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Friday, June 24, 2005

How mighty the pen can be

The White Sox have charged to the top of the heap in the AL Central largely because of outstanding success in the large number of one-run games that they've played.

Going into today's games, the White Sox lead the AL Central by 9 1/2 games with a 47-22. That's the best record in baseball and they are the only team in baseball with a winning percentage above .630 - they're at .690. At their current pace, the White Sox would win 112 games this season.

The White Sox have played 28 one-run games this season - most on the major leagues. They've won 20 of those games.

Let's think about that for a moment. If winning one-run games was strictly a matter of luck and, on a long enough timeline, all teams finished .500 in that category, the White Sox should be 43-28 with a 3 1/2 lead over Minnesota. If they were really unlucky, they could be 8-20 in one-run encounters. That would put them at 37-34, just ahead of Detroit for third place.

Also, if it was strictly a matter of luck, you'd expect the White Sox to come back to the pack in close games and, thus, in the division race. That leaves us with our question of the week: Is performance in one-run games strictly a matter of luck?

Here in Kansas City, it certainly seems like there is a lot more in play than luck. According to Rany Jazeryli of Baseball Prospectus and The Topeka Capital-Journal, over a ten-year span beginning in 1996 and ending with Tony Pena's departure on May 22, the Royals had 145-236 record in one-run games. That is the worst such performance in major-league history for a team over a ten-year span.

Is that simply an unprecedented run of bad luck? Did a pack of rabid black cats scurry past the Royals dugout sometime in the Bob Boone era? Did Bip Roberts break a mirror in the locker room? Just what is going on around here?

Bad luck does play a part, but in Kansas City, we like to blame our managers. Indeed, both Tony Muser and Tony Pena posted atrocious records in one-run games. Even if you temper the performance by employing Bill James' formula which calculates expected one-run record based on overall run differential, the picture is pretty darn bleak.

Another possible explanation for this persistent drudgery is bad relief pitching. Indeed, when approaching the problem from this angle, there seems to be something to the idea - and not just because the Royals have had consistently poor bullpens during the last decade.

This year's White Sox bullpen is sixth in the big-leagues in bullpen ERA. They are second in saves (27), first in save opportunities (36) and sixth in holds (33). These numbers are very telling.

To try and get a grasp on the relationship between bullpen performance and record in one-run games, Stat Guy gathered the data from the last four seasons (2001-2004) and looked at the correlation of each category to that of one-run success. The categories included standard measures such as ERA and a couple of derivative metrics which we'll look at.

Surprisingly, there didn't seem to be much, if any, correlation between strong performance in component statistics (hits, walks, strikeouts, et al) and common derivatives (ERA, WHIP, fielding-independent ERA). Stat Guy looked at data from Stats, Inc., which broke down relievers' statistics according to situations when pitching with a lead, when behind and when the game is tied. Again, there wasn't any correlation to performance in one-run games.

Some positive correlations did begin to appear when looking at things like save opportunities and save percentage. In fact, the highest correlation of any category was in a derivative which we'll call HS% (Holds-Saves Percentage) which is simply holds plus saves divided by holds plus saves plus blown saves.

The correlation between HS% and one-run winning percentage is very good. It's not perfect - there is plenty of room for managerial foibles and good, old-fashioned luck. But the conclusion is clear: teams with strong bullpens tend to do well in one-run games.

You might say this only makes sense because if a team wins a lot of close game they are almost by definition going convert a lot of hold and save situations. However, HS% is a rate stat and should serve to isolate opportunity. Also, it should be noted that HS% works better than simple save percentage. There was almost a three times greater correlation between HS% and one-run percentage and save percentage. You can't just look at the closers - the set-up men are almost as valuable.

Still up for question is whether success in HS% can be perpetuated from year-to-year. Are closers consistent in converting saves? Are middle relievers consistent in converting holds? That's a matter for another day but it's a topic worth investigating. If a team's HS% could be projected than it would be a valuable addition to any team projection model. If there is no consistency, then we would have to look at HS% as a measure of whether a team is overachieving or underachieving.

So, the answer as to whether the White Sox can continue their freakish performance in one-run games is another question. Can the bullpen continue to convert holds and saves? If so, then the White Sox will probably run away with the AL Central crown, though regression in other areas makes a 110-win season unlikely.

As for the Royals, it doesn't appear to really matter who is managing the team. If they are going to turn around a historically-bad, decade-long performance in one-run games, their closers and their set-up men are going to have to start doing their jobs.

One-run winning percentage vs.
Holds-Saves percentage, 2001-2004



















White Sox












Red Sox










































Blue Jays












Devil Rays









NOTES: As you can see from the chart, the distribution of one-run percentages for most teams is pretty random in the middle. At the ends of the table, the teams with the highest HS% are successful in one-run games; the teams with the lowest are not. In between, the picture is much more murky, which is why you can't simply state that one-run performance is solely dependent on strong bullpens. When exploring this topic, it's very difficult to isolate luck from the other factors. One-way to normalize these figures would be to look at opponents' HS% because a team's offense has just as much of an ability to skew one-run percentage as their bullpen. Also, expanding the definition of a 'close game' to include two-run contests would be informative. The Hardball Times has shown that many of the principles we apply when looking at one-run performance hold true for two-run performances. Unfortunately, two-run data isn't as readily available.


Blogger capnmarty said...

Dear Stat Guy,

I've got a couple questions for you.

First, according to what I've read, teams must win about 85 games at least to take the AL Central. And, as in the case of KC, the last 25 games of the season can often be the critical wins/losses which decide their fate.

That said, I'm guessing that KC can't lose any more than 69 games, hanging with something near a 68-69 record with 25 games left on Sep 5th
in order to have a shot. (I think the enemy teams scheduled during that last bit of the season will support that.)

As I see it, losing any more than 69 before Sep 5 would mean they have to run the tables for all remaining games, and that's not very likely is it?

If this is accurate, as they've already lost 50 total, then they are only a few games (weeks) away from being statistically and ealistically eliminated from post-season play.

Do you agree or disagree?

Second question, I've heard some talk recently from those who watch the game which suggests there are two types of pitching. One style for the regular season and one for the post-season. Do you know of any statistics that back up that
curious claim?

Thanks for your time and your always interesting articles.


12:46 PM  
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