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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.

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