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Wednesday, November 22
Do great teams win the close games?



The presidential election reminds me how untrue an old sports axiom is: "It's the great teams that win the close games." That is sheer, unadulterated lies, especially in baseball. A team should never let a game stay close if it can help it because you never know what's going to happen at the end in a close game. Al Gore should have never let George W. Bush win in Tennessee (Gore's home state) and George W. Bush should have never let the vote be so close in Florida, where his brother is the governor. In this close "game," we still don't even know who won.

Many people still think that the 1927 New York Yankees were the greatest team of all time, although neither Rob Neyer nor I picked them first in our book, Baseball Dynasties. The Yankees' won-lost record was 110-44. What do you think their record was in one-run games? 21-3? 32-9? If you believe that it's the great teams that win the close games then the '27 Yanks certainly had a good record in one-run games, right? Well, not quite, as they were just 22-19. They were, however, 54-9 in games decided by four or more runs.

Obviously, I am not resting my case on one team in all of baseball history. Since 1900, teams that have had a .600-plus winning percentage in a season had an overall winning percentage of .633. What is the winning percentage of those teams in one-run games? When I was working for the Padres, I asked some of the coaches this question and all of them answered with a percentage of higher than .633. So, what's the answer? Well, it's .580. Very good teams had a worse record in one-run games than their overall record.

When you look at the data, relatively speaking, it's really the bad teams that win the close games. What do I mean? Looking at the same time period, teams that had a winning percentage of less than .400 in a season had a collective winning percentage of .355. What was their winning percentage in one-run games? The answer is .409. That's right, the poorest teams had a better record in one-run games than their overall record. Here is all of this data, courtesy of David Smith of Retrosheet:

Winning the close games
Group of teams Overall win pct. Win pct. in 1-run gms
.600+ .633 .580
.550-.599 .574 .548
.500-.549 .525 .512
.450-.499 .474 .484
.400-.449 .426 .460
below .400 .355 .409

In all of these groups, their record in one-run games was closer to .500 than their overall record. When a game is close, the final outcome becomes more dependant on luck than it does when the game is not close. Luck, by definition, doesn't really favor anyone. By the way, the .600-plus teams had a .686 winning percentage in games decided by four or more runs.

Of all of baseball's "conventional wisdom," this notion is one of the most-lasting despite the fact that it simply isn't true. Why? I think baseball, like all sports, is filled with an overactive machismo that romanticizes what happens on the field. It "has" to be the great teams that win the close games because to think otherwise somehow spoils the notion of greatness. However, despite machismo and despite "conventional wisdom," who wins or loses a close game very often has to do with simply how the ball bounced or how the chad was punched.

Eddie Epstein is a former front-office executive with the Orioles and Padres. He now works as a consultant to professional sports franchises.
 

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