Two baseball ideas have been bugging me since last October. Both of them are relatively simple, but their combination is pretty interesting. Here’s what I have been thinking about:

First: In baseball, teams play a lot of one-run games. In 2012, 35% of Pittsburgh’s games were decided by 1-run. In 2013, ten teams had more than a third of their games decided by 1-run (the Chicago White Sox, who led the league in one run games, had 60 of them). Last year, the Boston Red Sox had forty percent of their games decided by one run.

In 1-run games, a lot of factors can tip the outcome. Perhaps a hitter guesses correctly and blasts a home run to open up a lead. An error might be the difference. Perhaps the home plate umpire misses a strike call that extends an at bat. In short, compared to games decided by more than one run, random variation plays a larger role in the outcome of one run games.

There is some data to support this: Bill James finds that, overall, better teams outperform worse teams in 1-run games, but there is plenty of variation in the data. Furthermore, this article (Fangraphs) finds there is some association between hitter’s ISO, bullpen quality and winning in 1-run games. This, although not terribly surprising, is only coarsely able to parse better teams from worse.

Partially due to this, there are some wild swings in year-to-year 1-run game records. From 2012 to 2013, Arizona went from the second-worst winning percentage in 1-run games (35.7%, 2012) to the third best winning percentage (61.8%, 2013). In 2011, San Diego had the second worst winning percentage (39.2%) in 1-run games, but in 2012 were the 9th best (55.3%). Baltimore went from first in 2012 (76.3%) to 29th in 2013 (39.2%).

From this, it seems like the research leads us to believe that random variation plays a large role in deciding who wins 1-run games.

Second: readers of Redleg Nation know that the run environment has changed radically over the past ten years. This is due to many factors: faster fastballs, a smaller strike zone, changing field conditions, better scouting technology, PED testing, and other reasons.

With the falling run environment, however, does this mean that more games are decided by 1-run? Most likely yes, but how many more games are being decided by this margin? In order to figure this out, I went over to baseball reference and calculated the percentage of 1-run games since 2005. Here are the results:


Last year saw more games decided by 1-run (31.6%) than anytime in the last nine years. The low point, 2009, saw only 26.9% of games decided by 1-run. While there is some movement from year-to-year, there appears to be an  upward trend in the number of games decided by 1-run.

There are several implications to this that are implied, but not directly supported by these data. The first is that it is more difficult for highly skilled teams to pull away from the pack than less skilled teams. This could partially explain why almost every team in the AL is still vying for a playoff spot.

These results would also imply that creating winning streaks is more difficult than in the past because teams are less able to control the outcomes of games (I plan on looking into this next). If that turns out to be the case then it will be harder for teams to climb up their division than in previous years. Put another way: being “x” games back in the playoff race might be harder to overcome in 2015 than in previous seasons because the distance those “x” games represent is greater than before.

I don’t want to oversell this: it is hard to quantify how influential this trend actually is. On the surface, it appears that about 3% more games were decided by 1-run last year than from 2005-2009. That loosely translates into about 5 games a year, which although is not nothing, this isn’t a game-breaking development.

There are other reasons why teams may be more closely clustered together in the standings than before: Perhaps there is just a more-level playing field across front offices since most of them are investing (via legal means, or otherwise) in analytics departments. It could also be that with more money in baseball, better scouting technology, and greater health and nutritional information, teams are finding it harder to create a competitive advantage. It could be all that.

Over the next few weeks several teams will have to make decisions about their playoff chances given their relative standing in the playoff race. While the randomness associated with a suppressed run environment may superficially make it appear like teams are still in the race, it might actually be that some teams are further back than the standings reflect.

Should this be the case, fewer teams will be selling at the deadline due to the impression they have a chance at making a run at a playoff spot. A tight trade market will drive up the cost of available players and make it more lucrative for teams that have assets to move.

So, know anyone who might be shopping say, a closer or a starting pitcher? Due to the changing run environment in baseball, this might be a great time to start making phone calls.

29 Responses

  1. redsfan06

    Other teams are calling the Reds to inquire about both. Each is worth a top prospect plus more. The Reds could get back 4-5 good prospects for Cueto and Chapman. The Reds won’t have either beyond 2016, so they should move them and try for a quick rebuild around the core of Votto, Bruce, Frazier and Mes.

    At one time, I advocated for trading Bruce. That was before I learned the Reds have an option to sign him for 2017. That core is around for several more years. The Reds need more new help and this is the best way to boost who is in the pipeline.

    • Redsfan48

      I agree,but I think if they can get a good return for Bruce, pull the trigger. Yorman Rodriguez, Jesse Winker, and Kyle Waldrop are all fairly close to MLB ready, and the Reds may be able to acquire an OF prospect that’s even closer to MLB ready for Cueto or Leake (or Chapman). Ideally, I’d package Chapman with Cueto (or Leake) to go after an elite prospect such as Corey Seager, but unless you can acquire an elite prospect I’d trade them each separately to get the most possible return.

  2. Evan armstrong

    Why do people think that Bob won’t pony up and pay Chapman?

    • Matt WI

      It depends a lot on how they are thinking of the rest of the team. He could pay a lot of money to Chapman, but it doesn’t mean he should. If the team at large isn’t going to be pretty highly competitive, having an expensive closer is a bad use of resources. What’s the point of saving games in flashy style if the team is winning 70ish games a year?

      The team could also be more competitive sooner and lose relatively little effectiveness by changing closers and getting talent back for Chapman. The next guy won’t throw as fast, but will likely be able to be reasonably comparable in save percentage.

    • Carl Sayre

      The way Chapman is under used I would hope that Mr. C doesn’t pony up for him. He will bring a large number that I think would be better spent elsewhere.

      • Michael E

        Exactly. Why on earth would you “pony up” 15 million for a freakin closer? 15+ million for 55-65 innings? NO THANKS. We aren’t the Divine Club of Endless Revenues (aka Yankees, Dodgers)

      • RedAlert

        Plus throw in he fact that Price has NO CLUE how to use him !!!

  3. bob willis

    Great insight – So how do you build a team around this trend ? My guess would be trade for as many good young arms as you can and keep the philosophy the reds have had lately of putting only good defensive ballplayers on the field. I would also add that if Mes is not able to come back as a catcher he too becomes very valuable in trade to AL clubs looking for a top tier DH – would hate to see that though.

    • ohiojimw

      I don’t disagree with you about the AL being interested in Meso as a DH. However, a number of position players who aren’t catchers have come back just fine from the surgery; so, I’d favor giving Meso a very long look in LF before moving him to the AL. He just might turn out to be that LF they’ve been looking for forever and a day.

      • Michael E

        Seconded. Keep Meso after what he showed last year, he be a plus producer at nearly any position. If you consider trading him, only do it AFTER he has come back fairly strong next year, and only for an “offer we can’t refuse”.

  4. Tom Gray

    Trade them all. Starting lineup, starting rotation, closer and bullpen. Stockpile draft picks and call up Louisville and Pensacola players.

    • Michael E

      I feel closer to this than nibbling by trading just one player. I wouldn’t mind see more of a Braves “send most of the overpaid packing” motto that netted them a slew of promising prospects.

      That said, I would want to trade Phillips and Bruce on top of Cueto, Chapman and Leake. That is not very popular with the casual, brain-dead, I-only-care-about-today fan.

      • redmountain

        Wanting to trade and finding someone who will agree to the trade are two deals. I also take a little offense in the “casual, brain-dead,etc. To me, it would be more brain dead to trade Bruce right now.

      • Michael E

        This is Bruce, he is what he is, there will NEVER be a “good” time to trade a hitter that slumps for months only to awake for a few weeks and the go back to slumping. I know Bruce backwards and forwards because I had him on my redraft fantasy teams 3 of the last for years and vow to NEVER have him on my team again. I can’t stand the constant 0-5 and 1-5 and 1-4 and 0-4, for weeks on end, only to finally, after two months of .150/.200/.300 slash, benching him only to see him hit 5 HRs that week. Then put him back in the lineup and watch him go back to being a .150 hitter for another month.

        Not coincidentally, the last place team this year has….Jay Bruce and Billy Hamilton… his team BA is worst in the league. If you draft Bruce, you’ll have to make up for it with several other hitters. The Reds have the same problem and only have Votto and Frazier to make up for it.

  5. Ted

    Since 1990, the Reds have had above .500 records in only 9 seasons. Only once, 1990, did they win a World Series. Most of the losing seasons featured rosters filled with AAA-AAAA caliber players with an occasional star. The star is often on a career decline (e.g., Ken Griffey, Jr,) or someone who possesses superior skills that, by themselves, are insufficient to lead the team to success.

    A review of every Reds roster from 1990-present reveals the following trends: (1) a predominance of marginal (at best) major league talent, (2) inability to retain high-priced free agents (e.g., Greg Vaughn), (3) over-reliance on cast off players (e.g, the starting rotation from 1999 to 2009, (4) difficulty in assessing minor league talent, and (5) inadequate player development (to be fair here, there are lots of examples of effective player development – see current Reds roster – but more years than not there is a sparsity of MLB-ready talent).

    What does all this mean for the current trade Cueto, Chapman, Leake, etc. debate? For me it means proceed with caution. There is no assurance that any prospects the Reds receive in trades will ever develop. It would be great if there was an accurate metric to predict MLB success but there is not one I’m familiar with. In my view, the risks of trading elite players like Cueto are greater than the cost of re-signing them.

    Many on this site talk about a quick rebuild of the Reds with 2017 frequently mentioned as a target date. I believe that is overly optimistic and not supported by data from the past 25 years. More likely a firesale will lead to another extended period of losing punctuated by aberration seasons like 1999. Johnny Cueto is a once-in-a-generation pitcher. The prospects we receive for him are likely to turn into journeyman quality players at best. I tend to think we as fans overestimate the quality of the players we will get in return. The same applies to Chapman – even though he is underutilized as a closer and should be starter, the frequent argument that “anyone can close” undermines the assumption that we will get a quality return in trade.

    The Reds are indeed at a crossroads. Choices made in the next month will impact the franchise for years. The argument that the Reds can’t afford Cueto or Chapman is not convincing; ownership has the money and revenue streams from television will increase. Smarter decisions by management can also pay for Cueto/Chapman – take away the money paid to Byrd and any number of bad relievers and you make things more affordable.

    The Reds need major changes in the front office and in their philosophy. Roster changes are also needed but don’t be fooled into thinking that Cueto/Chapman are replaceable by prospects. Out of the group of Lorenzen, Iglasias (sp?), Disco, Stephenson, etc., how many legit top of the rotation guys will emerge, if any? Will Winker, Waldrop, Rodriquez or others even develop into a Jay Bruce-type hitter? The odds are against that, as their minor league numbers indicate. We should rebuild around our core, but that core core should include our best major league arms.

    The bottom line – throw out the front office, get an effective manager and coaching staff, get rid of the dead weight on the roster. Do not, however, unload our best talent simply to free up salary space. It costs money to compete. Low budget teams don’t win consistently – be wary of falling in love with the Royals, As, or Rays, it’s doubtful they will be relevant in a couple of years. We risk many lean years ahead if the wrong decisions are made in July.

    • ohiojimw

      Ted, thank you for airing the opposing viewpoint to the the one that seems to be predominant here in regards to “prospects”. I don’t agree with all you said but I certainly agree that to many folks it seems like the solution is to simply acquire enough prospects and everything will be OK in 3 years or 5 or 10 or whenever. Reading it time and again, I come away with the old thought that if you throw enough (prospects) at the wall, some will stick.

      As I posted below, give me 1 or 2 guys performing now at the AAA level in such a manner that they seem sure to stick.

      The Reds signed Iglesias for just $3~4M less than they guaranteed Chapman; he better stick.

      • Michael E

        I am big on acquiring near MLB-ready top prospects (which both Cueto and Chapman should bring one each or more). There is a BIG difference, huge, between some low level 18 year old and some 21 year old in AAA that is basically ready to move up to MLB. While both can miss or be stars, the unknowns of the near-ready player are MUCH less than an 18 year old that might be 3 or 4 seasons away.

        So when talking prospects in trades, I think MOST aren’t talking about getting back 5 or 6 pot-luck prospects for Cueto and Chapman. We’re talking about getting two or three extremely good and well-known prospects that would immediately bet in our top 5 and ready to challenge for a starting spot next year…not in 2021.

      • greenmtred

        Even the top-tier prospects you describe are far from being sure bets. Even if the Reds were able to get them for a 3 month rental and a closer, which is not a foregone conclusion. If it is impossible for the Reds to afford/re-sign Cueto, then they need to maximize the return for him, of course, but we might all be shocked and disappointed with that return. Unloading all of the worthwhile talent and starting from scratch is rational only if necessitated by financial constraints. Our shared frustration with this team shouldn’t make us overly fond of sour grapes.

      • Michael E

        Greemtred, sure, no prospect are ever sure bets. What is your point? What we have IS NOT WORKING. It’s called futility, you move guys that can be moved and that ARE or WILL BE very expensive. You get a big enough collection of prospects and you will most likely end up with better players at a much lower cost.

        If you want to just assume every prospect we get back in trade is garbage, fine, but teams that revive themselves MAKE TRADES for younger, cheaper and better players. Standing pat on this crappy team is NOT a solution, except to get a high pick in the coming drafts and paying huge payroll outlays for sub .500 records.

      • Michael E

        …also, every all-star you see this year, guess what, they too were not sure thing prospects (most of them) because sure-things are one or two each draft, thats it. Many teams go two decades between “sure things”. My point is, who cares if a prospect is not a sure thing, 9 of 10 top players today weren’t sure things either.

        If you have 3 good prospects, the chance of more than 1 being a good MLB player is low. If you have 10 good prospects, your chances of at least 3 becoming good MLB players is quite good. So, you see, keep overpriced vets around and not adding to the top prospect pool means payroll goes up, talent fades and you become The Phillies of 2013/2014 and 2015.

    • Michael E

      I hear ya, but Chapman is a closer (one of the most useless positions on a team…seriously) and Cueto has red-flags around injuries and age. I really don’t want to re-sign either because that will doom the Reds to being payroll strapped for the next 7 years with just THREE supposedly really good players in Votto, Cueto and Chapman. Only Chapman is without injury concerns and anyone that throws that hard certainly can blow out on an ordinary pitch.

      Tying up $40 million per year in Cueto and Chapman for 5-7 years would be a very un-wise move. You made note that the Reds don’t keep good players, but I would bet that much like Vaughn, the years after being with the Reds were fairly unremarkable given higher paid deals they likely got. Keeping the likes of Vaughn would not have made the Reds any better, only would have killed future moves to improve.

      Most of the talent must come from prospects. Sure, many miss, but all the more reason to have more of them, so when you hit at 25% rate on 8, instead of 4, you get two all-stars on the cheap instead of one.

      Trade Cueto, Chapman, Phillips (if possible), Bruce and Leake and re-stock the top 10 prospect pool with 5 or 6 new names. The other benefit is good prospects now at 6-10 would look even better as our 11-15 prospects after being pushed back by better prospects from the trades.

      • Michael E

        …I should note, were the talk of a Cueto deal say 3 years at $25-28 million a season, I could stomach that, but not 6 or 7 years at about $25 million each, that is the conventional assumption of what Cueto will seek.

    • Michael E

      Choo is a very recent and cautionary tale of overpaying players that already peaked (like Cueto has now) for long deals. Sure, Cueto is younger, but he is the very middle of his supposedly peak years (I believe between 27-31 for most SPs) and will make three times as much for likely slightly reduced returns from the current version of Cueto (assuming he stays healthy).

      Would we miss Cueto? Sure, just like we missed Choo’s great OBP. Like Choo, Cueto is no guarantee of 6 years of Ace material and thats a huge risk tying up 40% of the payroll on just Votto and Cueto each year. If either gets hurt or slumps, the Reds can’t possibly contend, unless they have 3 or 4 cheap prospects all catch fire as rookie/2nd year players….not very likely.

  6. ohiojimw

    I don’t think the Reds should be trading for “prospects” unless “prospects” translate into guys who will be MLB ready NLT 2017.

    If the Reds are holding on to Frazier, Bruce etc, guys currently in a situations similar to where Desclafani was in 2013/2014 are the types of players the Reds should be targeting and holding out for.

    • Michael E

      Exactly the thinkinng of most when talking trade. I don’t want quantity, I want quality prospects, the kind that are considered on the cusp of MLB callups this year, not low A ball or rookie ball (unless they carry a Kris Bryant type of pedigree of course).

  7. Matt WI

    The Rays seem to get along just fine without signing closers to 8 figure deals and being ok with letting SP go when free agency comes calling. They trade Price and they are right in the thick of it. We have fans who think that if we trade Cueto, it opens a pit from which the team cannot recover. There is a way to do this right and do it well.

  8. Jake

    Like others have said bundle Cueto/Bruce with a trade to the Astros. Move Chapman as well, he’d be lights out in the playoffs if a team used him for more than 1 inning

  9. Playtowin

    Reds must trade Cueto and Chapman. They are unaffordable and they will secure prospects. They will not get super prospects. Reds should have traded both last winter when they could have solicited offers from 29 teams instead of just 5 or 6 now. Recall the Reds traded Alonso and Grandal for Latos offer the winter. Alonso and Grandal were the the Reds best prospects but they have never set the world on fire proving prospects are suspects until they prove otherwise. The only way a small market team can consistently be competitive is by building a superior player development system. As Michael Maffie points out the Reds have not been very good at this. The Cards, Rays, Giants, Rangers, Nats have been a bit better and that slight edge helps keep them in the conversation most years. Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers, Dodgers spend their way to annual relevance which is something that teams like the Reds can not do. Follow the draft and the Reds minor league teams and you will get a good feel for how the Reds MLB team will do 2016-2020. At the moment it does not look promising. More good prospects are needed. They come through the draft or trading off current expensive talent. Trading good popular talent is painful but sometimes it is the only thing that can be done to have any chance of fixing the problem.