|Does Robertson have the guts to get the last three outs? (AP)|
The other day, I heard an announcer call the ninth inning “The toughest three outs to get in baseball.” I will not name the announcer for a variety of reasons, the main one being that I could probably turn on the television tonight, scan the DirecTV baseball package and within a few minutes hear another announcer say the same thing, almost word for word. This “toughest three outs to get are the last three outs” is pretty well engrained into the grand baseball conversation.
Before I get into this, though — and, yes, we are going to go pretty deep into this — I would like to say a few words about how baseball’s immenseness and complications seem to lead people to just say stuff that sounds right in their minds. I thought I might have mentioned this a couple of weeks ago, but maybe I didn’t: I was watching a game on television and Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano struck out looking. Tim McCarver was doing the game, and he immediately said something like: “We just saw an extremely rare thing. Robinson Cano almost never strikes out looking.”
I thought: How could he possibly know that? Did McCarver happen to have a list of batters who rarely strike out looking right in front of him? Did one of his fine statisticians happen to scan that list the second it happened and whisper it in his ear? Did he recall the statistic from some previous conversation? Not impossible, I suppose. But not likely. I think it’s much more likely that McCarver simply deduced that Cano probably doesn’t strike out looking much. He probably could not remember seeing him strike out looking. And, hey, it does SOUND right. Cano doesn’t strike out all that much looking OR swinging (he has never whiffed 100 times in a year) and he’s a hacker, so it just figures that he probably wouldn’t strike out looking very often.
But the point is not whether he was right or wrong.* The point is, I’m guessing that McCarver had absolutely no idea if it was true beyond what his gut was telling him. I’m sure it just SOUNDED right. So he said it.
*It took a while, but I did look it up: Cano does not strike out looking very often, but it’s not exactly a Royal wedding kind of occurrence. Last year, he struck out looking 2.2% of the time, which is a fairly low percentage, but wasn’t in the Top 25 among hitters with 400-plus at-bats. The year before that it was 1.3% of the time, which did put him in the Top 10, but still well behind guys like Miguel Tejada and Jason Kendall. The year before that it was 1.6%, which put him about 20th. Like I say, Cano doesn’t strike out looking a lot, but it’s hardly noteworthy. Vlad Guerrero, now THERE’S a guy who hardly ever strikes out looking.
This is no great crime, of course. I think this tendency for people to say what just sort of sounds right to them — without actually checking to see if it is true — is an immutable part of the human psyche. I would guess that we all fall for it. I would also guess that in the last three days at least one person, and probably more than one — from an array of friends, relatives, neighbors, co-workers — has told you something directly in your field of expertise or line of interest that is undeniably and unquestionably wrong. But it SOUNDS right, at least to them, so they say it. And say it. And say it. And, often, they say it with conviction. I can only imagine how many times someone went up to Albert Einstein to tell him some right-sounding point about the theory of relativity.
This tendency is especially strong in baseball. I think it’s something about the game. The marvelous thing about baseball is that because the season is so long, you will see just about anything you want to see over 162 games. You will see hitters get a bunch of hits at one time (“The ball looks like a BEACH BALL to him right now”) and also go hitless for a long time (“He’s hit the ball hard a few times but the hits are just not falling for him right now”). You will see great plays and dreadful blunders, You will see games won and lost in every imaginable way.
And you can get carried away by any of those things. If you see a team steal seven bases, drive the pitcher and defense mad by taking extra bases, and score a couple of runs on errors, you can came away convinced that speed is how you win baseball games. If you see a team make seven diving catches and an outfielder take away a home run, you can come away convinced that defense is the only sure path to victory. If you see a plodding and patient team take 11 walks, knock the starting pitcher out in the fourth inning because of pitch count, foul off so many pitches that the other team begins to lose its mind, you might buy into plate discipline being the secret. Baseball’s ubiquity fills the mind with certainties that aren’t certainties at all.
The ninth inning idea — that the ninth inning features the toughest three outs in baseball — is like that too. We’ve all seen enough good and bad things happen in the ninth inning to come away thinking that it’s just DIFFERENT from all the other innings. This is why teams pay huge amounts of money for closers whose jobs (almost entirely) is to protect one-, two- and three-runs leads in the ninth inning. The latest talk in New York, as the city shakily tries to recover from the Mariano Rivera injury, is about David Robertson and whether he has the stuff, the guts, the pluck, the spirit, the moxie, the cojones, the courage, the bravery, the backbone, the grit, the fire, the fearlessness, the toughness, the determination, the audacity, the boldness, the spine, the mettle, the heroism and the nerve to actually get batters out in the ninth inning.
You know. The toughest three outs in all of baseball.
* * *
Hitting by inning since 1970 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage):
1st inning: .270/.342/.413
2nd inning: .254/.318/.389
3rd inning: .263/.327/.402
4th inning: .267/.330/.419
5th inning: .265/.328/.408
6th inning: .267/.333/.418
7th inning: .261/.331/.399
8th inning: .256/.327/.389
9th inning: .247/.316/.372
* * *
Now, before we get into this, let’s acknowledge that ninth inning statistics are wildly skewed. The home team does not bat in the ninth when it has the lead, so ninth inning statistics lean heavily toward road teams — ninth-inning stats are about 2/3 road teams. And road teams do not hit as well as home teams. Also, the ninth inning has been handled so many different ways over the years — there was an era where starters were expected to finish their games, an era of multi-inning firemen, an era of the closer, an era of the high-priced, one-inning closer — that you can’t really directly compare the ninth inning to any other.
That said, I didn’t make up the cliche. The cliche is that the ninth inning has the three toughest outs in baseball.
And when you look at the numbers you see it: The cliche is absolutely, undeniably, absurdly wrong. They are the easiest three outs.
Well, you can see it in almost any number breakdown. Since 1970 — this is through many different kinds of relief strategies — batters in the ninth inning have the lowest batting average, the lowest on-base percentage and the lowest slugging percentage for any inning. Pitchers have their lowest ERAs in the ninth inning. Fewer runs are scored per ninth inning than any other inning, and this goes back decades:
Average runs per inning (1-8) .47
Ninth inning: .43
Average runs per inning: .49
Ninth inning: .42
Average runs per inning: .53
Ninth inning: .45
Average runs per inning: .53
Ninth inning: .45
By the way, I don’t believe hitters are WORSE in the ninth inning than any other inning. I tend to think ninth-inning hitting and scoring is largely suppressed by those factors mentioned earlier — that winning home teams don’t bat in the ninth and that good pitchers/closers are used for one inning to finish games. My point is not that hitters are worse in the ninth, but they are certainly not any BETTER in the ninth.
But what interests me more than why those hitting numbers are so low is why this absurdly inaccurate cliche began in the first place. The toughest outs? Really? I mean, if you think about it: Why would those outs in the ninth inning be harder to get than outs in any other inning? What could have inspired such spurious thinking in the first place? I suspect the reasons why people ever believed this is because:
1. Late-inning pressure changes the dynamic for the pitchers (a.k.a., only certain pitchers can handle the tension of the ninth inning).
2. The hitters’ latent ability to hit in the clutch emerges at the end, with the game on the line, when it’s for all the marbles, when backs are against the wall, when it’s gut-check time and so on.
3. Managers will dig into their voodoo bag of pinch-hitters and base-running sorcery to score runs in the ninth inning, and such go-for-broke maneuvers make it harder to get those three outs.
But even if you believe these kind of nonsensical things, does it make sense even on the gut level? Wouldn’t pressure change the dynamic for both sides equally? Wouldn’t the hitter’s clutchability be matched by the pitcher’s? Wouldn’t the other manager be able to dig into HIS voodoo bag?
All of it seems kind of like pointless thrashing about to me. We have a remarkable ability to believe what feels plausible. And every one of us have seen our teams, many times, struggle against ninth-inning comebacks or put together valiant comebacks of their own. And such things stand out in the mind much more than valiant sixth-inning comebacks or busted rallies in the third inning. The ninth inning feels particularly in focus because the game is almost over, and all the other outs have already been exhausted, and this is the last chance. So when someone says, “You know, the ninth inning are the three toughest outs in the game,” it’s tempting to just nod because they are the only outs left. The cliche perfectly fits the mental picture. And then someone else says it. And someone else. And before long you find yourself saying it too.
But no matter how many times you say it or hear it, well, it just ain’t so.
ERA by inning since 2000:
1st inning: 4.81
2nd inning: 3.93
3rd inning: 4.44
4th inning: 4.54
5th inning: 4.49
6th inning: 4.66
7th inning: 4.27
8th inning: 4.14
9th inning: 3.71
* * *
You know what the three hardest outs are in baseball? Yep: The first three outs. This too has been consistent going back 50 years. I think it’s probably obvious why: It’s the one time in the game when the manager gets to determine EXACTLY who will come to the plate. Every other inning is a mishmash of lineup-orders … only in the first inning are you guaranteed to have the 1-2-3 hitters bat. Since 1960, about 10,000 more runs have been scored in the first inning than in any other inning.
I’ve heard from a couple of radical thinkers inside the game that teams might be better off to have official game STARTERS rather than CLOSERS, that is to say, one- or two-innings specialists who start two or three games a week and whose job is to get you off to a good start. Obviously stuff like this might work better in theory than in practice*, but in theory this is a very interesting concept.
*I’ve got a post coming up revolving around the poll in which Brilliant Readers voted on whether teams would win more, lose more or stay about the same if managers NEVER sac bunted or used the intentional walk. Obviously, this is also a skewed sample, but only 12% of you thought that a team might lose more games.
Beyond these sorts of theories, it’s helpful to think a little bit about how baseball works. Runs, as has been written before, are scored by a chain of events. Sometimes it’s a short chain — Raul Ibanez hits a home run. But more often, it’s a longer chain of events — a guy walks, the next guy singles, there’s a double steal, a sacrifice fly — and your best shot for a longer chain good of events is to have a series of your best hitters come to the plate. You would rather not have a pitcher hit in the middle of the chain, or a light-hitting middle infielder. Obviously, if a manager gets it right, the best hitters come up in the first inning, three of them at least. That gives teams their best shot at starting the chain. The second inning has always been a very low-scoring inning because (I suspect) the lower part of the lineup is likely to come up.
Whatever the reasons for this phenomenon — and I’m sure I’m missing some reasons — I’d love to create a cliche. I’d love for this cliche to be: The toughest three outs in baseball are the first three outs. It may not sound true. And it doesn’t really fill our irresistible need for clarity and finality — after all, getting the first three outs without giving up a run doesn’t mean you’re going to win, or even that you’re likely to win. You could get the first three outs without giving up a run and still lose the game 48-1.
Still, based on the numbers, it’s a generalization but also something close to a fact. The toughest three outs are the first three outs. Sometimes the true story isn’t as much fun or as emotional as the myth. That doesn’t make it any less true.