Predicting Shutdowns and Saves

“I heard the jury was still out on… Science…”

–G.O.B. Bluth, Arrested Development

Saunter over to the Shutdown and Meltdown leaderboard and you will find a curious leader: The San Diego Padres.

Yes, the Friars have somehow amassed an absurd 31 shutdowns (SD) while winning a sport-worst nine games. This seems somewhat surprising, because experience has taught me — among many things about cats — that bad teams typically do not need great bullpens. They might have them (*cough* Joakim Soria *cough cough*), but they do not need them because they get destroyed early and often.

Take my hand and follow me down Logic Avenue: The worst teams will not often participate in three-run, save-opportunity games — or even one-run games. Instead they will presumably watch this and employ a slew of mop-up long men who do not affect the game’s already-decided outcome. I mean, c’mon, three-fifths of the Royals rotation is likely to allow five runs before finishing the 6th inning. What can a bulllpen possibly do when the score is 5 to -1?

In the same stroke of logic, wouldn’t we expect the best teams to have fewer save opportunities? Unlike impressively mediocre teams, like the Chicago Cubs, the New York Yankees spend a good deal of time slapping homers and trouncing weaklings. As a result, we should expect they play fewer close games than the Cubs, who must crawl, snarl, and curse their way into every victory and loss.

Well, that may be logical, but it’s not entirely correct.

What do we know?
Any fantasy baseball nerd will tell you: Don’t waste a high pick on a Mariners closer. Why? Well, the Mariners are not going to win a lot of games, and so, by default, their closers — regardless of how good they may be — will not rack up many saves. From 2000 through 2010, we can see there is a direct and easy correlation between how good a team is (as measured by winning percentage) and how many 3-runs-or-less victories they have:

However, we should expect the same thing to be true for the aforementioned San Diego Padres, whose relievers already have the bards singing of their majesty. The team has amassed only five saves, but the bullpen has been pivotal in almost every game. How can that be?

Well, the first truth we encounter is that my previous assumption was wrong: Great teams don’t avoid three-run and one-run games. If we again refer to those 2000 through 2010 seasons, we see a big, fat shotgun distribution of results:

Yeah, the regression line has a frowny face, meaning my assumption appears kinda correct, but we can clearly see any relationship here is sketchy at best (the low R-squared confirms this).

Whattabout blowouts?
Surely the Yankees form more congo lines than the Royals, don’t they? Looking at the distribution of blowout games (here defined as games decided by 4 or more runs) from the aughties, we again see a shotgun plot:

This means the mediocre teams — as well as the good and bad teams — are playing in an equalish number of blowout games. The regression says great and bad teams play in more blowouts, but frankly the correlation is not strong enough for any predictive power. However, we can see with certainty who benefits from these blowout games, the excellent teams:

Putting It All Together
The Padres aren’t a terrible team, but they’re likely to finish below .500 — so say projection systems and gurus and such. The fact that their bullpen has played the hero in these early weeks becomes even more surprising when we consider what we just learned:

  • Every team plays in about 100 three-runs or less games, 60 blowout games, and 45 one-run games — and the distribution is about equal, regardless of how good a team is.
  • The good teams win a lot of blowouts, and the bad teams lose a lot of blowouts. The mediocre have a little bit of both.
  • Lastly, (and this we didn’t discuss above, but it is widely understood) one-run games are a flip of the coin, both good and bad teams tend to play near .500 unless lady luck frowns on them.

    In other words, the Padres are a team predisposed towards losing blowouts, but their bullpen has instead received an unlikely large amount of Shutdown and Meltdown possibilities (in a blowout, the losing team’s reliever rarely can affect a win probability in a positive and significant manner).

    At the same time, the Rays, who are at .500 presently and appear to be an above-average team, have only a combined 15 SD and MDs, meaning their wins and losses have been blowouts or decided by their starters. Even when their team is in a three-run-or-less game, the Padres should tend to be on the losing end.

    Anyway, it is interesting stuff to watch as the season ambles forward.

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    12 years ago

    Great stuff. Really enjoyed it.

    Jason B
    12 years ago

    Before seeing his handle, I thought you just called awesome everyone things like “shooter” and “stud”. I wish I had just scrolled right on past, happily unaware, before letting the air out of that balloon…

    Jason B
    12 years ago

    Urrr…*called everyone awesome things*, that is, shooter.

    Jason B
    12 years ago

    You bet, pardna!