Winning The In-Betweeners


Since the 2012 Royals season ended, I’ve had this gnawing suspicion. The problem was, I couldn’t identify the suspicion. So, I knew there was something I didn’t know … but I didn’t know what that something was. Well, really, I know there are many things I don’t know, but I had this feeling that there was something staring me right in the face that I was missing.

A few days ago it dawned on me as I was scrolling through a game log from last season. I kept seeing games pass that looked like this: (W 2-1) (L 5-1) (L 4-2) (W 1-0). In this short example, the pattern now seems relatively clear. In 2012, the Royals won most of their low scoring games, but lost many more of their high scoring games.

April 10, 2012; Oakland, CA, USA; Kansas City Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer (35) loses his bat during the eighth inning against the Oakland Athletics at Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Royals were 57-13 (.814) when they allowed three runs or less. Even at the high end of that span, when allowing three runs, they were 20-7. In itself, that’s not a remarkable stat. Teams should win games in which their pitching staffs allow three runs or less. In that sense, the Royals took care of business. It is a somewhat encouraging stat, as the addition of James Shields and the revamped rotation can hopefully produce more games in which three runs or fewer are allowed.

The remarkable thing about the Royals record in games allowing three runs or less arises in contrast with their record allowing four runs or more: 15-77 (.163). Of course, it also is not stunning that the Royals lost more games than they won when allowing four or more runs. What’s telling is the huge gap between allowing three runs and allowing four. As noted before, the Royals were 20-7 when allowing three runs, but when they allowed only a single run more, they were 5-16. Add only one more run (five), and the record moves to 2-16. When allowing four or five runs, the Royals were 7-32 (.179). So, the winning percentage jump looks like this:

Allowing 3 runs – 20-7 (.741)

Allowing 4 runs – 5-16 (.238)

Allowing 5 runs – 2-16 (.111)

Let’s provide some context for these marks. The Baltimore Orioles, a team the Royals would like to emulate in 2013, won 93 games in 2012. When allowing three runs or less, they were 68-8 (.895), a little better than the Royals. When giving up four or more runs, they were 25-61 (.291); that’s .128 points better than the Royals. Looking at how well the Orioles did in games allowing four or more runs, the picture starts to form. The Orioles managed to win more of the games their pitching staff didn’t control, the games they “shouldn’t” win. This becomes even starker when we look at the in-between games in which four and five runs were allowed:

Allowing 3 runs – 15-5 (.750)

Allowing 4 runs – 10-9 (.526)

Allowing 5 runs – 6-9 (.400)

Notice the Orioles won more of their games allowing four runs than they lost. The Royals were 25 games under .500 when allowing four or five runs. The Orioles were two games under .500 doing the same. If you watched most of the 2012 season, you know the lineup didn’t produce the way most fans hoped it would, but this level of disparity warrants new ideas about why.

Here’s what I’ve come up with. In 2012, this team didn’t respond well to their pitchers giving up runs. The reality of baseball probabilities states that once you are behind, your odds of winning dip below 50 percent. So, when you’re down 1-0 in the first, your odds of winning drop to something like 42 percent. If you go down 5-0, the odds drop to something like 12 percent (approximated numbers that may be way off). This is true of every team, but the Royals seemed to have even greater difficulty dealing with deficits. Their record when behind in the fourth inning was 8-57 (.123). The fourth inning is still very early, and yet, they lost at a very high rate. Contrast that with our comp team, the Orioles, and the difference is clear. The Orioles were 13-38 (.255) when trailing in the fourth inning.

We can’t clearly determine a cause here. We can speculate: their youth, their inconsistency, their morale, their lack of confidence. I know from watching games that at certain points if a pitcher gave up a few runs it was hard to envision the Royals coming back. They seemed to press in those moments at the plate, try to do too much. Whatever it was, if another team made it to four or five runs, it seemed like the Royals were out of the game.

Anecdotally, we know the Orioles won a lot of games by keeping them close and winning late. The numbers bare that out as well, but there are two really important things to note in this data. 1) The Royals need to win more games when allowing four or five runs if they’re going to be successful in 2013. 2) They need to find a way to battle back. Maybe that will be easier if they don’t have to battle back every game. Maybe the experience of last season will help players understand how to battle back. I don’t know. But it needs to happen.

This new, shiny pitching staff is great because it allows the Royals to put more games into the category of three runs or less allowed. But good teams win a significant portion of higher scoring games. They pull out some games they shouldn’t. It has to happen if the Royals want to have a chance to run with teams like the Tigers. It’s not just about getting better in shiny categories; it’s about getting better in categories that are bound to be ugly. Every team is going to have a losing record in games giving up four or more runs. The Royals need to find a way to have a not-as-bad record in those games.