Dodgers Dangerous When Scoring Little

With about three weeks to go in the season, the race for home field advantage in the NL is about as settled as the Nationals closer situation. On any given day, the best record either resides in Los Angeles or in DC, but here comes St. Louis or how about the hard-charging San Francisco squad? The one thing I know for certain is that the Mets will not win all of their remaining games to finish near Sandy Alderson’s prediction of 90 wins for the season and muscle their way into one of the wild card spots.

Consider me a realist.

If the best record does come down to just a game or two, we may see sunny Hollywood warm our television sets this October, and if the Dodgers do manage to lead the Senior circuit in wins it might be because of their amazing ability to win games where they’ve scored just one or two runs. Currently, on the season, the Dodgers are 13-32 in games where they’ve scored two or fewer runs (with a league low four shutouts, a bit of quick math has LA at 13-28 when scoring one or two), and though that doesn’t sound like a particularly impressive record, their .289 winning percentage in such games is the seventh best in the last twenty years and the best in MLB since Toronto’s .319 in 2007.

First, I’ll explain why exactly I chose two runs as my demarcation as opposed to one or three or…you get the idea. Currently, teams average around 4.1 runs per game, so a low scoring game would naturally fall below the average. A starter allowing three earned runs in 6+ innings is considered a quality start, not an exceptional one, so I didn’t consider a record when scoring three or fewer to be all that interesting. Mostly, though, scoring two or fewer runs and winning is a difficult thing to accomplish and it seemed interesting.

Here are the top 10 dating back to 1995:

Season Team W-L Win %
2002 Atlanta 14-28 .333
2004 St. Louis 10-21 .323
2007 Toronto 15-32 .319
2001 Seattle 8-18 .308
2005 Chicago White Sox 15-34 .306
1996 San Diego 13-31 .295
2014 Los Angeles Dodgers 13-32 .289
2013 Oakland 14-35 .286
2006 St. Louis 11-28 .282
2006 San Diego 14-36 .280

Top Seasons by W % When Scoring 2 or Fewer Runs

I could probably remove both the 2004 St. Louis and 2001 Seattle teams from the list since both were well below the median of 44 for teams scoring two or fewer, but it won’t particularly matter for our fun, and, honestly, why should they be penalized for being better than my arbitrarily picked scoring threshold? That being the case, the current Dodger team sits a slight tick above median, so no peculiarities in sample size.

How remarkable is their record in these games? Over the last twenty years, the median winning percentage for a team scoring two or fewer is a miniscule .124, which works out to somewhere in the vicinity of 5-6 wins per 44 games. I use median since I’m eliminating the outliers, but honestly the average is .129, the same 5-6 win range, so we’d expect an average team to have a record around 6-38. So, if the Dodgers and Giants battle for the West (and the battle for home field advantage) ends up being decided by just a game or two, a few extra wins (or seven) might just end up being the reason why.

Of course, the one glaring weakness in an assessment such as this is that I’m assuming that all teams are treated equal. Wouldn’t it be natural to assume a better team would win more games where they score only one or two runs (and how many times would we expect the better teams to even score only one or two runs)? For the purposes of this discussion, I’ve classified teams either at or above .500 and those below .500. It’s simple, and I’m not sure it’s entirely necessary to break teams further into tiers.1

Separating teams as either winners or losers does make a difference. The median winning percentage for a team that finished the year at or above .500 is .150 with the median games played at 40. Sub .500 teams win at around .105 with the median games played at 47. So, not surprisingly, bad teams score two or fewer runs more often than good teams and lose those games more often.

Under those circumstances, we’d expect your typical team to go 7-37 (6.6 wins) in those 44 games with the Dodgers playing just north of two deviations above median. What they’re doing, while not exactly earth shattering, is still pretty impressive considering what we’d expect from the typical Major League team.

If you’re looking for an updated table that reflects the above .500 clubs I’m sorry to disappoint you. The table would look exactly like the one listed above since every one of those clubs finished above .500. In fact, the only team to crack the top 20 with a sub .500 record would be the 1998 Orioles (79-83) who won those low score games 26% of the time. After the O’s, the next sub .500 team is the 2010 Dodgers (80-82) at 24.

How are these Dodgers so successful in low scoring games?

Having the greatest pitcher on the planet starting for you certainly helps as Clayton Kershaw has gone 5-2 in these sort of games.2 Zack Greinke has suffered to a record of 0-5 in these games with the Dodgers scoring two or fewer in eight of his starts with two shutouts while Hyun-jin Ryu is 3-4. Also, the Dodgers pitching staff is really good with the team ranked fourth in the Majors with a 3.28 ERA. The starters have been phenomenal, leading the Majors in ERA at 3.12 and FIP, first in WHIP at 1.14, and second to the Rays in total strikeouts at 811. The bullpen has been fairly pedestrian in terms of runs allowed, ranking 18th in ERA at 3.65, but they’ve blown just 12 saves, fourth fewest.

Other than that, what’s there to say? The team has an innate ability to work to the score? Somehow they’ve mastered close and whenever situations? They pitch well, play in a pitcher’s park, and play in a division with similar clubs.

Speaking of those divisional foes, the Dodgers have the most games where they’ve scored two or less against San Diego, where they’ve gone 5-4 in those games. Against San Francisco they’re 1-5. Their record against other NL contenders of note is 1-3 vs. St. Louis and 0-2 against Washington.

In case you were wondering, here are the top 10 in such games for this season.

Team W-L Win %
Dodgers 13-32 .289
Angels 8-26 .235
Marlins 9-34 .209
Rays 11-43 .204
Cardinals 9-39 .188

Top 5 W % When Scoring 2 or Fewer Runs for 2014

And, considering that postseason games tend to be lower scoring games3, it might be a good idea to look at the top contenders for a postseason berth and see how they’ve performed in these games.

Team W-L Win %
Dodgers 13-32 .289
Angels 8-26 .235
Royals 10-41 .196
Cardinals 9-39 .188
Orioles 8-35 .186
Indians 8-37 .178
Pirates 7-38 .156
Braves 8-44 .154
Mariners 7-44 .137
Tigers 6-37 .140
Athletics 4-34 .105
Nationals 4-38 .095
Brewers 4-43 .085
Giants 4-45 .082

Playoff Contenders W % When Scoring 2 or Fewer Runs for 2014

There doesn’t seem to be a discernible skill in winning these types of games. The Athletics are 4-34 this season but had one of the best seasons of the last 20 years in 2013 when they went 14-35. Although, then again, the Atlanta Braves appear quite a few times above the .150 line where we’d expect good teams to win, and the late 90s early aught Mets come in around 17 and 19, proving there was a little miracle happening then.

So, to be thorough, here are the top five teams over the last two decades:

Team W-L Win %
Braves 154-702 .180
Dodgers 175-813 .177
Padres 174-881 .165
Giants 146-755 .162
Angles 121-644 .158

Top 5 W % When Scoring 2 or Fewer Runs since 1995

  1. I could. I could go back through the last 20 years and find the average winning percentage of playoff bound teams, etc., etc., but this is supposed to be goofy fun, and honestly, what’s the point?
  2. If you needed another reason to believe he’s the greatest going, doesn’t that sort of stat say it all? When he’s had to dominate because the Dodgers haven’t scored many runs, he does.
  3. This is absolutely true by the way. Since 1994 (just kidding, a little lockout joke) 1995, Major League teams score about 4.77 runs per game, with the average 4.7 and the median 4.77, while in the postseason those numbers drop to an average of 4.2 and a median of 4. The average is significantly higher because there a few 23-7 and 19-8 scores in there. Anyway, that works out to somewhere between a 10.6 to 16.1 percent drop in scoring. None of this explains what teams score vice what we’d expect them to score based on their seasonal performance, but that’s another post, hopefully coming soon.

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