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Those teeth themselves could not divine
Nor their pressure estimate
The haze I wish to never break
And to never contemplate
Momentum for the sake of momentum
—Neko Case

One aspect of baseball that has long fascinated me is the ebb and flow within a game. A concept such as momentum may seem as old school and out of touch as that of luminiferous ether, but fluctuations do occur. Others will decide whether such shifts are the result of mysterious forces at work or are mere bits of randomness interspersed throughout a given contest. We are looking at outcomes here, not hypothesizing about some greater meaning.

Before we veer off into Edie Brickell levels of navel-gazing, let's examine a real-world example. On Saturday at Chavez Ravine, the Dodgers held a 4-1 lead over Arizona headed to the sixth inning. The Diamondbacks then scored five runs against starter Chad Billingsley and reliever Matt Guerrier to take a lead they would not relinquish.

The Dodgers, as is their custom, started well (technically, they are strong in the first and third innings this year, and pitiful in the second) before faltering. Arizona's bats, meanwhile, came to life in the sixth, which has been their modus operandi in 2011 (all stats are through games of July 31):

Diamondbacks by Inning

 

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10+

RS

54

49

50

59

51

72

62

60

28

7

RA

59

45

51

60

50

47

55

50

38

12

Dif

-5

+4

-1

-1

+1

+25

+7

+10

-10

-5

Arizona completely owns the sixth. The seventh and eighth are also strong, while the ninth and later are where the Diamondbacks come apart at the seams. This helps explain why Kevin Towers, who revamped a historically (hysterically?) bad bullpen over the winter, felt the need to acquire more arms at Sunday's non-waiver trade deadline.

Dominating the middle innings is nice. Slamming the door at the end is even nicer, which brings us to the team Arizona is chasing:

Giants by Inning

 

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10+

RS

47

27

39

42

40

62

47

26

36

16

RA

51

35

50

31

38

36

62

36

28

12

Dif

-4

-8

-11

+11

+2

+26

-15

-10

+8

+4

San Francisco starts out slowly and gets progressively worse until the middle innings. Then the Giants dominate, culminating in a very strong sixth (like Arizona), before fading and then rebounding in the ninth and later. This success at the very end may have something to do with their excellent record in one-run games.

If we think of a baseball game as a three-act play, we have another way to look at this. (I've wracked my brain trying to answer the all-important questions of “who cares?” and “why?” The best I can come up with is “I do” and “because.” I therefore ask you to kindly indulge my comparison.) I've also included the NL West non-contenders here for extra fun and excitement.

NL West Differentials in Three Acts

Inn

Ari

SF

Col

LA

SD

1-3

-2

-23

-11

+8

-21

4-6

+25

+39

+24

-17

-31

7+

+2

-13

-19

-33

+18

The three-act play makes for a slick metaphor, but as a representation of reality, it has holes. For example, in looking at that bottom row, we see that the Giants and Rockies struggle toward the end of games. However, they each do so in an entirely different manner. Where the Giants take a beating in the seventh and eighth innings (-25 dif), the Rockies are at their worst from the ninth onward (-22 dif), when the stakes tend to be higher.

The Padres appear to be the strongest finishers in the division, but this is misleading. Most of their gains come in the eighth (+20 dif). The seventh and ninth are fairly even, while they are dominated (outscored, 20-7) in extra innings.

That the Padres score more runs (31) than they allow (28) in the ninth is all well and good, but it would be even better if more of those runs scored came in meaningful situations. Roughly half come when they are leading or trailing by four runs or more, which affects over-under lines and might force someone to use the occasional extra arm out of the bullpen, but otherwise doesn't accomplish much. For example, last Tuesday, Jesus Guzman homered at Petco Park with two out in the bottom of the ninth against Arizona's Joe Saunders. That made the final score 6-1, Diamondbacks. Even for a team celebrating the smallest of victories this year, as the Padres must, avoiding a 16th shutout at the last moment offers little comfort to players or fans.

I'm not sure there's a point in all this beyond the fact that I find it interesting. My hope is that others may find this interesting as well and perhaps be inspired to do something with it.

Inspired to do what, exactly? Well, several years ago, Keith Woolner contemplated the impact of per-inning scoring distributions on in-game strategies. Such applications would move us from “interesting” toward “useful.” Woolner specifically discusses optimal closer usage, which is something that might benefit both the Giants and the Diamondbacks. For two teams that are separated by two games as of this writing, this could mean the difference between reaching the postseason and going home after 162 games.

Returning to some semblance of reality, the Giants must hope their endgame continues to be a strength and that Friday's 13-inning loss to the Reds in Cincinnati represents an aberration rather than the beginning of something more troublesome (like momentum or ether). Arizona, meanwhile, looks to their big deadline acquisition, Brad Ziegler, to help shore up the same.

Do the fates of an entire division hinge upon such maneuvers? There is a theory that relief pitchers are a dime a dozen. There is another theory that not all dimes are created equal, nor are all dozens.

 I made that last one up, and it's about as sensible as an Edie Brickell lyric. We'll stop here, before I get too deep.