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MLB Inverted Indicator
by Scott Spreitzer - 06/20/2007
One of the best indicators for changes in fortune in major league baseball is a team's won-lost record in one-run games. Results in these virtual coin flips are greatly influenced by luck. Studies have shown that for years, even though TV announcers are always saying stuff like:
*Certain teams "know" how to win close games
*Clutch ability determines who wins close games
*Bullpen quality determines who wins close games
*Champions find a way to win the close ones
There's a smidgen of truth to all of those, but that smidgen has been blown way out of proportion over the years because players and former players don't acknowledge how much luck is really involved. Here are quick rebuttals to those four explanations:
*If certain teams "knew" how to win close games, they would do it every year. NOBODY wins an inordinate percentage of close games over large samples.
*If clutch ability determined who won close games, then the same teams would be winning them all the time. That doesn't happen when you study samples of a few hundred games and more.
*Bullpens blow hot and cold just like the rest of baseball. It is true that a bullpen with a great ERA is likely to have a great record in close games. Nobody's mastered yet how to always have a great bullpen!
*What separates champions from everyone else is the ability to win blowouts, not the ability to win close games. This has always been true in all sports. Champions will be slightly better than average in close games, but WAY better than average in blowouts. If you don't believe me, look it up in any sport over its full history.
What that leaves us with is this:
MLB teams who currently have great records in one-run games are catching some breaks, and are about to fall back to earth. MLB teams who currently have bad records in one run games are suffering from bad luck, and have better win potential in the future than you realize.
Let's look at some examples. Posted records were accurate heading into this past weekend.
BEST ONE-RUN TEAMS
Arizona : 17-8
LA Dodgers: 16-7
Boston : 11-6
These three teams have had their won-lost records most influenced by good fortune in close games of the 30 major league entries. Don't get me wrong, they're all good teams. But, they're not quite as good as you're thinking. All three are likely to be overpriced in terms of their true win potential in the next several weeks. Your newspaper standings are overstating their excellence, as are the TV announcers singing their praises.
Right now we've got a tight three-team race in the NL West. Arizona and Los Angeles have been catching breaks in close games, while the San Diego Padres haven't (11-14 heading into the weekend). Here's what the standings would look like if only decisions of two-runs or more were counted:
NON-NAILBITER RECORDS (thru' last Friday)
San Diego 27-14
LA Dodgers: 22-21
Arizona : 21-22
Changes your perspective just a bit doesn't it? The Dodgers and Diamondbacks are likely to fall back to earth a bit. The math says San Diego is the clear class of the division when that happens.
Let's go to the other end of the spectrum and look at the worst one-run teams this year.
WORST ONE-RUN TEAMS
Baltimore : 6-15
Chicago Cubs: 6-13
NY Yankees: 4-10
Philadelphia : 4-10
Three teams jump out at me. The Cubs, Yankees, and Phillies are all squads who were hoping to contend for divisional championships this year. If not for one-run games, all would be doing that right now!
*The Yankees are 29-22 in non-nailbiters, which is just a few games behind what Boston is doing when you throw out their strong one-run record (31-18). The main reason we don't have a tighter pennant race right now between the superpowers is because the Yanks have struggled in close games. There's still plenty of time for them to turn it around and make a run at the top.
*The Cubs are 25-20 in games with bigger final margins, which is better percentage-wise than the 26-23 record posted by first place Milwaukee in that category. The Cubs WOULD be a first-place team if not for bad luck in close games.
*The Phillies are 31-22 once you throw out the nailbiter record. That's better than the Yankees! It's also better than the NY Mets, who are 29-24 in that category. The Phils would also be a first place team in their division if they had caught more breaks in close games.
This is why I pay so much attention to this statistic. Once you know how to handle it, you get a much better sense of how teams really stand in their divisions, and what's likely to happen in the next several weeks when things start to regress to the mean.
History has made it clear that teams typically move back toward .500 in this stat after an abnormal stretch. Be sure you take that into account when trying to pick your daily winners!