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April 14, 2011
Never Tell Me the Odds
Had there been an unlikely comeback on yesterday’s slate of games, it would have served as the subject of my lead-in. Since no teams were kind enough to supply one, let’s forgo a lead-in and dive right into the wacky world of win expectancy. Baseball Prospectus houses win expectancy tables for all years over the Retrosheet Era (1954-2010), and The Hardball Times provides a Win Probability Inquirer that uses a theoretical model. I sifted through Retrosheet data to dig up some tidbits on historical win probability, focusing on some of history’s most improbable comebacks.
There have been 4,000 instances since 1954 in which a team has trailed by four runs with nobody on and two outs in the top of the ninth inning. Not once has a team come back from that deficit. According to theoretical win expectancy, that should have happened several times by now. Another 5,000 attempts have been made down by 5 or 6 runs, but the away team still has yet to come through. On a more exciting note, let’s look at some long-shot teams that did rise to the occasion.
May 10, 2000, Brewers at Cubs
We would predict that a team would come out on top one out of every 2500 times in the situation detailed above, and the Cubs were that team. Down six runs but otherwise in the same spot, the chances of a comeback are half as likely, yet that feat has been accomplished once in 2000 tries as well.
July 28, 2001, Astros at Pirates
August 21, 1990, Phillies at Dodgers
That was what Tommy Lasorda told the L.A. Times after managing the only team to blow an eight-run lead in the top of the ninth. Lasorda was steaming mad, but he still couldn’t hold a candle to Lou Piniella, who on that day was ejected from the game he managed, ripped out first base, and chucked it into right field en route to his team winning 8-1.
Don’t call it a comeback?
June 8, 1989, Pirates at Phillies
June 22 1970, Orioles at Red Sox
Historical win expectancy has shifted throughout the years. Here is the win expectancy for the home team when the first batter of the game comes up, also known as the home-field advantage:
In 1978, only three of MLB’s 26 teams owned a .500-or-better record on the road.
Finally, the age-old question: is it better to get the leadoff man on or have the leadoff man homer, cashing in a run but supposedly “killing the rally?” A homer to lead off the game has historically brought a team’s win expectancy up to 55 percent. Putting the leadoff man on first, however, only neutralizes home-field advantage, sending win expectancy to an even 50 percent. When Tim McCarver made the claim that a leadoff walk was preferred to a leadoff homer, he was likely reflecting on his near-MVP 1967 season, when teams that led off the game with a home run won only 30 percent of the time.