Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Reality Check: Game Seven

Tonight's the last game of the 2014 season. Does history tell us who's going to win?

Yesterday (I'm sorry I didn't read it until today), ESPN's Jayson Stark had a piece about how the Royals, as the home team for the last two games of the Series, have an advantage. Specifically, here are two of his datapoints:
Starting in 1982, the home team has gone 22-3 in Games 6 and 7. And yes, you read that right. We said 22-and-3. That's an .880 winning percentage. Which makes no mathematical sense at all. If you subtract those 25 games, the winning percentage of home teams in all other World Series games, including this year, is just .540. Amazing.No home team has lost a Game 7 in 35 years, since the Pirates won their last title in Baltimore. Since then, road teams have lost eight straight Game 7s.
Now, my purpose here isn't to call out Jayson Stark. He's a great journalist. His coverage of the game is passionate and humorous, and he's an old-school print journalist who's not afraid to bring on new concepts. His latest book is on my reading list. And the statistics he cited have the virtue of being, you know, correct.

However, they're also selective. True, the home team, since 1982, is 14-3 (after last night, 15-3) in World Series Game Six and 8-0 in Game Seven. But that's only since 1982. What happened before then?

  • From 1905 (when the World Series became a best-of-seven tournament, excluding 1919-21, when it was best of nine) to 1982, the home team was 27-18 in Game Six.
  • From 1905 to 1982, the home team was 10-18 in Game Seven. Won ten, lost eighteen.
  • So from 1905 to 1982, the home team was an unimpressive 37-36 in Games Six and Seven.
  • Adding that to the Stark's figures, the home team, in all of baseball history, is now 60-39 (.606 winning percentage) in Games Six and Seven, comprised of a 42-21 (.667) record in Game Six and just 18-18 (.500) in Game Seven.  
Did something significant happen in 1982 that changed the way the game's played, making the post-1982 record more relevant to today's game? We'd already gone to the modern bullpen: In 1982, reliever Bruce Sutter got a win and two saves for the champion Cardinals, while Brewers reliever Bob McClure had two losses and two saves. It was the tenth year of the designated hitter, so that wasn't a new thing, though the practice at the time was that the DH used was used throughout the Series in even-numbered years and not at all in odd-numbered years. (The current rule of using the DH only at the American League park began in 1986). It's hard to see that minor DH change making the home team suddenly invincible. Stadiums have gotten a little smaller (shorter fences) and the fields slower (grass replacing artificial turf), but that shouldn't change the home-field advantage. In short, the game didn't really change. So neither should the outcome of the last two games of the Series.

So in looking at tonight's game, I don't think it's any less accurate, nor less predictive, to say "the home team is 18-18 in Game Sevens" than it is that the home team's 9-0 in the past 35 years (8-0 since 1982, and a winner in 1982 as well), the last home team Game Seven loss being the Orioles to the Pirates in 1979.


On another Game Seven topic, a friend asked me, "Rob, I'm looking game 7 starters and thinking to myself 'whatever happened to aces that pitched games 1,4,7?'" My quick answer was, "That went the way of the four-man rotation." Turns out there's more to it than that.

There have been, including this one, 37 World Series that went seven games. That means there have been 74 opportunities for a pitcher to start games 1, 4, and 7. That happened only 14 times, just 19% of the time: Boston's Smoky Joe Wood and the Giants' Jeff Tesreau in 1912 (the Giants' Christy Mathewson started games 2, 5, and 8--the second game was an 11-inning tie); Washington's Walter Johnson in 1925; Brooklyn's Joe Black in 1952; Pittsburgh's Vern Law in 1960; St. Louis's Bob Gibson in 1967 and 1968; the Mets' Jon Matlack and Oakland's Ken Holtzman in 1973; St. Louis's John Tudor in 1985; the Mets' Ron Darling in 1986; Minnesota's Frank Viola in 1987 and Jack Morris in 1991, and Arizona's Curt Schilling in 2001. The golden era was 1967-2001, when there were 13 Series that went seven games, and eight of them had a pitcher go in the first, fourth, and last games, but that's still only 35% of the total (nine pitchers, including two in 1973, divided by 26 teams).

Part of the reason for the infrequency is that the current pattern of two games, off day, three games, off day, two games didn't emerge until 1957. Still, there have been 23 seven-game series since then, and pitchers started 1-4-7 only ten times (22% of possible). Prior to 1957, there were seven pitchers who got three starts in a seven-game series, but they weren't in games 1, 4, and 7. Since then, there have been 18 such pitchers, including three pitchers in each of the 1962 and 1965 World Series and the Cardinals' Chris Carpenter in 2011.

But I was wrong about the four-man rotation. The only pitchers among those to have started at least 39 games in a 162-game season or 37 in a 154-game season--reasonable indicators of a four-man rotation--were Wood and Holtzman. (Black was a reliever who'd started only two games in the regular season when he was called upon to start three games in the 1952 Series.)

So I suppose the answer to the question is that aces pitching games 1, 4, and 7 was never really all that common in the first place.


And one other Game Seven note: Yesterday on SiriusXM, Steve Sax was speculating on whether Madison Bumgarner might pitch in Games Six or Seven after throwing 117 pitches in a complete game shutout on Sunday. Sax said that Bumgarner could, or even start one of the games. After all, said Sax, Babe Ruth, when a pitcher, would sometimes start both games of a doubleheader. 

Babe Ruth started 147 games in his career. On Tuesday, July 11, 1916, he started the first game of a doubleheader against the White Sox. The box score shows that he pitched to one batter and didn't record an out. I assume he was pulled after just a pitch or two. (The story is that the Red Sox starter that day, Rube Foster, wasn't ready for the start of the game, so Ruth threw some pitches while Foster completed his warmup.) Anyway, he started the second game as well, pitching a complete game in a 3-1 Red victory. That's the only game in which he started both games of a doubleheader, and it really doesn't count. 


  1. I'm dating myself here but I remember Mickey Lolich won 3 games for the Tigers against the Cards in 1968. Right?

  2. Right. Denny McLain started games 1 and 4, Lolich 2 and 5, then McLain started Game 6 on short rest and Lolich started Game 7 on short rest. McLain was 1-2, Lolich 3-0.

  3. Got it. Yours were looking at 1,4,7. But was that a great WS or what? I can't believe how there is pressure to change the game due to poor tv ratings compared to football. Absurd.

  4. Well, the storyline was great--Year of the Pitcher, 31-win McLain against 1.12 ERA Gibson. But the games themselves weren't all that competitive. SL 4-0, DET 8-1, SL 7-3, SL 10-1, DET 5-3, DET 13-1, DET 4-1. Every game was pretty much done after seven. It was a little like this one--it's great that it went seven, but the games themselves weren't very close.

    Gauging the health of baseball from network TV ratings is a misunderstanding of the economic models. Baseball gets far more revenue from local regular season TV contracts than from the networks.