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September 29, 2014

Skewed Left

All Games Are Equal Except For These

by Zachary Levine

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With three races coming down to Game 162 on Sunday, we didn’t get that much drama, but we got some memorable performances. We’ll remember David Price pitching the Tigers to the AL Central crown and, maybe even more, Sonny Gray shutting out the Rangers to give the Athletics the final playoff spot.

But divisions are not won, playoff spots not earned, in Game 162 alone. They can be won or, in three excruciating cases, lost anywhere in the 183-day season.

Sure, every game counts the same, but looking back on the seasons of the Tigers and Royals, the Athletics and Mariners, and the Cardinals and Pirates, there are some that stand out more than others. There are games that allow you to look back and say, “Yes, that’s the one they stole,” or, “That’s where they lost it.”

For all six teams whose fates were determined on Sunday, we looked through their season and tried to find those games.

For those who came up just short on the last day—the Mariners, Royals, and Pirates—we found the biggest regrets. These are the games that will make them shake their heads when they have to play a play-in game or, worse, sit home this postseason. For each, we’ve listed:

  1. The game they blew. Of all their losses, this is the one in which they had the highest win probability at any point, according to Baseball-Reference.com;

  2. The loss in which they were the biggest favorite. Vegas called them a sure thing, and there is no sure thing. Odds from Covers.com;
  3. The loss in which they most outplayed their opponent. Whether you call it luck or missed opportunities, these were losses in which they most outperformed their opponent in True Average; and
  4. The bad team that killed them. You have to take care of business, and these teams didn’t always do that.

For the winners—the Tigers, A’s, and Cardinals—we have the exact reverse: the game they stole, the win in which they were the biggest underdog, the win in which they had the worst True Average margin, and the good team they feasted on.

So it’s time to start reminiscing or to start crying.

Oakland Athletics – Why they made the playoffs

Game they stole: July 29th at Houston, won 7-4 despite a 1 percent chance of winning in the top of the ninth

Pick any game against Chad Qualls, really. The Athletics torched the otherwise-capable Astros closer all season, beating him four times. But it was this late-July matchup that on paper was the hopeless-est. Down 4-1, Stephen Vogt struck out to start the top of the ninth, but eight of the next nine A’s reached against Qualls and two of his mop-up men, giving Oakland the win.

Win as the biggest underdog: Sept. 13th vs. Seattle, Sonny Gray vs. Felix Hernandez (Athletics +136, won 3-2)

This was one of the biggest wins in all of baseball this year. In front of a full house at the King’s Dome, the Mariners would have passed the reeling A’s had they scored a second straight win to open the series. But Gray matched Hernandez, and a bases-loaded walk from Fernando Rodney to Jed Lowrie revived the A’s and eventually proved the difference in the division.

Win despite getting outplayed: April 9th at Minnesota, won 7-4 despite getting outhit 13-7

Most of these escapes will be one-run margins, but of course, being the Athletics, they still managed to pile on to their run differential. Derek Norris led them in extra innings with a three-run homer and they were opportunistic the rest of the way. But also of note, this being Oakland, was that they drew three walks off Phil Hughes, who would walk only two in his next eight starts combined.

Good team they feasted on: 3-0 vs. Nationals (outscored them 21-4)

Seattle Mariners – Why their season is over

Game they blew: April 16th at Texas, lost 3-2 despite a 96 percent chance of winning in the bottom of the ninth

They got to the ninth with a lead and got two quick outs, but then Fernando Rodney and the defense struck. Infield single, walk, error, tying wild pitch and Leonys Martin game-winning single spelled an ugly finish to a game they led 2-0 in the eighth. They would have a losing record against the worst team in the American League.

Loss as the biggest favorite: April 21st vs. Houston, Felix Hernandez vs. Dallas Keuchel (Mariners -245, lost 7-2)

They fell to 7-12 that day, and the story of the season was just a hole they couldn’t escape. There’s an honorable mention here too: It was another home loss to the Astros, September 10th, in the Hisashi IwakumaNick Tropeano matchup. Either of those is circleable.

Loss despite outplaying opponent: July 25th vs. Baltimore, lost 2-1 despite 11 walks and hits to Baltimore’s six

That nightmare of getting multiple runners on with nothing to show for it from Game 161 actually cost them earlier in the season. Seattle had 10 baserunners in 6 2/3 innings against Kevin Gausman and scored just once. Fun fact: Every other AL team drew at least seven bases-loaded walks this year. The Mariners drew two.

Bad teams that killed them: 9-10 vs. Rangers, 2-5 vs. Twins

Bonus sadness: This comes courtesy of David Schoenfield on Twitter

Also, there’s that five-game losing streak in late September, but who remembers that?

Detroit Tigers – Why they won the AL Central

Game they stole: June 30th vs. Oakland, won 5-4 despite a 3 percent chance to win after eight innings

This was the Rajai Davis game: His grand slam turned a 4-1 deficit into the walk-off victory. But don’t forget about the walk Austin Jackson (!) took against Sean Doolittle (!!) just prior. Doolittle had one walk in 39 1/3 innings going into this one, and the four balls to Jackson loaded the bases for Davis’ blast.

Win as the biggest underdog: June 20th at Cleveland, Rick Porcello vs. Corey Kluber (Tigers +141, won 6-4)

The Tigers came into that game having lost three out of four in a series against the Royals, who had just grabbed their first division lead of the year. Not to mention that the Tigers were facing the could-be Cy Young winner. Ian Krol nearly blew a 5-0 lead in the eighth inning, but he and Joba Chamberlain settled it down and Joe Nathan got the final three outs.

Win despite getting outplayed: July 11th at Kansas City, won 2-1 despite getting outhit 11-5

They didn’t walk at all against Danny Duffy and Co. either, but Anibal Sanchez spread out the hits and Chamberlain and Joe Nathan both worked out of two-on, one-out trouble to escape.

Good team they feasted on: 13-6 vs. Royals

Kansas City Royals – Why they have to play a coin-flip game

Game they blew: May 19th vs. Chicago, lost 7-6 despite a 93 percent chance to win in the bottom of the second

Kansas City was actually more known for the games they stole—or the games that were handed to them—this year, but this one was regrettable. The peak of their win expectancy came not after the five-run first, but after they then loaded the bases in the second. They failed to score, and announcers in front of their TVs around the country said they’d probably regret not padding the lead. Seven Sox runs later, they did.

Loss as the biggest favorite: July 29th vs. Minnesota, James Shields vs. Kyle Gibson (Royals -197, lost 2-1)

An unearned run provided the final margin, and the Royals got the tying run on with nobody out in the ninth but could not move him off first base.

Loss despite outplaying opponent: July 11th vs. Detroit (Same game as in Tigers section)

And there’s your swing in the AL Central.

Bad team that killed them: 1-6 vs. Red Sox. By the way, last year’s Royals went 5-2 against the World Series champion Red Sox.

Bonus sadness: With 13 losses to Detroit to choose from, this could have just as easily been the swing in the AL Central too.

St. Louis Cardinals – Why they won the NL Central

Game they stole: August 31st vs. Chicago, won 9-6 despite a 6 percent chance to win in the bottom of the fourth

This was the last day the Cardinals ever woke up trailing. The Cubs ambushed John Lackey for five early runs and after an out to begin the bottom of the fourth, the Cardinals had just a 6 percent win expectancy. But Matt Holliday’s homer off Travis Wood started a nine-run barrage and Holliday gave them the lead in the eighth on an infield hit. St. Louis moved into a first-place tie that day and never looked back.

Win as the biggest underdog: July 3rd at San Francisco, Carlos Martinez vs. Madison Bumgarner (Cardinals +143, won 7-2)

It wasn’t a great year for Martinez, but on this Thursday in San Francisco, he drove in as many runs (1) as he allowed and the Cardinals routed the Giants' ace. This was also part of an 8-4 finish to the first half that put them in striking distance at the All-Star break.

Win despite getting outplayed: May 5th at Atlanta, won 4-3 despite a 69-point TAv difference

Both teams had nine hits, but the Cardinals won despite two fewer for extra bases and two fewer walks. Shelby Miller teetered, but he and four relievers held the Braves to 1-for-12 hitting with runners in scoring position.

Good team they feasted on: 5-2 vs. Nationals

Pittsburgh Pirates – Why they have to play a coin-flip game

Game they blew: May 5th vs. San Francisco, lost 11-10 in 13 innings despite a 98 percent chance to win after five innings

This game-of-the-year candidate and weird baseball sure-thing appeared to be over well before the 5 hours and 29 minutes it ended up taking. The Pirates led 8-2 after five, so you’d hardly make anything of the fact that an out on the bases took a scoring chance away at the end of that fifth. The Giants tied it quickly, though, and tied it again off Mark Melancon in the ninth and won in the 13th when Jared Hughes botched a bunt in front of the mound.

Loss as the biggest favorite: Sept. 13th vs. Chicago, Jeff Locke vs. Felix Doubront (Pirates -208, lost 6-4)

The Pirates were hot and the Cubs had lost seven in a row. It’s hard to take Jeff Locke at -208, but this was certainly unexpected. It was the Pirates’ only loss in a nine-game stretch that put them past the Brewers and into the wild card spot, but not getting their offense going until the eighth inning this day made the final day a little less interesting.

Loss despite outplaying opponent: June 8th vs. Milwaukee, lost 1-0 despite 69-point edge in True Average

What do these three games all have in common? Locke. We swear, losing the NL Central wasn’t his fault.

Bad (eh, so-so) teams that killed them: 14-23 vs. Reds and Brewers

Bonus sadness: The Pirates probably have less to be sad about than any of these teams. They never led the NL Central after the first week, and when the whole season was about whether the Cardinals could catch the Brewers, they snuck their way in. So any disappointment rests in the final two games when they had a chance to pressure the Cardinals and didn’t, but Pittsburgh should be happy with a second straight coin-flipper.

Thanks to Kate Morrison and Rob McQuown for their research assistance and to Baseball-Reference.com and Covers.com for data.

Zachary Levine is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Zachary's other articles. You can contact Zachary by clicking here

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