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Take 2

A different spin on sports by The Seattle Times staff and readers.

August 13, 2013 at 11:46 AM

Are all those close Mariners losses bad luck, or bad relief pitching?

By Michael Barr

Michael Barr, 40, is a Bellingham native and occasional contributor at Fangraphs.com. By day, he is a college administrator and by night he tries to keep up with his three children ages 6, 4, and 2. In 1979, he wrote letters to all the members of the Seattle Mariners but regretfully only heard back from Bruce Bochte.

Every time I listen to a Mariners radio broadcast and they tease me with Mike Blowers’ keys to the game, I deadpan, “Score more runs than the other team.” After all, the key to any game is to plate more runners than the next guy. Whether you bludgeon your opponent 18-0 or you win 1-0 on a throwing error, you get the same credit in the standings: one win.

Scoring runs and preventing runs is the name of the game.

In nerd parlance, the number of runs scored and the number of runs allowed is the major contributor behind something called the Pythagorian Theorem of Baseball, dreamed up by the Sabermetric grandaddy, Bill James (for more, see http://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Pythagorean_Theorem_of_Baseball). The “Pythag,” as us geeks often refer to it, actually makes up for roughly 90 percent of the variance in win-loss records over the past several seasons. Even if you despise advanced metrics, you should get cozy with the Pythag. By understanding run differentials, you can sniff out if a team is over- or under-performing while using a particularly broad brush.

Where am I going with this? Well, after that particularly awful game on Aug. 1 in which the Mariners laid waste to a 7-2 lead in the ninth inning versus the Boston Red Sox, I started to wonder if the Mariners were just cursed or if they were earning this ugliness.

So let’s take a look at extra innings games and one run games.

The Mariners have exactly 34 one-run games in 2013, which puts them smack dab in the middle relative to the rest of Major League Baseball. Their win-loss record in those games is .441 which puts them in the bottom third of all teams. However, their Pythagorean expected win-loss percentage is .485 because they’ve actually only been outscored by four runs, 121-125. So maybe they “deserved” an extra win (OK, mathematicians, it’s technically 1.49 wins).

The very best teams in one-run games include Rangers, Dodgers, Indians, Diamondbacks, A’s, Pirates and Braves – all teams with clear playoff paths. It’s not advisable to draw conclusions based on a small set of data, but in looking at 2013, some teams have performed well above and some well below their expected win percentage. And some by a great margin. Can anything explain that success? Perhaps. We’ll get to that in a second.

Extra innings games have been particularly hard on the Mariners. Extra-inning games seem relevant to the conversation. The Mariners are tied for second in baseball, having played in 16 extra-inning games, and they own a .375 winning percentage in those games. The Pythag suggests they should have won at a .461 clip, which doesn’t get your heart racing, but it is good for two more wins.

Now, volume of research has been conducted on winning or losing close games, and James said that the outcome can mostly be attributed to dumb luck. But as human beings, we like explanations. There has to be a reason, right? Outside the data-heads, you’ll hear people say teams lack “grit,” or it’s their manager, or it’s veterans who “know how to win under pressure,” or lack of “clutch hitting.” That’s all hooey.

But one very simple analysis comes from Jessie Wolfersberger over at Fangraphs.com. Last season the Baltimore Orioles had a ridiculous run of success in close games (16-2 in extra frames and 29-9 in one run games), and the question Mr. Wolfersberger asks is just how much luck did they have (http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/how-much-luck-is-involved-in-one-run-games/)? Turning that around, his analysis gives us a snapshot of exactly what can explain success in close games that is statistically significant. Though run differential is still king, three factors emerged, two of which are kind of no-brainers: strikeout and walk rates per nine innings for relievers. So how does the Mariner reliever corps stack up in these two areas?

The Mariners relievers are actually third in baseball relative to strikeouts per nine innings pitched at 9.58 K’s/9! So their losing ways must be explained away by rotten luck, right? Well, they’re also among the bottom feeders in walks at 3.78 BB/9 – down there with the Cubs, Astros, Phillies, and White Sox, company you probably don’t want to keep. The biggest contributor to that walk rate? Tom Wilhelmsen at 4.94 BB/9. To put it in a percentage, Wilhelmsen owns a 13.1 percent walk rate which is good for third worst in baseball among qualified relief pitchers. It’s not terribly surprising he found himself driving south on I-5 to Tacoma last Tuesday. But we shouldn’t let Yoervis Medina, Charlie Furbush, and Oliver Perez off the hook – all of whom are well worse than the AL average with their free passes to opposing hitters.

We can’t draw any hard and fast conclusions, unfortunately. This was merely an exercise in seeing if we could say with any degree of confidence whether or not the Mariners have been burdened with bad luck, and the answer to that appears to be no. With the exception of maybe a game or two, they have largely earned losses that can make fans pull out their hair and managers go gray. After all, you’ve still got to score more runs than the other team.

Want to be a reader contributor to The Seattle Times’ Take 2 blog? Email your original, previously unpublished work or proposal to Sports Editor Don Shelton at dshelton@seattletimes.com or sports@seattletimes.com. Not all submissions can be published. The Times reserves the right to edit and publish any submissions online and/or in print.

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