Big Game Pitchers, Part III

January 22, 2014

                We are dealing here only with regular season games.    Let us assume that all post-season games are designated as Big Games; what we are asking is which regular-season games should also be similarly designated.

                The biggest game in my data, by this system, is the third game of the 1962 National League playoff series between the Dodgers and the Giants—the 165th game of a 162-game season.   Johnny Podres started against Juan Marichal; the Giants won.   That game scores at 411 for each team.    The second-biggest score in our system in the same series the previous day, Drysdale against Jack Sanford, and the third-biggest is the first game of that series.

                Next on the list is the Bucky Dent game at Fenway Park, October 2, 1978.   After that we have a Cardinals/Mets game at the end of the 1985 season, then a Blue Jays/Yankees game, also at the end of the 1985 season.   The top 100 or so include all of the play-in games for races that have ended in a tie.   In the top 100 games there is no game that occurred earlier on the calendar than September 25, and the biggest of Big Games are always games between two teams with excellent won-lost records.

                In the way that I have stated this so far, you might assume that every game which appears on the Big Games list for one team must also appear on the list for the other, but that isn’t true.  Sometimes a game can be huge for one team, but completely meaningless for the other.   In general, of course, a Big Game for one team is also a Big Game for the other team, but not always and absolutely, so when I say "the 100 biggest games in the data" or something like that, what I mean is the 100 biggest for one team.   You’re probably talking about 55 different games there, with 45 of them used twice.

                Big games tend to occur

o   Late in the season,

o   Between two good teams,

o   Who are going head to head in their division.

But we’re generalizing.   Sometimes it is two good teams which are not in the same division, but they still need a win.    Sometimes it is a really good team playing a not-so-good team, but it is the last week of the season and one team or the other really needs a win.  And remember; our answer isn’t necessarily a perfect answer; it is merely the best answer that I can give you.

                The next question we have to ask is, "What is the cutoff to be counted in our study as a Big Game?"  The answer to that one is "a Big Game Score of 310 or higher", and the answer to the followup question "why?" is "because I said so."

                Again, there is no compelling logic on that little issue; we just have to choose what seems most reasonable.     At 310, we have 7.7% of all major league games in the data designated as "Big Games", or one game in 13.   If we were to use 300 as the cutoff, rather than 310, then we would have almost exactly 10% of the games designated as Big Games.   That would be a satisfying confluence of two round numbers—300, and 10%--so it is tempting to say that 10% of all games are Big Games, and be done with it.

                The problem is, it just doesn’t feel right.    When we use the term "Big Games" we have to try, as best we can, to match our definition to the way that an ordinary sportswriter would ordinarily use the term; in other words, we have to try to get a list of Big Games that an unbiased observer would agree are big games.    At 300 (10%), we’re just a little bit short of that.

                Here’s what you have at "300"—and there are more than 600 games in the data that score at exactly 300, but picking a few of them at random to illustrate the problem.

                On September 2, 2011, the Angels played the Twins in Anaheim, Tyler Chatwood opposing Carl Pavano.    The Angels came into the game 74-63, three and a half games out of first place, behind the Rangers.   The Twins—NOT in the same division—were 57-79 and Virtually Eliminated, so it was not a Big Game for them; it scored at 300 for the Angels.

                Big Game?   Well. can say it is a Big Game (for the Angels) if you want to.   From my standpoint, it just isn’t quite enough.   Every game, even in September, isn’t a Big Game.   A week later, the Angels still three and half back, that would be a Big Game.   If they were playing a division opponent, that would be a big game; if they were playing a stronger team in another division, that would be a Big Game.   It’s just not quite enough that, in my judgment, an ordinary observer would tend to mention that as a Big Game.

                August 6, 1971, Red Sox playing the Tigers in Fenway Park.    The Red Sox are in third place, 73-66.  The Tigers—in the same division at that time—are in second place, 76-62, but still 10 games behind the Baltimore Orioles.   The game scores at 300 for the Red Sox, and 301 for the Tigers.    Ray Culp pitches against Joe Coleman.

                Big Game?   Again, you can say it is a Big Game if you want to.   I wouldn’t suggest that you were wrong.   It is certainly much bigger than the average game.   It is bigger than 90% of the games on the schedule of an average team.    It’s a pennant race, it’s August, two good teams.  . .it is not unreasonable to say that it is a Big Game.

                But in my judgment, it is just not quite big enough.    Late August, the same teams, OK.    If the teams are 80-59 and 79-61 rather than 76-62 and 73-66, and thus a little bit closer to first place, OK, that’s a big game.   But I just don’t think an ordinary observer is going to remember that one as a Big Game.

                Third example:  August 23, 1985 at Shea Stadium, the Padres against the Mets.   A Friday night.   The Padres come in at 65-55, in second place in the NL West, seven games behind the Dodgers.    The Mets are at 73-46, in first place, a half-game ahead of the Cardinals.  Sid Fernandez against somebody named Roy Lee Jackson.

                A Big Game?   Enn.’s not a Little game, certainly.   It’s late August; first place is on the line for the Mets.   The Padres are very much in the race.   It’s bigger than 90% of random games.    But in my judgment, it’s just not quite enough to say that that’s a Big Game, if what we mean by that is "These are the games by which pitchers are going to be judged."  

                If you set the cutoff at 320 you have the opposite problem.  At 300 you’re including games you should not include; at 320 you are excluding games that you probably SHOULD include.     So. . .at 310 we have 7.7% of all games included, and I’ve drawn the line at 310 Big Game Points.

                It’s a "hard" 310, by the way; 309.5 is NOT a Big Game.    In the data there are 241,536 Game Lines—almost a quarter of a million—of which 18,530 starts are designated by this process as Big Games.   Tomorrow we’ll start naming names as to who was and who wasn’t a Big Game pitcher.


COMMENTS (14 Comments, most recent shown first)

In terms of "How Big A Big Game", I guess the question is, what is this designed to reveal. I think if a game has the pressure on the pitcher, the excitement in the stands, the level at which no one is resting regulars or giving their closer the night off, you are probably at the butterflies in the stomach level where you can measure pressure pitching.
12:38 PM Jan 23rd
Bill: Thanks -- and yes, absolutely.
(It's easy to forget that the '78 game was only for the Division! That's a big difference.)
11:44 AM Jan 23rd
Responding to Maris. . .I don't think they would be (or should be) equal, because the two teams in 1962 were each 101-61 heading into the playoff, whereas in '78 they were each 99-63. That's not MUCH of a difference, but if you extend the spectrum down to, let us say, two teams that are each 88-74 and fighting for a Wild Card; is that the same as two great teams fighting to represent their league? I don't think it is, because the 88-74 teams will probably crash in the post-season, anyway. Also (but not germaine). ..the '78 games were not as big, because it was merely a division championship, whereas in 1962 that was a LEAGUE championship.
12:08 AM Jan 23rd
And, again responding to 78, your point was not a bad one, and it might have been better if I had kept my objection to myself. But the way I see it. . .that would be an approach to measure each pitcher's "big gamedness". But we're not trying to find out how "big-gamey" each pitcher was; we're trying to find out what his record was in Big Games. Accuracy of measurement and conceptual clarity are often at odds with one another.
12:04 AM Jan 23rd
(Never mind, sorry Rich! -- I that Bill did talk about the 1st game also being bigger.)
11:30 PM Jan 22nd
(sorry, that was supposed to be "didn't SAY"
10:34 PM Jan 22nd
I think something was misread there.
Bill didn't same Game 1 of the '62 playoff, he said Game 3 -- which had the same characteristics as the Bucky Dent game: One team moves on, the other goes home. Besides what Bill said about not worrying about degree of bigness, the '62 game looks to be at least as 'big' as the '78 game. Actually I don't see why they wouldn't be exactly equal.​
10:33 PM Jan 22nd
Dunstan is logically correct; that's right. A more sophisticated measurement would put the one-game playoffs ahead of the first game of a 3-game playoff. But really, the only question I care about is whether it was or was not a big game, so I chose not to worry about that.
9:45 PM Jan 22nd
Rich Dunstan
I suspect I didn't read the previous article closely enough, but how can game 1 of the three-game playoff be bigger than the one-game Bucky Dent playoff of 1978? Either the Red Sox or the Yanks were going to go home for the year after the Dent game. Neither the Giants nor the Dodgers were going to be eliminated in game 1 in 1962.
8:45 PM Jan 22nd
Bill, my point was that it might be overly simplistic to put games into two categories: big and not big. In truth, as you pointed out, some big games are bigger than others, and I thought that it might make sense to weight them accordingly.

This was just a thought, however, and I'm looking forward to your next installment. I've learned a lot from your analyses over the years, and I'm sure that I will learn from this analysis too.
5:32 PM Jan 22nd
I agree with Bill. To make an analogy, we can look at Leverage Index. With LI, you assign some discrete number for every single play. Which makes it unwieldly to use without programming. But, if you classify every play as "high LI", "medium LI", and "low LI", using arbitrary thresholds, what you lose in precision and capriciousness of choices, you gain in explanatory use.

I'd prefer the either/or of choosing the "big game". I chuckled when Bill had the touch choice to deciding how many "big games" there should be, as I had the exact same decision for "high LI". If I choose an LI of 2.0+, that gives me back 10% of all PA (which is what Fangraphs uses). If I choose an LI of around 1.4 or 1.5+, that gives me back 20% of all PA (which is what Baseball Reference uses).

And if you want the individual discrete weighting of LI, then that's what WPA is for. And very few people like WPA.

1:41 PM Jan 22nd
78. . .I am missing your point. It seems to me like what you are asking is, "How about getting rid of conceptual clarity here, and indulging ourselves in a muddled measurement from which no one could possibly draw any conclusion?" To what end?
1:24 PM Jan 22nd
Interesting that those 1985 games pop up so high. I was a teenager at the time living in the NYC area, and I attended a TOR-NY game in mid-September, a couple weeks earlier than the games that made the list here. 1985 was a truly fantastic year for NYC baseball fans, two tight races involving four excellent teams -- and the NYC teams lost both of them.
11:46 AM Jan 22nd
There is an alternative to drawing a line in the sand, and saying that all games above that line are big games. How about weighting the games on how big they are? If the maximum is just over 400, then how about weighting games as a % of 400?
11:32 AM Jan 22nd
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