"Boston Didn’t Actually Blow Out St. Louis, Or Why Advanced Statistics Are Awesome"
If you opened up the paper this morning (do people still do that?) and glanced at the score of the first game of the World Series, you’d probably think the Boston Red Sox trounced the St. Louis Cardinals given the 8-1 score. You’d probably think that if you watched the game too, since after Boston took a 5-0 lead out of the second inning the Cardinals never really threatened to get back into the game.
A closer look at the game, of course, would belie at least a little of that: Boston’s three-run first inning was a product of seriously inept defense from Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma, and the two-run second inning was aided by Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina’s allowing an infield pop fly to drop between them. Take out those two plays and the game looks much different and much closer, especially since quality outfield defense from the Cardinals saved at least a few runs.
But even with those plays, the game wasn’t the blow out it seemed. Dig into the stats, as FanGraphs’ Dave Cameron did this morning, and you’ll learn three quick lessons: 1) the game was actually quite close statistically; 2) Boston wasn’t very good at the plate; and 3) the Red Sox managed to do something that is exceptionally rare. So rare, in fact, no one else has done it this season, Cameron found:
Not only did the Red Sox have the lowest [on base percentage] of any team to score 8 runs in a postseason game, they had hit the fewest home runs of any of the other teams who managed to score that many runs without actually getting themselves on base very often. Of the 323 teams who have scored 8+ runs in a postseason game, the Red Sox slugging percentage last night ranked 306th. 323rd in OBP, 306th in SLG. This was perhaps the worst offensive performance by a team that scored 8+ runs in MLB postseason history.
And it would have been a pretty rare accomplishment even in the regular season. In the last 50 years, only 14 times has a team scored 8+ runs while posting an OBP of .250 or less., and in most of those cases, the team hit multiple home runs.
We don’t have wOBA data going back quite as far, but we do have regular season data back to 1980, and I asked David Appelman to give me a list of all of the teams that have scored 8+ runs in a game while posting a wOBA below .275, since the Red Sox put up a .271 wOBA last night. In 33 years, it’s happened 52 times, and only 42 of those came with a wOBA of .271 or worse. Basically, MLB sees a game like this once per year, where a team gets a bunch of runs despite not really hitting very well. It happened twice this year (before last night), with the Angels putting up 9 on the Pirates despite a .274 wOBA — the baseball gods made them lose anyway, as punishment — and the A’s putting up 10 on the Angels with a .273 wOBA, but that game took 19 innings. The Angels loss took 10 innings. Last night was the only time this year that a team managed 8+ runs in a nine inning game where they hit as poorly as Boston did.
What does all that mean? Sure, it proves that timing matters. As Cameron wrote, “the Cardinals gave them a few extra outs and the Red Sox drove in runs every time they had the chance.” But baseball fans know that intuitively.
More broadly, though, it just proves to me how much more fun advanced statistics make watching and evaluating the game of baseball. Sure, we’d all be just fine without knowing that Boston’s 8-run game was a statistical oddity. But isn’t it more entertaining that we do? Doesn’t it add something to the experience to know that a slump or a hot streak or how the game works has some sort of explanation, but that at the same time, a single game or single at-bat or even a single series is such a small sample size that it doesn’t always follow that explanation? A team that notches six hit hits and puts a quarter of its hitters on base isn’t supposed to score eight runs and win easily. In fact, it almost never happens. But that’s exactly what Boston did.
Stats can’t explain everything. But they also aren’t meant to. Rather, they supplement our view of the game and what’s happening and correct our preconceived notions when they are wrong. They have a very functional side in evaluation and predicting outcomes over the long-term, which is why so many teams are using advanced metrics now. But in the short-term they still add explanations and intrigue to the oddities of the game itself in ways our eyes cannot. Sometimes they serve as valuable predictors of what’s to come. Sometimes they tell us that we don’t actually know what we’re watching. And sometimes they give us knowledge that we wouldn’t possibly know without them. They’re simultaneously demonstrative both of baseball’s constants and it’s total unpredictability, since no matter how much we know about what is supposed to happen, we still consume the game one pitch, one at bat, one inning at a time, especially in the playoffs. And when the sample is that small, the game only gets more unpredictable, and thus more fun.