The Key to Winning Pennants in the Major Leagues. It’s simple!

The regular Major League Baseball season has ended. The 10 winners are in the playoffs. The non-winners move to the off-season and start planning the next season. These teams, like my own favorite, the Minnesota Twins, try to take solace in the fact that they finished only 12 games behind the division winner, Kansas City. That is 12 games over 26 weeks; only one game every 2.3 weeks. Easy right? They will say that they are only .074 points behind KC. Next year, they hope, with phenoms Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton, new pitchers, improvement from all players etc. etc, they can close the gap. The gap, however, is more formidable than first seen. All teams, by the way, do this analysis, but it is wrong.

Baseball is much more complicated than that. There is more balance in baseball than in any other team sport. All teams win 2 of 5 games and lose 2 of 5 games. It is that “Fifth Game” that determines pennants and there are only 32 of them. I call this “Fifth Game Theory,” href=”http://www.clarkgriffithblog.com/2013/06/1″>here The chart below shows the distribution of teams at the end of the season. For the most part, you can use the GB (games behind) column to see the difference in “Fifth Games” won. (The Phillies with 64 wins and Reds with 63 are rare outliers, but they were really bad.)

American League -East

      American League- East
      Team GP W L Pct GB Home Road
      Toronto Blue Jays 162 93 69 0.574 – 53-28 40-41
      New York Yankees 162 87 75 0.537 6.0 45-36 42-39
      Baltimore Orioles 162 81 81 0.500 12.0 49-32 32-49
      Tampa Bay Rays 162 80 82 0.494 13.0 41-40 39-42
      Boston Red Sox 162 78 84 0.481 15.0 43-38 35-46

American League – Central
Team GP  GB Home Road
Kansas City Royals 162  –
Minnesota Twins 162   12.0 46-35 37-44
Cleveland Indians 161  13.51 36-45
Detroit Tigers 161 74 87 0.460 20.5 38-43 36-44

American League – West
Team GP W L Pct GB Home Road
Texas Rangers 162 88 74 0.543 – 43-38 45-36
Houston Astros 162 86 76 0.531 2.0 53-28 33-48
Los Angeles Angels 162 85 77 0.525 3.0 49-32 36-45
Seattle Mariners 162 76 86 0.469 12.0 36-45 40-41
Oakland Athletics 162 68 94 0.420 20.0 34-47 34-47

National League – East
Team GP W L Pct GB Home Road
New York Mets 162 90 72 0.556 – 49-32 41-40
Washington Nationals 162 83 79 0.512 7.0 46-35 37-
Miami Marlins 162 71 91 0.438 19.0 41-40 30-51
Atlanta Braves 162 67 95 0.414 23.0 42-39 25-56
Philadelphia Phillies 162 63 99 0.389 27.0 37-44 26-55

National League – Central
Team GP W L Pct GB Home Road
St. Louis Cardinals 162 100 62 0.617 – 55-26 45-36
Pittsburgh Pirates 162 98 64 0.605 2.0 53-28 45-36
Chicago Cubs 162 97 65 0.599 3.0 49-32 48-33
Milwaukee Brewers 162 68 94 0.420 32.0 34-47 34-47
Cincinnati Reds 162 64 98 0.395 36.0 34-47 30-51

National League – West
Team GP W L Pct GB Home Road
Los Angeles Dodgers 162 92 70 0.568 – 55-26 37-44
San Francisco Giants 162 84 78 0.519 8.0 47-34 37-44
Arizona Diamondbks 162 79 83 0.488 13.0 39-42 40-41
San Diego Padres 162 74 88 0.457 18.0 39-42 35-46
Colorado Rockies 162 68 94 0.420 24.0 36-45 32-49

The argument that the Twins are within 12 games of the Royals is not the way to look at it. (You can insert your team here as well, like “Giants 8 behind Dodgers”)The proper way to look at next season, or any season, is to grant each team 65 wins and 65 loses for 2016. That means the winner will be the team that wins the most “Fifth Games;” that one game in five that is won or lost late in the game on a pitch, swing, catch or error. The Twins won 18 of these games in 2015,.562, while the Royals won 30 or .937; A huge difference. Instead of being 12 games in back of 162, they are 12 back in the 32 game “Fifth Game” schedule. In other words, the Twins have to improve dramatically in “Fifth Game” wins to get close to KC. Of course, the Royals have to win “Fifth Games” with the same efficiency​ as in 2015, but they are really good.

So what does a team have to do to improve its “Fifth Game” record. First, pitchers must avoid walking batters in late innings. That is a simple but true statement. Never walk the lead off hitter, never. Middle of the plate fast balls are better than walks. (I am amazed by how many “Fifth Games” are lost to walks to lead-off hitters in the late innings.) A team must have hitters who can adjust to situations by preparing for the moment and make a single when the game is in doubt. The old adage, “up the middle to win the game” is always true. That forces the batter to focus on the ball, hit it square in front of the plate, and go up the middle. This is the sign of a smart hitter. Then, make sure your fielders can play under pressure. It is not the extraordinary play that wins games most of the time, it is the error on a simple play that loses them. A prime example occurred in the Rangers/Royals last game the ALDS when Texas Rangers’ second basemen, Rougned Roberto Odor, missed a pop up he had called for. The Royals scored three runs after that and won. If Odor made that play, it may have been different. (Teams measure their competence by their play in the field. Errors destroy this competence/confidence and that’s not good) Players who can play “Fifth Games” are discovered by diligent scouting and it is your own team you should scout hardest.

There are players who win “Fifth Games” by making the right pitch, catching and throwing the ball accurately, and being prepared to hit the opposing pitcher. These are mental preparation matters and that’s what wins baseball games and players with these skills win pennants. This is sometimes called “Small Ball,” but it wins critical games, go with it. That’s how teams win pennants.

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