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

Apr 30, 2014, 11:19 AM EDT

95 percent pie chart

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.

  1. unclemosesgreen - Apr 30, 2014 at 11:37 AM

    He says there’s no doubt about it –
    It was the myth of the fingerprints.
    I’ve seen them all – and man they’re all the same.

    • Joe Vecchio - Apr 30, 2014 at 1:55 PM

      Wow a “Graceland” quote! Well done, well done!

  2. CyclePower - Apr 30, 2014 at 11:39 AM

    I’ve not seen you contribute to this blog before, but you need to do it more. Thoughtful, insightful, more elucidating and less self-referential and ego driven than Craig, it’s a nice change from the usual in-your-face rancor here. Thx.

    • 18thstreet - Apr 30, 2014 at 1:36 PM

      Also, it would be great if you went off on random tangents about Ted Stepien. That would also be great.

    • Glenn - Apr 30, 2014 at 2:40 PM

      Cyclepower – you did not know that Joe Posnanski is the finest sports writer in America today? I envy you – you have so many great things yet to read.

  3. pmcenroe - Apr 30, 2014 at 11:49 AM

    In terms of closers I guess the next logical question would be; what are the % of teams winning going in the 9th leading by 1, 2, 3, 4+ runs by decade/era, etc. Anyone have an idea of where to find that data?

    I’ve always thought there must be a better model for closer usage then what is currently employed by managers but I’m not sure where/how to prove it.

    • [citation needed] fka COPO - Apr 30, 2014 at 5:28 PM

      TomTango ran the numbers, here they are:

      current generation (1993-2010), my youth (1969-1992), before my time (1950-1968)

      Going into the top of the 9th, the home team has won this often, for those eras:

      Ahead by 1: 86%, 87%, 86%, respectively

      Ahead by 2: 94%, 94%, 94%

      Ahead by 3: 98%, 98%, 98%

      Ahead by 4: 99%, 99%, 99%

      Ahead by 5 or more: 100%, 100%, 100% (all rounded, naturally)

      Going into the bottom of the 9th, the away team has won this often, for those eras:

      Ahead by 1: 81%, 82%, 82%, respectively

      Ahead by 2: 92%, 92%, 92%

      Ahead by 3: 96.5%, 97%, 96%

      Ahead by 4: 99%, 99%, 99% (a bit less than 99%)

      Ahead by 5: 99%, 99%, 99% (a bit more than 99%)

      • pmcenroe - May 1, 2014 at 1:36 PM

        that’s awesome, thank you

    • SocraticGadfly - May 1, 2014 at 11:01 AM

      If there is a better model, somebody call Mike Matheny, please. On the subject in general, per people telling Joe or others, “but, the world is different with closers today,” folks, that 95 percent goes all the way back to 1947, as he notes. Hasn’t changed a bit. And, yet, even sabermetrics guru Billy Beane has shown that he can’t totally resist overvaluing closers.

  4. thedoubleentandres - Apr 30, 2014 at 11:50 AM

    Does the image of guys in t shirts that say “twenties happen” rolling a 20 sided die make anyone else wanna cry?

    • natstowngreg - Apr 30, 2014 at 4:06 PM

      Yes, because that could have just as easily have been me, during several years in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

  5. DelawarePhilliesFan - Apr 30, 2014 at 11:57 AM

    I have come around to the theory that closers are massively overrated….but part of me still thinks that going back to the old ways would result in more 9th inning losses. This is just a gut call. But….probbaly going down to 91% vs. 95%.

    But on the other hand…lets not forget, to an individual team, it doesn’t matter what the league average is. The 2008 Phillies were 79-0 leading after 8 innings. The Mets were 78-7. That was the difference between a World Series win and watching the playoffs on TV

    • brewcrewfan54 - Apr 30, 2014 at 12:16 PM

      To go with your first point about closers being overrated I agree and disagree. I don’t know that the role itself is but the players in the role are. Since the year 2000 my Brewers have had 12 different closers attempt or get at least 20 saves. Thos leadse to believe that maybe consistent success as a closer is fleeting for most guys who end up in the role. The Brewers are my only example though so I don’t know if other teams have gone through the same situation. Or maybe I’m just reading this thing all wrong

      • DelawarePhilliesFan - Apr 30, 2014 at 1:18 PM

        I went back and checked – the Phillies have had 9 closers attempt 20 in that span, so not that unusual. and it goes to who how replaceable closers are

  6. hoopmatch - Apr 30, 2014 at 12:36 PM

    This might be the new frontier for innovators like Billy Beane and Joe Maddon. All it will take to topple the groupthink closer theory is one great team that deviates from the party line. Maybe that’s using the closer in the seventh or eighth inning. And maybe it’s closer by committee. (Or a combination of the two.) But the idea that ONE GUY has to pitch the ninth inning when you’re leading by three runs or less strikes me as fatuous.

    • brewcrewfan54 - Apr 30, 2014 at 12:48 PM

      Maybe the save rule should be changed. Guy comes into a 1-run game in the 7th with guys on 2nd and 3rd and gets out of it without allowing a run. Then the closer comes in to open the 9th with the same 1 run lead, gets 3 outs and gets the save. Who really saved that game? Or maybe the 7th inning situation is really where your ace closer should pitch? I’m just shooting from the hip here and hope I don’t sound like an idiot.

      • DelawarePhilliesFan - Apr 30, 2014 at 1:34 PM

        Excellent point – with all the crud out there these days…… iHOP, BpWAP, fWAR, BIOsP….I am stunned no one has come up with a better way to calculate Saves.

        For that matter – calculate inherited runners better too. And that one is easy – just use a formula for the number of outs, and where the runners were. As it is now – you come in with the bases loaded and 2 outs, you get 3 inherited runners “stranded” by getting one out. All well and good as it could have been a disaster – but is that really 3 times harder than a guy who came in with a guy on 2nd and no outs?

        /stepping off soapbox

      • someguyinva - Apr 30, 2014 at 1:47 PM

        Your idea of using the best relief pitcher (nominally the guy who’s the “closer”) in high leverage situations regardless of inning isn’t new (Baseball Prospectus and others have beaten this drum for a while), and it’s not idiotic, IMHO.

        What stops it from happening at present is that the “closer” is the one who gets paid the most in the bullpen, and saves are how his value is measured at contract time. If baseball figures out a better way to measure a reliever’s value, maybe a stat called “Fireman Points” or something that tries to calculate degree of difficulty based on inning, inherited runners, batters faced (3-4-5 is tougher than 8-9-1), etc., then maybe the mentality can change.

        Then again, I’m a Nats fan, and from what I see this season, the Nats are using their most effective reliever (Storen) in the seventh, so maybe they’ve made a subtle change here. :-)

      • natstowngreg - Apr 30, 2014 at 4:30 PM

        In part, Storen is pitching the 7th because Soriano is getting paid like a closer ($14 million). In part, because Tyler Clippard was the best reliever last season, usually pitching the 8th. Also, I have to wonder if Matt Williams is ready to trust Storen in the 8th or 9th. I think the only real change was adding lefty (Jerry Blevins) to the setup reliever mix.

        Storen didn’t come into the season as the Nats’ best reliever, but I agree he’s their best reliever right now. Matt has been fuzzy on changing roles, so it’s unclear whether he would actually break with “by the book” bullpen construction. I could see Storen and Clippard changing roles; they’ve changed roles before. No indication that Soriano will be moved from closer.

  7. acepicker4 - Apr 30, 2014 at 1:34 PM

    Seems sound to me brewcrew. Your best reliever should pitch in the most critical moment i.e. when the lead is in jeopardy. The fear is that if you go against conventional wisdom – the current closer mentality – and lose you will be called out for ignoring what all the other teams know to be true. I seem to recall the late 80s / early 90s Pirates being an example of a team that never managed to win it all and because they didn’t have a bona fide shut down closer, that must be the reason.
    I think its more likely that teams look at another team who has a top notch closer – one who saves greater than the average 95% – and thinks that if we could just get a guy like that we would save/win more games.
    I don’t know the numbers but it would seem that in any given year there are guys at or near 100% and guys below 90% so we always get 95% for the league. The question is: Are there guys who consistently get you greater than 95%? If so why doesn’t my team have one? If I spend more I should be able to get one, right?

  8. twinfan24 - Apr 30, 2014 at 2:01 PM

    Well, in order to blow a 9th inning lead, you have to give up runs. So, that means that teams give up a run or runs at least 5% of the time. What is the rate of teams scoring runs in an inning otherwise? Is it higher or lower than 5%? That might shed some light on whether or not closers help.

  9. happytwinsfan - Apr 30, 2014 at 2:05 PM

    It’s not being specified that teams win 95% of the time going into the ninth leading by 3 runs or less. Presumably games that are 8 to 3 or 10 to 2 are being included. What happens when those games are excluded from the samples? It’s also not being specified that the winning team held the lead in the ninth. what happens when games which were tied in the ninth or games where the lead was lost in the top of the ninth and re taken in the bottom of the ninth are excluded from the samples? This is relevant because there are negative consequences for following games when a team staff has to complete extra innings.

    I don’t disagree that managers would probably be better off, supposing that the gain wouldn’t be off set by a negative psychological impact on the players, by using their relievers in whatever way or inning that yields the best match-ups, but these numbers by themselves don’t prove it.

    • cohnjusack - Apr 30, 2014 at 2:10 PM

      Do you really think there were more 8 to 3 or 10 to 2 games in 1968 than in 2000?

      • cohnjusack - Apr 30, 2014 at 2:11 PM

        The point is, over the course of an entire season with thousands of games played, there isn’t going to be a whole lot of variation in margin of victory between seasons.

  10. cohnjusack - Apr 30, 2014 at 2:09 PM

    This got me looking around baseball-reference, looking at Dennis Eckersley’s insane 1990 season. Upon clicking on the season link, I noticed this. These are the ERA’s of the 1990 A’s Bullpen that year.

    Dennis Eckersley – 0.61
    Todd Burns – 2.97
    Gene Nelson – 1.57
    Rick Honeycutt – 2.70
    Joe Klink – 2.04
    Reggie Harris – 3.48
    Mike Norris – 3.00
    Steve Chitren – 1.02

    Overall, the bullpen put up a 2.35 ERA that year. But wait! 12 of those runs were given up in by 5th starter/mop up man Curt Young in his 5 bullpen appearances. Excluding him, the bullpen put up a 2.17 ERA over the course of 1990.

  11. gbart22 - Apr 30, 2014 at 2:20 PM

    I’ll admit I was shocked when I was reading this and looked up To see who the author was and it wasn’t Craig. This is a great article and you had me hanging on and thinking about every single word up until the end when you got into the comparing the old teams vs new teams.

    You can’t tell me babe Ruth would have dominated in today’s game much as you can’t tell me drysdale and Koufax would have been the same pitchers today they were then. The athletes all around and the quality of the players has all increased an incredible amount since past eras and it’s not fair to compare eras. They were great for their time and their competition leave it at that.

    • brewcrewfan54 - Apr 30, 2014 at 2:44 PM

      I disagree. Of course Babe Ruth and Koufax etc wouldn’t be as good now using the training methods of their time. Put them in our era and with the current methods they would be just as good because they had all the skills back then that guys have now. Guys now just have access to a lot more information in every aspect of thee game. Not to mention, aside from the mound height hitting and pitching haven’t changed.

      • natstowngreg - Apr 30, 2014 at 5:00 PM

        Agreed. Some players were so gifted, they could have competed in any era. Modern players are better-trained and conditioned by and large, but there would be plenty of room for Babe Ruth’s power, Ted Williams’ batting eye, Willie Mays’ speed, Sandy Koufax’s curveball, and Walter Johnson’s sidearm fastball. Not even mentioning the sheer competitiveness of a Frank Robinson, Don Drysdale, Jackie Robinson or Bob Gibson. Their career arcs would have been quite different, of course.

        Babe Ruth might well have been drafted as an outfielder, and not have pitched at all. Also, eras changed in baseball just as he was changing teams and positions. The new-found emphasis on power and run-scoring in the 1920s fit Babe’s game perfectly. Today, one wonders how well he would have dealt with the constant scrutiny over his physical condition and lifestyle.

        Imagine how Sandy Koufax’s fastball and curveball, and his later-career control, would play with today’s swing-happy hitters. It’s a scary thought. His career arc, however, would have started in the minors, instead of the Majors. Might that have helped him reach his potential sooner? It’s probable he would have missed a season or two, after Dr. Andrews or Dr. Yocum operated on him. But fixing his elbow, and not expecting 300+ innings a season, might have led him to a longer career.

    • dcarroll73 - Apr 30, 2014 at 6:36 PM

      natstowngreg, if we are going to talk “what ifs” across eras, the classic is the idea of Babe Ruth as a pitcher and also DHing on days he didn’t pitch. Sherman, get in the WayBack Machine; the Yanks need another starter and another power hitter, and I know where/when to find him.

      • ml174 - May 1, 2014 at 12:47 PM

        natstowngreg, – Just so we understand, the specific, physical player that those guys were when they played, could NOT compete in today’s game. Yes, if those guys had the training, diet, technology that we have today then of course they could compete. But “beaming” the physical player of Babe Ruth to Yankee Stadium to play tonight……no chance!

        Also, do you really think that the “sheer competitivenss” of the people that you mention is why they were so great? Such an intangible quality that almost everyone who makes it to the major leagues must have is so hard to put in the same paragraph as physical tools. Pick any player who played with Frank Robinson ( Brooks Robinson, Paul Blair, or even Andy Etchebarren) and tell me their “sheer competitivness” so measurably less than Frank Robinson’s. I just can’t buy that for a second.

  12. tpintong - Apr 30, 2014 at 2:24 PM

    Looking at the statistics Joe posted, I’m just curious how there were 53 less games played last year in comparison to the year 2000. Were there that many rainouts/cancelled games? I would have thought there would be at least 2 more games because of the extra wild card/tiebreakers, et al.

    • someguyinva - Apr 30, 2014 at 2:33 PM

      The counts Joe shows are of games where a team was leading going into the ninth. The year-to-year differences would be for games that were tied entering the ninth.

      There should be a total of 2,430 games played every year, so a few more were tied going into the ninth last year than in 2000.

  13. Gamera the Brave - Apr 30, 2014 at 2:55 PM

    As I sit at my desk, gazing thoughtfully at my Duane Kuiper bobblehead, I consider that about the only thing that has changed much is the SIZE of the players. Once (when I was REALLY bored) I figured out that the average player on the 1889 Cleveland Spiders was 5’9″, about 170 lbs. The average player on the Red Sox in 2006 was 6’1″, 205 lbs.

    Eventually, we will all be able to slam-dunk a basketball without even jumping…

  14. stevenewatson - Apr 30, 2014 at 4:52 PM

    Love the phrase “Bud Selig’s power hour”….

  15. dcarroll73 - Apr 30, 2014 at 6:58 PM

    The Tom Tango stats posted above show that the 95% figure includes a much higher percentage when the lead is 4 or more runs (more like 99%) but in cases with a lead of 3 or less (isn’t that a “save situation” criterion?) the percentage is lower. Since that post didn’t give numbers of games with each lead (can’t do a real “weighted average”), lets just look at the “2-run lead” cases – 92 or 94%. I took a look at baseball-ref for stats on awesome closers and found:
    Mariano Rivera – 89 SV% (98 in 2008; 96 in 2009; only years > 95)
    Trevor Hoffman – 89 SV% (98 in 1998; only year > 95)
    Lee Smith – 82 SV% (90 in 1995; 100 in 1993 but only 3for3)
    Bruce Sutter – 75 SV% (85 in 1984)
    Joe Nathan – 90 SV% (94 in 2004; 95 in 2006; 100 in 1999 but only 1for1; so far in 2014 only 71%)
    This paints a pretty grim picture for closers. These stats would seem to show that even the greatest closers only get above MLB average for that situation in a couple of great years. Somehow this just feels so counter-intuitive as to be wrong?

  16. tangotiger - May 1, 2014 at 7:14 PM

    The answer to your question is here:

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