Is the last out of the game the toughest?
September 12, 2007 9 Comments
Taking sportscasters to task for the dumb cliches that they spew is one of my favorite hobbies here at StatSpeak. One thing that I’ve heard more than once is the idea that “The 27th out of the game is the hardest one to nail down.” Of course, this one is usually said in situations where a team is trying desperately to close out a win in the ninth inning, while the other team is not being cooperative and insists on pecking away at that lead. What sportscasters really mean to say is, “Gee, I’m really nervous that we’re not going to get to that last out before the other team overtakes our lead. So, I’ll make myself feel better by saying that this is the toughest out in a game. If we end up losing, at least we lost trying to do the hardest thing that there is to do, and plenty of people fail at the really hard things. Ah, I feel momentarily better.” My training is as a psychologist. At the office, I might call that self-handicapping or a defense mechanism. Either way, it’s a sure sign that sportscasters are both human and anxious.
Is the 27th out of the game really the hardest out to record? That’s actually a little tougher of a question than it appears. How hard an out is to record will depend on who the pitcher is on the mound and who the batter is at the plate. If Joe Nathan is facing some AA kid who’s getting a September call-up that he’ll talk about for the rest of his life and who’s so nervous that he can’t stand straight, that’s going to be an easy out. If it happens to be the ninth inning with two outs, then the 27th out will be rather easy. For these analyses, I didn’t quite go that deep.
I looked at the level of difficulty of the out by looking at how many batters it took for the pitching team to move from the previous out to the one in question. (So, if fifteen hitters came to bat between the recording of the 1st out in the 7th inning and the 2nd out in the 7th inning, then that out was very difficult to come by.) This makes it possible for it to take zero hitters for a particular out to be recorded. A double play to end the fourth inning means that it didn’t take any additional batters to get from the 11th to the 12th out. It was all done in one swift motion. This also means that outs which were recorded on caught-stealings are not counted either since they don’t require an extra batter, although a batter would have had to get on base to be caught, so that about evens out. Not precisely, but baseball is a game of blunt instruments. They’re called bats. Now, of course, this ignores the fact that better pitchers are generally used in certain innings or that pinch hitters are more likely to be used in the later innings. Deal with it.
I took the Retrosheet PBP file for 2006, and found all team-games (two teams play a game) in which at least 27 outs were recorded. (A full nine inning game has 54 outs, 27 per team.) So, assuming that the game wasn’t called in the sixth inning because of rain, the visiting team was always represented. The home team, assuming that they a) lost or b) went to extra innings was also represented. This introduces another small bias, because home teams that won are going to be better than average at scoring runs (they at least scored more runs the other team that day!), and probably a little better at avoiding outs, and it’s possible that there could be some systematic variation in where they spaced those avoidances of outs. But again, we move along. I told you this was a harder question than it looked. There were 3622 team-games accounted for in this analysis. In all 3622 team-games, outs number 1-27 were recorded at some point.
So which out in the game did teams spend the most number of plate appearances trying to record each of those 3622 outs? The first out of the first inning, with 5430 plate appearances needed to record those 3622 first outs.
Strangely enough, in second place was out #17 (second out of the sixth inning) with 5420 PA’s needed to record 3622 outs. The pitcher is more likely to be either a starter who is getting tired or a fourth-tier reliever. Rounding out the top five are outs #23, #14, and #2. Where was out #27? It was the 17th toughest out to come by. The easiest out to get was out number 7 (first out of the third inning).
As always, remember that just because a lot of people say the same stupid thing, it doesn’t make it true.