duvall‘s two run single in the third holds up. DeSclafani is 4-1 with a 2.13 ERA against St. Louis in his young career. He’s 15-19 against everyone else.

Rockies 2, Giants 0: The Rockies, paced by Tyler Chatwood‘s eight scoreless innings, shut out the Giants. Nolan Arenado singled in a run in the fourth and Gerardo Parra singled in one in the seventh. Jeff Samardzija struck out 11 while pitching into the seventh. If needed, he’ll pitch in a Wild Card tiebreaker on Monday.

Pirates 8, Cubs 4: John Jaso hit for the cycle. It was the first cycle for a Pirates hitter since Daryle Ward did it in 2004. Remember Daryle Ward? Meanwhile, Jake Arrieta went five innings and allowed 10 hits and seven runs in his worst start of the year.

Braves 12, Phillies 2Freddie Freeman extended his hitting streak to 30 games, Matt Kemp hit a two-run homer and Mike Foltynewicz pitched two-hit ball over five innings. The Braves’ second half has been pretty darn good.

Royals 5, Twins 2: The Red Sox lost, but won the AL East anyway. The Royal won, but were officially eliminated from the postseason. Oh well. The Twins lost their 10th game in their last 11. That ties the record for the most losses since the franchise moved to Minnesota. One more loss and they’ll top the 1982 club for this grand honor. Gary Ward was the offensive star of that team. No one remembers Gary Ward, do they?

Diamondbacks 3, Nationals 0: Another rain-shortened game, this one lasting through the top of the sixth. The Nats have lost seven of 11. Between that and all of their injuries, they have to be the division winner with the least amount of confidence heading into the playoffs.

Rangers 8, Brewers 5: Texas was down 5-4 heading into the bottom the eighth but rallied for four. Elvis Andrus singled in run to tie it and then Carlos Gomez hit a three-run homer to give the Rangers the game. It was the second night in a row Gomez hit a three-run shot. In all, he has eight homers and 24 RBI in 31 games since joining the Rangers after being released by Houston.

White Sox 1, Rays 0: Miguel Gonzalez pitched a three-hit shutout into the ninth inning but was pulled when he put a runner on his pitch count went over 100 in what is a meaningless game. His workload was actually higher, as he threw a lot of warmup pitches during a rain delay. Todd Frazier‘ 40th homer was the game’s only scoring. Overall he’s hitting .228/.307/.474.  Statistically this has to be one of the worst 40-homer seasons ever, right?

Angels 8, Athletics 6: A win is nice, but having Mike Trout get hit with a pitch late in the game which will cause him to have tests on his shoulder isn’t the best news. Kole Calhoun homered as the Angels sweep the A’s.

Padres 6, Dodgers 5: Padres rookie outfielder Hunter Renfroe hit a homer onto the roof of the Western Metal Supply Building in right field at Petco Park. He’s the first one to ever do that in the park’s history. Not bad. Now the Padres have something to lead the 2016 highlight reel anyway. Renfroe was the PCL MVP this year and has hit four home runs and drove in 12 in the seven games since he’s been called up.

CC Sabathia wants to pitch beyond 2017

BOSTON, MA - SEPTEMBER 18: CC Sabathia #52 of the New York Yankees pitches during the fifth inning against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on September 18, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Red Sox won 5-4. (Photo by Rich Gagnon/Getty Images)
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CC Sabathia‘s contract with the Yankees expires after the 2017 season but the lefty feels that he has enough left in the tank to pitch in 2018 and beyond, Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News reports.

Sabathia said, “I just know myself. I know I feel like it’s not my time yet. Barring any crazy injuries I know I can pitch past next year. I feel like this is just the beginning of what I’m trying to do. I feel like there’s a lot more still to learn and a lot better to get. It’s exciting.”

The 36-year-old lefty currently holds a 4.02 ERA and a 144/63 K/BB ratio in 172 1/3 innings. It’s his best and healthiest season since 2012. He battled a knee injury last season and checked into rehab for alcohol addiction last October. Sabathia said that being treated for his addiction put him “in a good spot.”

Sabathia is owed $25 million through a vesting option for the 2017 season.