What Went Right: One-Run Games

Monday Night Open Thread
Newman: "Doubtful" the Yankees will let Betances pitch in winter ball

The 2013 season is over and we’ve had a week to catch our breath. It’s time to review pretty much all aspects of the year that was, continuing today with the team’s strong record in one-run games.

(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)
(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

One year ago, the Orioles snuck into the postseason thanks in part to a historic record in one-run games. Their 29-9 (.763) record in one-run contests was the best in baseball history, yet we spent all summer expecting them to crash back to Earth. It never happened. One-run games are highly volatile just because they’re so tight — one weird bounce or bad call by an umpire can change everything. Most teams walk the .500 line in one-run games.

The 2013 Yankees were the 2012 Orioles when it came to games decided by one run, though not as extreme. They didn’t make history or anything like that, but they did have baseball’s best record in those such games at 30-16 (.652). Winning those close games definitely helped them stay in the playoff race far longer than you would have otherwise expected. I think we can both admit this club had little business being within shouting distance of a playoff spot heading into the final week of the regular season.

The 46 one-run games were the fourth fewest in baseball and right in line with New York’s last few seasons. This wasn’t some kind of anomaly; they played 47 one-run games last year (.468 winning percentage), 45 the year before (.467), and 39 the year before that (.513). The Yankees didn’t play substantially more (or fewer) one-run contests in 2013, yet their winning percentage in those games went up while their overall winning percentage (across the full 162 games) came down. Outside of those one-run games, the Yankees went 55-61 (.474) and that sucks.

There’s an awful lot that goes into being successful in one-run games, with the most obvious being bullpens. When you have David Robertson in the eighth and Mariano Rivera in the ninth, those one-run cushions in the late innings tend to turn into wins. Bullpens are absolutely a factor, but there has been quite a bit of research showing their impact on one-run contests is generally overstated. The rest of the team usually has to make it a one-run game before the bullpen comes into play. The game situation controls reliever usage, not the other way around.

Offensively, the Yankees actually fared quite a bit worse in “close and late” situations this year than they did in previous years. “Close and late” situations are defined as plate appearances in the seventh inning or later where they are tied, ahead by one run, or have the tying run on deck. Here’s a quick breakdown of the team’s “close and late” performance in recent years:

2013 1,002 0.227 0.299 0.348 91 20 8.6% 24.6% 0.290
2012 954 0.261 0.342 0.451 132 40 8.5% 20.6% 0.294
2011 925 0.221 0.316 0.348 95 21 11.1% 20.3% 0.261
2010 857 0.251 0.336 0.392 110 28 11.6% 21.8% 0.286

So the winning percentage in one-run games got better while the offense was terrible in the late innings of close games. Okay then. I mean, they had a lot of bad hitters on the roster this summer, so it’s no surprise they didn’t hit much late in the game. They didn’t hit much overall. Anecdotally, the Yankees did seem to score a bunch of runs early in games this year before the offense went to sleep in the middle innings, but the stats don’t really bear that out — they scored 221 runs in innings 1-3, 224 runs in innings 4-6, and 205 runs in innings 7+. This isn’t some kinda weird run distribution thing.

Without re-watching each game and figuring out exactly what happened, it’s close to impossible to explain why a team was successful in one-run games. Heck, Mariano Rivera blew seven (!) saves this year and five of them were one-run leads. They actually came back to win two of those five (by one run, of course), but the Yankees could have very easily been 31-15 (.674) or 32-14 (.696) in one-run contests had Rivera not had what amounts to a down season for him. The Bombers had baseball’s best record in one-run games this year for many reasons, and whether those reasons continue next year is a mystery. After that historic record last summer, the Orioles had the fifth worst record in one-run games this year (20-31, .392). The magic isn’t guaranteed to last, but it’s not guaranteed to disappear all together either.

Monday Night Open Thread
Newman: "Doubtful" the Yankees will let Betances pitch in winter ball
  • The Walking Eddard

    When the Os do it it’s luck when the Yanks do it it’s superior bullpen. I think an historic record like that in 1 run ballgames cannot be repeated from year to year. You saw the Os didn’t fare so well this season in those tight ballgames and neither will the Yanks next year, especially when they lose their best reliever.

  • mt

    The way I look at it is that Yankees performance in one run games at such a positive winning percentage basically enabled a very weak offensive team to post a record much better than their negative Pythagorean numbers would suggest (according to Pythagorean, Yanks should have been 78-84, not the 85-77 they actually were, a swing from 6 games under .500 to 8 games over .500.)

    The big part is what Yankees do preparing for 2014 – the very good one- run performance in 2013 is not a repeatable skill so Yankees also need to incorporate in their thinking that Boston had just a .500 record in one run games even though Boston outscored opponents by almost 200 runs. So if every team operated according to their Pythagorean, Yankees would have been a whopping 24 games behind Red Sox, not the 12 games Yanks were behind in the actual standings. The gap is huge.

    Now Pythagoren theorems are just that: a theorem and not real play on the field but it does indicate they really have to improve their offense above and beyond saying Teix will be back and play the full year and Jeter will be better, etc. – of course it is so hard to do without knowing whether Cano will be back. (Of course really improving their pitching is also an option but their offense is the oen that was so substandard versus rest of league.)

    If Yankees had performed more normally in one run games there would have been a lot more negativity about the 2013 season (“absolute disaster” would be the feel as opposed to “valiant effort”) and – dare I say – Yanks might have sold off pieces at trade deadline.

    • JGYank

      With all the injuries we had I stopped looking at their pythagorean record for this year. Just not accurate with all the fill ins we had on the team.

  • LK

    “When you have David Robertson in the eighth and Mariano Rivera in the ninth, those one-run cushions in the late innings tend to turn into wins.”

    “[T]hey played 47 one-run games last year (.468 winning percentage), 45 the year before (.467), and 39 the year before that (.513).”

    Seems like one of these sentences has to be wrong.

    • hogsmog

      Yeah, I find this claim pretty specious. Joe Posnanski had a pretty good piece about the Os, touching on one-run games (http://joeposnanski.blogspot.com/2013/09/rather-be-lucky.html).

      One of the commenters raised a really good point about how 1-run wins come about:

      “Consider 4 games.
      In one, a team takes a 4-3 lead in the 7th inning and the bullpen locks it down, preserving the one run win.

      In another, the bullpen turns a 4-0 lead after 7 into a 4-3 barnburner.

      In the third, the bullpen turns a 4-3 lead into a 8-4 deficit and the furious 9th inning rally falls one run short.

      In the fourth, the starting pitcher gets bombed, but the bullpen pitches 6 stellar innings, allowing the home team to scrap their way slowly from a 8-1 deficit to a 8-7 loss.

      All 4 are one run games, 2 wins, 2 losses…and the bullpen quality can go either way. ”

      I totally agree. Having a really good bullpen might make the low-scoring one-run wins more fun, but probably won’t affect your record either way that much.

  • RetroRob

    It strikes me that their record in one-run games was worse the prior seasons than it should have been. Shouldn’t a team with the Yankees winning percentage, hitters and bullpen (closed by Mariano) been doing better than a collective sub-.500 record for 2010-2012?

  • sevrox

    Definitely think Vidal Nuno should be given a shot at the rotation. Sick numbers in the minors – realizing it’s the minors, but what the hell.

    • Adam

      Wrong thread?