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July 26, 2011
Divide and Conquer, NL West
Bochy Wins the Close Ones
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:
A few items jump out here:
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:
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:
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):
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.