Sunday, September 26, 2021


We were reminded that the 2021 Seattle Mariners are poised to be one of those "backward" teams that occasionally surface out of the smooth surface of common sense, baseball division. With just a handful of games left in the season, the M's were assured a winning record despite scoring fewer runs than their opponents.

And, according to the Pythagorean Won-Loss projection (a tool Bill James developed before he signed on with the Red Sox and slowly deconstructed his toolbox), it's not just one of those wispy, "just over the line" type of things--where they go 82-80 and score ten fewer runs than the opposition. As of the other day, the M's "luck" number (as opposed to their "lucky" number) was 13--according to Pythagoras (last seen with a ball and chain as opposed to a bat and ball) the M's have won 13 more games than they "should" have based on their runs scored/runs allowed ratio.

So we thought it would be of interest to determine just how extreme this divergence actually is. Are the M's in the top fifty of teams who've defied gravity in this manner? Fortunately, the folks at Forman et fils (you know them as Baseball Reference dot com) have continued to compile this data, thus permitting us to refresh our memory.

Which definitely needed refreshing, because as it turns out the M's are close to making baseball history. The chart of the "luckiest" teams (actual wins minus "Pythagorean wins" = "extra wins via luck") shown at left indicates that the M's are #2 in the entire history of the game with respect to "luck." (And stop the presses: the M's 14-1 loss to the Angels last night has currently pushed them ahead of the 1905 Detroit Tigers in this category...if you are willing to believe that wins, whether real or theoretical, can be measured using numerals on the right side of the decimal point.)

If one stops to think about it, you won't be surprised to discover a number of pennant-winning/post-season teams showing up on this list. The 1905 Tigers represent the recessive counter-trend, a bad team lifted into mediocrity via good fortune. But of the twenty-four teams since 1901 whose "luck" has rounded up to a total of at least ten extra wins over a season, a total of nine have been post-season teams--most recently (and most spectacularly) the 2016 Texas Rangers, who won 95 games despite scoring only eight more runs than their opponents that year. 

The M's aren't going to make the post-season this year, but they just might end up with the all-time "lucky" number, which is at least a kind of consolation prize. But another look at the chart reveals that the M's 2018 team also ranks extremely high in this rarified corner of the baseball world: the 2018 team ranks eighth all-time in terms of "luck,", with an LQ ("luck quotient") of 11.56  And the 2000 edition of the M's is in 22nd place at 9.83. Is there something about the weather patterns in that latitude region that clusters these events in such a way that one franchise would reach the top echelon of this list three times within twelve years? Look the list over, and you'll find no other team with more than two appearances on it.

So what is the likeliest reason for this "luck"? Most of the teams here had very good to outstanding records in one-run games. In fact, the 2016 Rangers hold the all-time record for highest WPCT in one-run games (.766, or 36-11). The 2012 Orioles were the former holder of this record (29-9, or .763), breaking a record that had been held for over a hundred years by the 1908 Pittsburgh Pirates (33-12, .733). 

Following up on the teams listed here will provide the baseball wanderer with a series of intriguing reasons why/how these teams managed to overachieve. Sometimes it's a vulturing bullpen, with more wins in relief; sometimes it's an unusually lucky record in extra-inning games. Whatever it is, it's almost never reproducible: the closest we can find in the database are those two D-back teams, each with LQs over 11 within two years of each other.

We'll look at "unluck" sometime during the post-season, and provide an update as to whether the '21 M's set the record for baseball's luckiest team. Stay tuned...

Sunday, September 19, 2021


Here's just a quick look at the data relevant to the question posed in the title...we've included Tampa Bay, San Francisco and Houston because they are all still in the hunt for a favorable slot in the post-season, as opposed to grabbing a wild-card slot. 

It's been a fluid year, and despite whatever misgivings one might have about the state of the game on the field, the higher quantity of teams still in the hunt for the post-season does mitigate those concerns, as the emphasis shifts to specific teams and their need to win.

Here is the data, with the explanation for the color coding following below:

Dark orange represents home games against teams still in the playoff hunt.

Light orange represents home games against teams no longer in the playoff hunt.

The darker shade of blue represents road games against teams still in the playoff hunt.

The lighter shade of blue represents road games against teams no longer in the playoff hunt.

When one eyeballs the color coding, what emerges is that the Red Sox, who've been floundering for much of the second half of the season, seem to clearly have the easiest set of opponents, even though they are playing the most road games. The problem for them, though, is that they are not an especially good road team.

The teams with the toughest remain schedule appear to be the A's and the Padres, with the Yankees next. The Rays are right there with them, but Tampa has a 7 1/2 game lead and a fold now would be something akin to the phamous phold by the Phillies back in 1964.

Speaking of the Phillies, they still have a chance to overtake the Braves, who've lost four in a row going into today's games. One senses that only one of the two NL East teams will make the playoffs. In the NL Central, the Cards have opened a lead, but they have a tougher remaining schedule than the Reds. These two teams are likely vying for the somewhat dubious chance of playing either the Giants or the Dodgers in the wild-card "bakeoff" game.

The team not yet discussed: the Blue Jays. They have a reasonably favorable schedule, and their team has been coming together more consistently than any of the others in the AL East. They have what people like to call an "exciting young club," and Vlad Jr. looks like a chip off the old block. 

No predictions here, but if rooting from knee-jerk underdog mode, one might hope for a finish like this:



(We flipped a coin between CIN and STL, and our pal Brock Hanke--born, raised, and all-life resident in St. Louis, intercepted the coin in mid-air.)

Your mileage may vary, of course. Regardless of how it turns out, a baseball September of anticipation is something to savor. With so much other unwanted uncertainty, here at last is some suspense that we can actually enjoy: go for it.

Sunday, September 12, 2021


It's a truly bizarre story that will certainly be mainstream by the time you read this: Padres reliever Austin Adams, possessor of an "unhittable" slider, is on the brink of the most astonishingly extreme seasonal record in baseball history.

Earlier today, Adams hit three batters during a relief appearance against the Dodgers (in a game the Padres lost, 8-0). That brings his total number of HBPs in 2021 up to 23 and counting, which apparently ties the "liveball era" (1920-) record for HBPs in a season. (The record since 1901 is apparently 27, but is much higher than that when you go back into the nineteenth century, when some pitchers accounted for 80% of a team's IP in a single season).

The first staggering fact about Adams' 23 HBPs is that they have come in just 48 IP, a ratio that is so elevated from the pace of any other pitcher with similar HBP totals that it beggars comparison. (OK, OK: let's think about the wheelbarrow as opposed to a rocket ship...that should be about right.) 

The second staggering fact is that, until 2021, there was little or no indication that Adams would suddenly corner the market in plunking batters. Without a doubt, he's been wild at every stop on his way to MLB: he had a lifetime 5.8 BB/9 in the minors. He'd hit 32 batters in 340 minor league innings. But prior to this season, he'd hit just 2 batters in 42 lifetime IP since making the majors in 2017.

As noted, Adams' slider, which now seems to be spinning out of control at a rate exceeding even the diligent overreach of the Statcast crew, is "unhittable." Of course it is: he's hitting so many batters that nobody can take an actual swing against him. 

Right now, Adams is on the cusp of another unthinkable record: he might actually wind up with more hit batters than hits allowed. His totals are now officially in a dead heat--23 apiece. 

Our first guess is that he's another victim of the Spider Tack™ crackdown: without enough "stick-um" to center his "eccentric, high-spin slider," he's simply at sea right now. But his '21 game logs don't really support this idea--his HBPs have been coming at a regular interval throughout all the months of this season: it's not as if he's just suddenly hitting everyone he faces in a parallel variant of "Steve Blass Disease." Of course, now that he has entered the record books and will be receiving national attention, this might mushroom further...we'll just have to see how it plays out.

The Padres, in a September tailspin that's put their post-season chances in jeopardy, are likely to make Adams' appearances a good bit more scarce. (Today's appearance came in a game where San Diego was already down 7-0.) But team rosters are tighter in September than has been in the case in the past, so they may not be able to just sit him down. Stay tuned...

Extremity (and its diabolical cousin, extremism) seems to be radiating itself ever more insistently into people's lives, and Adams' sudden case of target practice is merely a surreal reminder of that fact. In most cases, extremity/extremism takes time to build up (and this is a good time to remind Ben Lindbergh that he's still wrong about his dismissal of the "frog in pot" syndrome--it's called metaphor, Ben!)...and once allowed to fester for a foothold, it can explode into a forbidding level of prominence. To take a Jackie Robinson quote out of context: "baseball has done it!"--and we're here to show you just another example of that, so you can see what the "heroes and villains have done done" this time.

Those enamored with those pesky Three True Outcomes often overlook that the rise of the phenomenon applies more to one segment of that troika than the others. Namely, strikeouts. How the "frog and boiling water" metaphor applies here can be measured is by counting how many hitters are allowed to play at least semi-regularly while amassing a staggering percentage of strikeouts per plate appearance. 

As hard-throwing relievers proliferate and their percentage of inning pitched increase, strikeouts have soared. While there is a small sliver of hope that the rate of this increase has finally slowed, it's still instructive to see what has happened to the game's attitude toward hitters who swing from their heels with ever-increasing abandoned and rack up K/PA ratios that would have stupefied even 1960s-70s ballplayers, much less "inside baseball" ideologues like Ty Cobb

Striking out in a third of one's plate appearances for any batter with more than 200 plate appearances in a season simply didn't happen for 111 (that's one hundred and eleven) years after the founding of the National League (1876). It first occurred in 1987, when Bo Jackson struck out in 36% of his plate appearances. We won't provide you with a list of all those who've followed in Bo's footsteps since '87, but we will note that there are now two hitters--Miguel Sano and Joey Gallo--who've struck out in at least a third of their plate appearances in every single one of their years in MLB. They won't be the last...

The chart at left shows how the frog got into the pot, and how the water got incrementally warmer over time. And the data shows that we are getting closer and closer to a boil, particularly as the game went all-in for "launch angle" and other related "home run derby" approaches to hitting.

The frog is still in the pot, but the cat is out of the bag. Even if things plateau in the next several years, it's highly likely that the numbers of such high K/PA guys will continue to grow, and we'll see somewhere over 100 such seasons in the upcoming decade. This cautionary prognostication is a reminder that extremity (and extremism) is hard to get rid of once it's been given a toehold.