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Monday, June 20, 2005

Luck Ball

I know that others have written more completely on this topic but I just had to get my two cents in after watching some of the White Sox 4-3 victory over the Dodgers last night.

What raised my ire were Joe Morgan's comments on ESPN following the bottom of the 8th inning rally that allowed the Sox to score two runs and take the lead. In that inning following a walk the Sox elected to sacrifice. A misplay by the Dodgers and a bad call by the first base umpire allowed the batter to reach first safely. Once again the Sox sacrificed, this time resulting in runners on second and third with one out. A base hit followed that plated the two runs that were the difference in the game. In that inning Morgan made repeated references to "smart ball" - Sox manager Ozzie Guillen's supposed new offensive strategy focused on speed and situational hitting - and how that strategy is paying big dividends and is a key factor in their 46-22 record.

The problem with that theory is that it is demonstrably not true and it's not really even a matter of opinion.

The Sox of 2005 are winning because their pitching staff has given up just 3.84 runs per game which leads the American League. Their offense is performing well at 4.75 runs per game which ranks 5th in the league but clearly their strength is in run prevention not in run production. In 2004 in fact the Sox scored 5.33 runs per game (3rd in the AL) while tying for the leage lead in homeruns at 242. The problem last year was that they gave up 5.13 runs per game (10th in the AL). While you can attribute some of their improvement in run prevention to an improved defense, there is simply no way that it comes even close to accounting for one and a quarter runs per game. It should also be noted that while the Sox do lead the AL in stolen bases (71) and sacrifice hits (25), they also are third in the league in homeruns with 82 and 25% of their runs have scored on homeruns (4th in the AL).

Trading away Carlos Lee for Scott Posednik and letting Maglio Ordonez go are not the reason the White Sox are in the first place. Starters Mark Buerhle, Freddy Garcia, John Garland, and Jose Contreras, along with relievers Dustin Hermanson, Cliff Politte, and Neal Cotts are the reason. These seven pitchers have thrown 75% of the White Sox innings, made 54 of 67 starts, and recorded a 3.36 ERA.

A second reason for the Sox success Morgan mentioned is their 20-8 record in one-run games and he seemed to link "smart ball" to this ability to win close games. Once again the historical data just don't support the idea that a team or manager has the ability to win such a large percentage of their one-run games. Using this article by Bill James the Sox this year would have been expected to win 40 or 41 games based on their ratio of runs scored to runs allowed and 15 of their 28 one-run games. So even with their excellent pitching they've still outperformed expectations by 5 or 6 wins overall and 9 wins in one-run games. They're also playing lots of one-run games and leading the league in that category when they would be expected to have played just 15 one-run games using the formula in James article.

Simply put, I just don't see the White Sox .676 performance being sustainable. Not only are some of those seven pitchers likely to fall back towards their historical norms as the season progresses, but their record in one-run games should start to regress towards the mean and their offense is already producing about as well as you would expect (although the return of Frank Thomas should help). That doesn't mean they won't win their division but right now they're relying on a style of play I'd rather call "Luck Ball".


Anonymous said...

46-22 isn't luck. It's a trend. It could be the Sox are playing above their ability, but don't call it luck. Quite simply they are playing better than the teams they face.

Anonymous said...

Can anyone say, "Seattle Mariners?"


Dan Agonistes said...

I didn't mean to imply that the only reason the Sox are 46-22 is that they've been lucky. They've pitched extremely well and they've hit well enough to be in the upper third in the AL. What I'm saying is that rather than being 46-22 their record should probably be about 40-28 based on the performance of their defense and offense. They've been fortunate to get those extra 6 wins. They are still a very good team and should be leading their division.

I'm also saying, however, that the ability of their pitchers is probably not reflective of their performance through June 20 and that they'll likely perform worse from here on out. Couple that with the wins they've been fortunate to get thus far and I don't think .676 is sustainable.

Anonymous said...

The fact the Sox have won more than their share of 1 run games could be luck, or it could be that they do have a strategy that succeeds in close ballgames. Or it could be their strategy turns 3 run wins into 1 run wins by giving away outs. Either way, the fact they've won more than their share of close games isn't evidence Mr. Morgan's "smart ball" doesn't work, that's for sure.

That said, I listened to the same broadcast and thought Morgan's comments were absurd.

robert paulson said...

If they did have a system in place that made them more likely to win 1 run games, is it reasonable to assume that they would not be the first team in the history of baseball to have such a system in place? Because up until now, I thought the overwhelming evidence was that it was a statistical aberration when a team performed that much better than predicted in 1 run games. Just look at the Tigers. In 2003 they were one of the worst teams in American League history winning only 43 games on the year, but went 19-18 in 1 run games. Last year they improved to 72-90 overall, but went just 12-27 in 1 run games.

Anonymous said...

the white sox are playing alrite but they need to play better. as soon as it heats up, they need brandon mccrathy to step it up beacuse orlando hernandez has to heal up to stay hea;thy fopr the playoofs where he excels. Legitmatlly the white sox are the front runner for the world series even thinking ahead. They are playing cluytch ball right now and no one can argue ahty they are sustaining the way they should. WHITE SOX IN 05 and in -06..thats my word

Anonymous said...

It baffles me why analysts in the media fail so often to just simply look at a team's runs scored and runs against totals. Heck, you don't even have to do the pythagorean formula to tell if a team is relying more on offense or more on pitching/defense.

Ron said...

Yes, they will normalize. Nice observations. What do you think they will end up at?

Dan Agonistes said...

The interesting thing is that it doesn't appear that the Sox are winning close games primarily because of their relievers ( My best guess then would be around 101 wins (105 based on their current pythagorean projection minus about 4 games for diminished player performance). That means they would go 43-36 the rest of the way. They may well exceed that but they probably won't continue their current pace, which would put them at 111 wins.