The Most Important Stat In Baseball

Numbers tell stories. In baseball, numbers can tell us lots of different stories. Like any story, you need to know and understand the setting. Having all the sabermetrics is meaningless if you don’t understand what they’re trying to measure.

Most sabermetrics are presented in terms of runs or wins. The idea is to win a game a team has to score more runs than the opposition. Thus, we need to know what hitters are best at producing runs and which pitchers are best at preventing runs.

And sabermetricians have proven to be very good at measuring what players are best at producing runs, preventing runs, and wins. Stats like WAR, VORP, WHIP, FIP wOBA, wRC, wRC+ and a host of others all in some way measure runs, run prevention, or wins. Much like batting average, home runs, rbi’s, and even stolen bases, when looked at in context all provide a great deal of value. None is “better” than they other. They just measure different things. Understanding what they measure and the context surrounding the statistic or accumulation of the statistic is important.

Sabermetrics have focused primarily on measuring individual performances and not as much team performances. I wanted to know if there was a good way to measure the success of teams. I started thinking about some of the most basic aspects of the game that I learned some 30 years ago.

While considering lineup construction something hit me. Tradition tells us a speedster who gets on base should occupy the leadoff spot. The two-hole should be a bat control player, not necessarily a great hitter. His role is to move the leadoff man into scoring position for the big bats that occupy the third and fourth spots to drive in. But the leadoff spot is only guaranteed to lead off an inning one time; the first inning. So, why does tradition tell us to construct the top half of your lineup in this manner?

I believe it comes from the dead ball era when runs were scarce and you did everything you could to attempt to get on the board in your team’s first at-bat. With 27 outs to use why did they find it so important to score before using up only one ninth of their outs that they constructed a lineup optimized to score the first time through?

Maybe our baseball forefathers knew something that requires only the most basic math. With all due respect the sabermetrics community and all they have brought to the table I decided it was time to do some of the most simplistic research and analysis that can be done. The results are overwhelmingly in favor of our forefather’s approach to the first inning.

I looked at each franchise’s record after the first inning based on whether they were winning, tied, or losing between 2010 – 2016. The results were overwhelmingly simple to interpret. If you finish the first inning with the lead you will win significantly more games than you will if you are tied or if you are behind. How much more? Teams that led after the completion of the first frame have a .696 winning percentage. Teams that were tied after the end of the first carry a .499 winning percentage. And teams that were behind after the first inning have a .304 winning percentage.

Below are two charts. The first shows the top winning percentages when leading after the first inning compared to the other two possible outcomes and overall winning percentage. The second chart shows the lowest winning percentages when leading after the first inning compared to the other two possible outcomes and overall winning percentage. What these charts illustrate is that even good teams fair significantly worse when not leading after the first frame. And, to me, the more important insight is that even teams with winning percentages well under .500 win at a clip greater than .600 when leading after the first.

top-winning-percentage

lowest-winning-percentage

No team had a winning percentage lower than .621 when leading after the first. The Rangers had the highest at .755. Compare that to the fact that only 13 teams had a winning percentage higher than .500, with the Dodgers leading the way at .570 when tied after the end of the first. When losing after the first inning the results are disastrous. The Cardinals have the best winning percentage at .368 and 15 teams had a winning percentage below .300. Win the first inning, period.

If you can figure out how to get out of the first inning with the lead you will win 69% of your games. SIXTY-NINE percent. The takeaway from this: win the first inning. No need for any advanced math or metrics. Score more runs during the first inning than your opponent and the numbers say you’ll win a lot of games.

I’ll let the sabermetricians figure out the most statistically probable way to get the first inning lead. Just know, to win you should find a way to get on the board more times during the first frame than your opponents. Remember 69.6%!

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