Losing late vs. losing early

Amid injuries, starting pitchers must step up
Yanks facing heat over rainy day actions

The linear nature of a baseball game makes it ripe for narration. With each passing inning there are fewer chances to score, making the late innings seem more important than the earlier ones. Yet when you see the forest for the trees, it doesn’t much matter when a team scores its runs. A run in the first is worth exactly as much as a run in the ninth, even if the power of narration makes us sometimes believe otherwise.

Jay at Fack Youk tackled this topic a few days ago, after Saturday’s game in which CC Sabathia pitched well through six, but faltered in the seventh. The Yanks lost the game 8-4, though when you look at the WPA graph it doesn’t seem all that bad.

The WPA falls off a cliff in the seventh, but up to that point it’s a relatively even affair. Best of all, as is its intent, the chart plays out the narrative unfolding of the game. Perhaps it doesn’t capture the sense of hope many fans felt when the Yanks rallied in the ninth, but when we peel off the fan’s blinders, most of us understand that the chances of a comeback were really as miniscule as the chart indicates.

Compare that to last night’s game, which had a closer score:

The Yankees lost by only two runs, but the chart makes it look far worse. That’s because Boston jumped out early, scoring in each of the first four innings. This gradually tilted the win expectancy in their favor, until it was at 89.9 percent when Derek Jeter struck out looking for the second out of the fifth. The win expectancy wasn’t that low on Saturday until Torii Hunter doubled in the seventh.

Here we have two games which had the end result of the Yankees losing by a few runs, yet the WPA charts look very different. Since WPA is based on historical data, we can see that teams that get behind early have a tough time coming back. That makes it frustrating for fans, as each inning chips away at a team’s chances of coming back. On the other hand, an even game through six or seven innings can be easier on the nerves at the time, but when you have a game like Saturday fans can feel just like the WPA chart: like falling off a cliff.

That’s not to say one way is better. A loss is a loss, and despite the narrative value of WPA charts, a run is a run. It’s just interesting to see how similarly-scored games unfold. One way, it seems, causes heartburn while the other causes heartbreak. I don’t think either is preferable.

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Amid injuries, starting pitchers must step up
Yanks facing heat over rainy day actions
  • Eric

    Can you put a WPA graph together to show the late comeback on Friday night 5/1 vs. the LA Angels?

  • Cam

    Did you guys see that post on the Yankees Dollar blog about the strike zone last night? Just like our eyes told us, it was brutal.

    • http://www.puristbleedspinstripes.com Aunt Becca-Optimist Prime

      I saw it.

      It’s here:

      http://tinyurl.com/cu3j69

      • http://www.riveraveblues.com Benjamin Kabak

        Here’s the normalized strike zone from last night. Both sides got some bad calls; both sides got some good calls. Everyone’s making much ado about nothing unusual, and it’s a bad excuse for a mediocre performance by Hughes last night.

        • Joe R

          It is a bad excuse for a not so good performance but Hughes definetly had way more strikes called balls than Lester did.

          • Brendo

            It’s a terrible excuse.

          • http://www.riveraveblues.com Benjamin Kabak

            Based on the graph, the Yanks had five pitches within the approximate strike zone called balls, and the Yanks had 10 outside the zone called strikes. The team also got one borderline call.

            The Red Sox four pitches in that zone called balls and five outside of it. I think the Yanks and some fans are crying over nothing here.

            • A.D.

              Its the absolute strike zone that people look at that bothers them. Lester was getting some calls just off the plate, and Hughes wasn’t getting some calls on the plate, and none off.

              • http://www.riveraveblues.com Benjamin Kabak

                Based on the Gameday data linked above, that critique doesn’t line up with what actually happened.

            • Hobbes

              The consistent missing of the bottom right (on the graph) strikes for Hughes caused him to have to throw to the middle of the plate. He didn’t do that to Lester. There is more to it than just adding up the dots in and out of the box. Hughes was pitching well, until the ump raped him.

            • Chris

              Another way to look at it is to look at pitches that are in the zone that are called balls for each pitcher:

              Lester: 3 of 111 pitches
              Aceves: 2 of 70 pitches
              Hughes: 7 of 94 pitches

        • Chris

          I don’t think that tells the whole story. Aceves was getting a lot of calls off the plate later in the game (similar to what Lester was getting). Not sure if the strike zone shifted during the game of if Girardi arguing actually changed something. An aggregate of the game was probably fairly even, but it would be nice to see a similar chart by inning or by pitcher.

        • A.D.

          Its not that Phil would have pitched that much better, its that likely he would have given up a few less runs in what still would have been an eh start.

  • Corey

    where do u get the charts from? begin the flame

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Benjamin Kabak

      Site’s called FanGraphs. They do live WPA charts as the game unfolds. Check it out here.

  • KW

    Well, baseball operates a little like options in finance, that is, the time left until the strike date determines the premium on the option. In plain speak, the farther you are away from the completion of the game, the less effect runs have. It goes hand in hand with explaining why GMs and coaches love 8th and 7th inning setup men, guys who can shut it down in the 7th, 8th, and 9th have intrinsically more value than the 6th inning bullpen men because they can shorten the game, reducing the likelihood that a late inning comeback can hurt the team.

    Basically, a run in the first is NOT equal to a run in the 8ty. Aka, if a team can shut down the 8th and 9th inning, that gives the team, like the Yankees, less chance of a catastrophic loss where if they lose the lead in the 8th, they only have 1 or 2 more innings to make it up. A run given up in the first leaves the home team at least 8 innings to make up the difference.

    • Chris

      The problem with this is that it should bear out in the fact that teams with a dominant setup man/closer would consistently beat their Pythagorean record. That’s not what happens. Records eventually normalize at the Pythagorean record. This suggests that all runs are created equal.