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July 26, 2011

Divide and Conquer, NL West

Bochy Wins the Close Ones

by Geoff Young

When the Giants lost to Dodgers southpaw Clayton Kershaw, 1-0 last Wednesday, it was an unusual occurrence for the defending champs. No, not getting blanked by Kershaw; he is a great pitcher, and that will happen. It’s unusual that the Giants lost a one-run game. Even after falling to Kershaw, they are 27-13 in such contests this year (all statistics are through games of July 24), which helps explain why the team is doing so well (59-43 vs. 53-49 Pythagorean record) despite a pedestrian run differential. Their record in one-run games is tops in the big leagues, besting Philadelphia's 17-9.

Inspired by a recent SABR-L mailing list discussion about one-run games, I took a little walk through history. What the Giants are doing this year is good, but not historically great. Here are the top 10 single-season winning percentages in one-run games since 1901, when such records first become readily available, along with each team's record in other games for context:

Year

Team

One-Run

Other

Overall

W-L

Pct

W-L

Pct

W-L

Pct

1981

Bal

21-7

.750

38-39

.494

59-46

.562

1908

Pit

33-12

.733

65-44

.596

98-56

.636

1970

Bal

40-15

.727

68-39

.636

108-54

.667

1909

Pit

33-13

.717

77-29

.726

110-42

.724

1913

Was

32-13

.711

58-51

.532

90-64

.584

1954

Cle

32-13

.711

79-30

.725

111-43

.721

1925

Was

27-11

.711

69-44

.611

96-55

.636

1961

Cin

34-14

.708

59-47

.557

93-61

.604

1940

Cin

41-17

.707

59-36

.621

100-53

.654

1980

KC

29-12

.707

68-53

.562

97-65

.599

A few items jump out here:

  1. Most of these teams, with the notable exception of the 1981 Orioles (and, to a lesser degree, the 1913 Senators), were very good.
  2. Let's hear it for the 1908-1909 Pirates, who went 66-25 in one-run games over those two years. Because, damn.
  3. The most recent of these occurred 30 years ago, in a strike-shortened season. Moving closer to the present day, the best record in one-run games over the past 20 years was 28-12 (.700 WPct) in 2003... by the Giants.

To that third point, not only is the Giants' current run not historically great by major-league standards (if the season ended today, they would be tied with the 1906 Cubs for 35th place since 1901), it's not even historically great by franchise standards. It is still very good—currently fourth in Giants history:

  1. 2003, 28-12, .700
  2. 1912, 32-14, .696
  3. 1935, 23-11, .676
  4. 2011, 27-13, .675
  5. 1909, 34-17, .667
  6. 1927, 31-16, .660
  7. 1925, 28-16, .636
  8. 1995, 26-15, .634
  9. 1913, 31-18, .633
  10. 1952, 27-16, .628

How does this happen? Do such dominant one-run teams share certain characteristics? Is there something about them that leads to greater success? Maybe they just want it more, as the popular refrain goes. Or maybe desire is less important than chance.

Tom Ruane and Bill James independently studied team success in one-run games several years ago. Both found that luck was the overriding factor. Quoting from Ruane's 1998 study:

...how a team does one year in close games is absolutely no use in predicting how it will do the next. Things like that are usually called "the breaks of the game" or, more succinctly, luck.

And from James' 2002 study:

My conclusion is that winning a lot of one-run games has a persistence of zero (meaning that it appears to be luck) but that losing a lot of one-run games is not necessarily completely meaningless. It's mostly just bad luck, but it doesn't appear to me that it entirely disappears in the following season.

On a macro level, this may be true. What about individual cases?

One narrative that has enjoyed degrees of popularity at various points in baseball history is that the manager is directly responsible for a team's performance in one-run games. (James himself notes that Tony Muser had a worse-than-expected record in such games during his tenure as Royals manager.)

How have Bochy-led teams fared in one-run games over the years? Quite well:

Year

Team

One-Run

Other

Overall

W-L

Pct

W-L

Pct

W-L

Pct

1995

SD

20-22

.476

50-52

.490

70-74

.486

1996

SD

32-23

.582

59-48

.551

91-71

.562

1997

SD

21-16

.568

55-70

.440

76-86

.469

1998

SD

31-23

.574

67-41

.620

98-64

.605

1999

SD

28-25

.528

46-63

.422

74-88

.457

2000

SD

25-27

.481

51-59

.464

76-86

.469

2001

SD

24-15

.615

55-68

.447

79-83

.488

2002

SD

18-25

.419

48-71

.403

66-96

.407

2003

SD

21-20

.512

43-78

.355

64-98

.395

2004

SD

25-15

.625

62-60

.508

87-75

.537

2005

SD

29-20

.592

53-60

.469

82-80

.506

2006

SD

30-22

.577

58-52

.527

88-74

.543

2007

SF

24-28

.462

47-63

.427

71-91

.438

2008

SF

31-21

.596

41-69

.373

72-90

.444

2009

SF

21-22

.488

67-52

.563

88-74

.543

2010

SF

28-24

.538

64-46

.582

92-70

.556

2011

SF

27-13

.675

32-30

.516

59-43

.574

Total

435-361

.546

898-982

.478

1,333-1,343

.498

I'd expected to find very little variation between Bochy's record in one-run games versus other games, but the popular narrative suits him well. Over a career that spans more than 2,600 games, Bochy has gotten teams that otherwise play like 77-win teams to play like 89-win teams in one-run contests.

Perhaps this is luck, perhaps not. Such speculation lies beyond the scope of our current survey. We are more interested in observing what has happened than in making broad statements about clutch ability.

Bochy's teams don't always perform better in one-run games—the '95 and '98 Padres didn't, nor did the '09 or '10 Giants—but for the most part, he has gotten excellent results out of otherwise mediocre clubs. His most notable successes have come in 2008 (.223 differential between one-run and others), 2001 (.168), and now 2011 (.159). If this isn't a skill, it is at least a pattern, and one that is serving the Giants well.

Success or failure in one-run games could be an important factor in deciding the NL West this year. It is what keeps the Giants four games ahead of Arizona despite their identical run differentials (+19):

 

Team

One-Run

Other

Overall

W-L

Pct

W-L

Pct

W-L

Pct

SF

27-13

.675

32-30

.516

59-43

.574

Ari

19-12

.613

36-35

.507

55-47

.539

Col

15-17

.469

33-37

.471

48-54

.471

LA

14-12

.538

31-44

.413

45-56

.446

SD

13-20

.394

31-38

.449

44-58

.431

The Padres, in case you are wondering, have the worst winning percentage in one-run games this year. They are, however, no threat to break the record going back to at least 1901. That belongs to the 1935 Boston Braves, who featured a 40-year-old Babe Ruth and who went 7-31 (.184). Then again, the Braves finished 61 ½ games out of first place, so it's not like losing the close ones made a difference.

 If only Bochy had been their manager. Who knows, they might have closed to within 55 games.  

3 comments have been left for this article.

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