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Has "That Old Buck Magic" expired?

J. Meric

Last season, the Baltimore Orioles set records for their (related) successes in one-run games, and in extra-inning games. This season, they lost their first three one-run games, and have now lost two of three extra-inning games.

Which might officially pop that bubble.

Monday afternoon on MLB Network's MLB Now, with usual co-host Harold Reynolds taking the day off, Brian Kenny was left to spar with Tom Verducci. There wasn't much sparring, though, on this topic or any other.

Kenny introduced the subject with his usual clear-eyed analysis, acknowledging that while good relief pitchers and a clever manager can help some, the single biggest reason for the Orioles' successes last season was luck. Well, Brian called it "circumstance" -- "a lot of random sequencing; it just happened." But usually we call that luck.

As we saw on the screen, history's five best teams in one-run games -- the 2012 Orioles, 1981 Orioles, 1970 Orioles, 1925 Senators, and 1954 Indians -- were 95 games over .500 in one-run games. And in the next seasons? Including the Orioles' 4-5 record in one-run games this season, those same five teams were 15 games over .500 in one-run games the next season. And these were all good teams; we would expect them to have winning records in virtually all situations: one-run games, extra-inning games, blowouts, etc.

After dispensing with Buck Showalter's suggestion that blowouts invalidate the relevance of run differentials, Kenny brought Verducci into the discussion, and I was mildly surprised when Verducci said, "You nailed it on this one-run-game business. It had nothing to do with magic. It's not a repeatable skill. If anything was predictable this year, it's that the Orioles would play around .500 in one-run games."

Exactly. Well played, Sir Thomas of Verducci.

He even trotted out more statistics to make the point. Fifteen teams in major-league history have won at least 70 percent of their one-run games; those teams combined for a .714 winning percentage. The next season? Those same teams fell to .524 in one-run games. Exactly as we might expect, if winning close games is largely a matter of happenstance rather than skill or Hawk Harrelson's beloved tWtW.

And then Verducci seemed to go off the rails a bit ...

I will say this, Brian. There may be a placebo effect at work during the course of one of these so-called "magical" seasons. You get into close games and you expect, "Hey, things are going to go our way. We're going to win this game! Our bullpen's going to hold them down. Adam Jones is going to hit a home run."

The reverse is true: "What's going to happen next? Where it's going to go wrong?"

So within a season, I think it can build upon itself. But one year to the next, I'm not buying it.

Just so you don't think I'm picking on Verducci, I'll mention that Kenny seemed to miss a good chance to get an argument going, as instead he sort of agreed.

If Verducci's right, though, wouldn't this show up in the statistical record? Now, if it really builds upon itself in a meaningful way, wouldn't we expect teams with great one-run records in the first half of the season to play especially well in one-run games in the second half of the season?

They didn't.

We found the teams with the 20 best one-run winning percentages in the first halves of the last five seasons, ranging from the 2012 O's (.727) to the 2010 Rockies (.593). Those teams went 331-194 in one-run games, for a .630 composite winning percentage.

After the All-Star break, they went 210-176 in one-run games for a .544 winning percentage; still good, but these were generally good teams so we would expect them to have a winning record. If these teams were magical in the first half, with the magic building upon itself, we should see better than .544.

Which doesn't mean that can't happen, with an individual team here or there. Hell, anything's possible. But whether you're talking season to season or first half to second half or week to week, it still looks like the biggest factor in one-run success is a lot of random sequencing.

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