The ones that got away

Tom Tippett investigates specific games that got away from teams this season.

Originally Published: September 19, 2003
By Tom Tippett | Diamond Mind Baseball / Special to ESPN.com

After Oakland's 8-6 win over the Red Sox on August 20th, these two quotes appeared in ESPN.com's game story:

    "I feel like we stole two games," Oakland third baseman Eric Chavez said. "These aren't the kind of games we're going to win down the line."

    "We felt like we had the right people up there at the right time at several points in the game, but we couldn't get more runs across," Boston manager Grady Little said.

Chavez talked about stealing the game because Boston outhit the A's 18 to 11 and drew seven walks to only one for Oakland. Add up the total bases and walks (TBW) for both teams and you find that Boston outproduced the visitors 28 bases to 19. But 17 Red Sox runners were stranded, Oakland bunched their hits with a key Boston error in a four-run eighth inning, and the visiting team went home with the win.

That got us thinking. How often does this happen? How often does a team win the statistical battle yet lose the final-score war?

Measuring team performance in a season
For several years, we've been looking at measures of team production to learn more about why a season played out the way it did and to get a sense for each team's chances the next year. (For our recap of the 2002 season, see Measuring Team Efficiency).

One of those measures is total bases plus walks. By comparing the TBW produced by each team's hitters with the TBW allowed by its pitchers, we get a good indication of the strength of that team.

Most times, those TBW figures flow quite naturally into runs, which flow quite naturally into wins, and you can see the statistical underpinning for a team's performance. For instance, the 2002 Yankees produced 558 more TBW than they allowed, outscored their opponents by 200 runs, and finished with the AL's best record.

Sometimes, however, these relationships don't hold up. The 2002 Angels were exceptionally good at converting offensive events into runs, compiling a run margin that was a little better than New York's even though their TBW differential was less than half that of the Yankees. By taking full advantage of their opportunities, they finished with 99 wins, beat New York in the divisional series, and didn't stop until they'd won it all.

Measuring team performance in a game
We've been wondering whether we'd learn anything by applying this approach to the results of individual games. How often does the team with the higher TBW figure actually win the game? And do the games that go the other way have a significant effect on the standings?

While the TBW differential is a very good measure of team performance over a season and has the advantage of being easy to figure, it isn't perfect. Among other things, it doesn't include events like hit batsmen and errors.

Most of the time, we can safely ignore those events when evaluating full seasons. The difference between bases gained by a team and given to its opponents in these ways is usually very small and doesn't affect any conclusions one might draw from the TBW differentials.

In a single game, though, HBP and errors can make the difference, so we added them for this project. For every game in the last ten years (through the end of August, 2003) we computed the number of bases produced by each team on hits, walks, HBP and errors that allowed their batters to reach base.

It turns out that the team that produced more bases in these ways was the victor 82% of the time. In 4% of the games, the teams tied in bases produced, so the win could have gone to either team. That leaves 14%, or about one game in seven, in which a team was outproduced but found a way to win anyway.

In a little more than half of the games that went to the less productive team, the winners were outproduced by only one or two bases, leaving about 7% of the games in which one team overcame a deficit of at least three bases. For the rest of this discussion, we'll focus on this subset, and for lack of a better term, we'll call them "stolen games".

The big ones
Two of the biggest steals of the 2003 season came in back-to-back games involving Anaheim and Texas.

On April 15th, at Texas, the Angels drew four walks and pounded out out ten hits, including a triple and a pair of homers, for a total of 22 bases on hits and walks. Meanwhile, Jarrod Washburn and Brandon Donnelly held the Rangers to six hits (two doubles), three walks, and a hit batsman, for a total of 12 bases. But Texas won 5-4 because the Anaheim hits were scattered and much of the Texas action was crammed into a single five-run inning.

The tables were turned a day later. Both teams had 13 hits, allowed one hitter to reach on an error, and drew four walks. But the Rangers blasted four homers to none for the Angels. Add it all up and the Texas hitters accounted for 12 more bases. All that production went for naught, however, when Anaheim bunched their hits in a seven-run eighth inning that gave them an 8-7 win. This deficit of 12 bases was the season's largest for a winning team.

In the past ten years, only 17 games (of 22,334 that were played) have exhibited a larger deficit, topped by a pair of games in which the winner overcame an 18-base shortfall.

Winners and losers in 2003
With 7% of all wins going to a team that overcame a deficit of at least three bases, we'd expect each club to have about five wins and five losses of this type through the end of August.

And most did. Twenty-four teams had between 3 and 7 stolen wins, while twenty-six teams gave away between 3 and 7 losses of this type.

The Cincinnati Reds were far and away the biggest winners in the 2003 stolen-game sweepstakes. Twelve times the Reds picked up a victory in a game in which they were outproduced by at least three bases. Only once did they lose a game in this fashion. That's why they were able to hang around .500 for a few months despite having the worst run margin and the worst TBW differential in the NL.

Montreal has also improved its standing by winning eight and losing only three of these games. But, like the Reds, the Expos faded after a promising start and are no longer serious contenders for a postseason berth.

Three teams have lost more than their share of these games, but two of them are Detroit (five more stolen losses than wins) and San Diego (six more). Nothing of great importance there, at least in terms of postseason implications.

And then there are the Boston Red Sox. Only three teams had more than seven stolen losses, and Boston heads that list with twelve. With only four stolen wins to their credit, Boston has lost eight more stolen games than they've won, easily the worst imbalance in the majors.

In case you want to check out the boxscores and game logs, here are the games:

Date  Opp   Bases  Score  Comment
5/11  @Min  31-24   8-9   Rally from 8-0 deficit falls short 
5/21  NYY   17-13   2-4 
5/31  @Tor  27-23   7-10  Five Tor hits bunched in 5-run sixth 
6/10  StL   32-29   7-9 
6/12  StL   37-31   7-8   Nixon leaves based loaded four times 
6/28  Flo   33-22   9-10  Marlins score four each in 8th and 9th 
7/3   @Tam  26-20   5-6 
7/25  NYY   19-16   2-4 
8/8   Bal   24-20   4-10  O's get 6 of their 13 hits in 7-run inning 
8/8   Bal   15-11   2-4     
8/10  Bal   23-17   3-5 
8/20  Oak   28-19   6-8   Boston strands 17 runners

The four-game series against Baltimore in early August was particularly disheartening for Boston fans. The home team outproduced the O's in every game but still managed to lose the series three games to one.

In 17 of the 19 games against the Yankees (including the three games in September), the more productive side emerged victorious. But both of the stolen games went in New York's favor. So the season series, won 10-9 by the Yankees, turned on these stolen games.

Remember that these twelve losses were in games where Boston outproduced their opponents by at least three bases. They also lost five games in which they had an edge of one or two bases, and their overall record in these games was 5-17. That's a very big deal.

This isn't the only statistical evidence to support the idea that Boston hasn't taken full advantage of its opportunities this year. Their run margin is right up there with Seattle's for the league lead. And their TBW differential (+539 through 9/14) is far better than New York's (+403).

In fact, the Sox are on pace to post the fifth-best TBW differential in the past thirty years. The only teams ahead of them on that list are the 1998 Braves (who finished with a 106-56 record), the 1998 Yankees (114-48), the 2001 Mariners (116-46), and the 1995 Indians (100-44 in a shorter season). That's great company. In other words, this Boston team is a statistical juggernaut that should be leading the league in wins.

Note: These measures of team performance exclude stolen bases. Looking over the boxscores for the dozen games listed above, I found only one game where steals might have made the difference. Boston has been a good running team this season, and I don't believe the conclusions would have changed if we had included stolen bases in our measure of a team's performance in a game.

The outlook for the Red Sox
After they blew the August 20th game against Oakland, I thought the Red Sox were done. Time after time, they had been able to bounce back from tough losses, and they've earned a lot of praise for being a resilient team. But you can only dig a hole and climb out of it so often, and I thought they may have used up their quota.

To their credit, they won the series finale against Oakland, swept the Mariners at home, and took two of three from New York in Yankee Stadium the next weekend. During the toughest part of the schedule, they played their best baseball of the season.

So they're still in position to be playing in October. But had the Red Sox been able to play .500 ball in these stolen games, their magic number for clinching a playoff spot would be in the low single digits right now. Instead, they're fighting tooth and nail just to get in.

Does their poor record in these games point to a weakness in the makeup of this team? Or was it just a run of bad luck? I don't know the answer to these questions. I can say that the Red Sox are a very strong team statistically, and if they can put all of this behind them and start posting a win-loss record that is consistent with their production, they can be very dangerous in October.

That, of course, is a very big if. And if Boston doesn't make the playoffs, you can bet that New England can anticipate a winter full of hot-stove conversations about how the Yankees "know how to win" and how the local nine is missing something.

This article also appears on the Diamond Mind Web site.