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.

Miguel Sano criticized by his manager for dogging it on a defensive play

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Sal Perez of the Royals had a nice night last night, going 5-for-5. One of those five hits was a triple. But it maybe didn’t have to be a triple, as Perez’s hit to right field went over the head of Miguel Sano and off the wall, bouncing back toward the infield.

Sano is no one’s idea of a gold glover so getting on him for not catching a ball at the wall is only going to have so much of an effect. But Twins manager Paul Molitor was rightly upset, it would seem, for how Sano reacted after the ball bounced off the wall. Specifically: he basically just stopped and watched it roll away as center fielder Danny Santana had to spring over and field it as the slow Perez lumbered around the bases. Molitor:

“I think maybe he assumed that [second baseman Eduardo] Nunez or Danny were going to be in better position after he positioned himself close to the wall to make the catch,” Molitor said. “But you want him to go for the ball even if you think there’s somebody else to help you out. Sometimes you get caught assuming out there and it doesn’t look too good.”

You can watch the play below. It starts at around the :37 second mark and is Perez’s third hit in the sequence:

Red Sox reliever Carson Smith to have Tommy John surgery

BOSTON, MA - MAY 09:  Carson Smith #39 of the Boston Red Sox looks on in the seventh inning during the game against the Oakland Athletics at Fenway Park on May 9, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
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Last season Carson Smith was an effective and durable relief pitcher for the Seattle Mariners, appearing in 70 games. In the offseason the Red Sox traded for him and Roenis Elias in exchange for Jonathan Aro and Wade Miley. This year Smith has appeared in just three games. And he will appear in no more as the Red Sox just announced that he will undergo season-ending Tommy John surgery today.

Smith last appeared in a game ten days ago and, until today, it was believed that his injury was minor, like the flexor strain injury he sustained in spring training. Sadly, the news was much worse.

Bill “Spaceman” Lee is running for governor of Vermont

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Bill Lee pitched for the Boston Red Sox from 1969 through 1978 and for the Montreal Expos from 1979 through 1982. He’s far better known, however, for being a weirdo, in the best sense of the term. He was outspoken and controversial and funny and aggravating and above all else his own dude.

His most famous comment as a player was when he said that he sprinkled marijuana on his pancakes in order to immunize him from Boston bus fumes as he jogged to Fenway Park. Which is patently silly, as everyone knowns you can’t just sprinkle it. You gotta make butter out of the stuff and spread it on the pancakes. Or so I’m told.

In recent years Lee has alternated gimmicky and celebrity baseball appearances with political aspirations. His political aspirations, of course, have never been conventional either. In 1987, for example, he had announced plans to run for President of the United States for the Rhinoceros Party. Which would’ve been a neat trick as it was a Canadian political party. Still, we could’ve used it here, as its platform was fairly intriguing. The Rhinoceroses advocated, among other things, repealing the law of gravity, legalizing all drugs, privatizing Tim Hortons and giving a rhinoceros for every Canadian Citizen.

That campaign didn’t work out for Lee, sadly, but he is undeterred. And now he plans to run for office again. Governor of Vermont, to be specific. And he plans to soak the rich:

Now, he’s throwing his hat into the race to be Vermont’s next governor shaking off campaign contributions and decrying wealth inequality.

“You get what you pay for, if you want change, you vote for Sanders or me. I’m Bernie-heavy, I’m not Bernie-lite. My ideas were before Bernie,” said Lee. “If you want to see money come down from the 2 percent, we’re going to need umbrellas when I’m elected, because it’s going to be raining dollars,” he said.

This is no Rhinoceros Party joke, though. He’s a member of the Liberty Union party, which is where Bernie Sanders got his start. And his platform — legalization and taxation of pot in Vermont, single-payer health care, paid family leave — are all things which have no small constituency in a liberal state like Vermont.

Oh, he has one other platform plank: bringing the Expos back to Montreal. That may be a bit tougher for the governor of Vermont to do, but we’ll probably see some form of New Expos in Montreal in the next decade or so, and Lee will be proven to be on the right side of history. And that’s better than a lot of our politicians can say, right?

The Marlins have sued at least nine season ticket holders and vendors

MIAMI, FL - MAY 04: Miami Marlins owner Jeffery Loria looks on during the game between the Miami Marlins and the Arizona Diamondbacks at Marlins Park on May 4, 2016 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images
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Earlier this month we reported that the Miami Marlins had sued a season ticket holder, Mickey Axelband, alleging that he reneged on the second year of a two-year season ticket agreement. Axelband, who had been a season ticket holder with the Marlins since their inaugural season in 1993, claimed that the Marlins reneged first, eliminating amenities which they promised upon the move to Marlins Park and failing to deliver on others.

In that post we observed that it is uncommon for teams to sue ticket holders. It’s bad form to begin with as season ticket holders are a club’s most valuable and dedicated customers. But it’s also dumb in that there are virtually limitless options available to a club to resolve disputes with ticket holders short of litigation. Why would the Marlins sue in this situation? Maybe there was more to it than we knew? Maybe this was just an extreme outlier of a case?

Nope. The Miami New Times reports today that this seems to be pretty par for the course for Jeff Loria’s Marlins. The Marlins, in fact, have sued at least nine season ticketholders and luxury suite owners since 2013. They are also locked in litigation with two stadium vendors. The concessioners claim that the Marlins induced them to pay big rights fees in order to set up business inside Marlins Park by promising big, big crowds, only to fail to deliver on those promises and to see the vendors go out of business or be unable or unwilling to pay what the Marlins demanded.

The story goes deep on Axelband’s dispute with Miami and that of a pizza vendor. Overall it paints a portrait of a Marlins club which doesn’t seem to give a crap about fans or its business partners, only the bottom line. Unless, of course, it’s trying to pose as a civic institution so it can get tax dollars to pay for its big stadium and rights fees from potential vendors. Now that they have the stadium, however, and now that the ink is dry on those deals, they’re portraying themselves like any other company, entitled to enforce their business deals in any way necessary.

And, legally speaking, they are. But they’re certainly approaching things differently than most ball clubs do. And in a way that puts lie to the notion that sports teams should be given any extra leeway when it comes to giving them all of the things they ask for.