August 27, 2012
One-Run Winners: Good or Lucky?
A few weeks ago, the topic for the BP Lineup Card was "Unanswered questions for the second half." I noted that at the time, the Cardinals were several games behind both the Pirates and the Reds in the NL Central standings, despite the fact that they had a better Pythagorean record than either. In theory, the Cardinals should have been atop the NL Central.
As my father is fond of pointing out, everything works in theory.
The question that I posed was whether Pythagorean records were really a "true" gauge of a team's quality. It's a topic that has never been fully resolved. Are differences between actual record and Pythaogrean records a matter of luck, or do they reflect some underlying property of a team?
Both logic and previous research tell us that there's a really easy way to outperform your Pythagorean record: win a lot of one-run games. In one-run wins, the Pythagorean calculations see only that a team scored one more run than its opponent. The standings see that it won the game. So, are one-run wins a skill? The Orioles have a negative run-differential overall this season, but are an astounding 23-6 in one-run games so far this year, and as a result, are in the playoff hunt. Are they extremely lucky, or are they just gritty like that and "know how to win" the close ones?
There are a lot of theories on the issue: teams with good bullpens (or good closers) can protect close leads. Teams with good starters can overcome a bad offensive day. Teams with crafty managers can win because the manager can expertly push all the buttons. Then again, no one ever takes the contrary position. A team with a bunch of one-run wins might belie a bullpen or a manager who can bungle a five-run lead into a one-run lead, barely hanging on to fly the W flag over the stadium.
After studying the issue, I can boil down the recipe for winning one-run games to three words: wear white pants. Want to know how I got there?