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Explaining Cornell Baseball’s One-Run Game Struggles

We are currently 14 games into the Cornell baseball season, and it hasn’t been pretty thus far. The team is currently 3-11 overall, and they’ve been outscored by their opponents by 14 runs. That actually isn’t too bad: Bill James’ Pythagorean Expectation (how many games a team should win based on their runs scored and runs allowed) shows that the team should actually be 5-9, so there is a bit of bad luck involved in their poor record. That’s to be expected in such a short season.

But the most interesting thing about the club’s record is that they’re currently 1-8 in one-run games. Why is that, and could this continue into the Ivy League season? Back in 2012, Baseball Prospectus writer Russell Carleton wrote a piece entitled “One-Run Winners: Good or Lucky?”, a piece that responded to the idea of “skill” during one-run games (The 2012 Orioles, for example, went 23-6 in one-run games). The pop theory is that excellent bullpens are key to a good one-run game team, but that really isn’t the case. In fact, there is no key at all. One-run game winning percentage doesn’t correlate to overall winning percentage, and it doesn’t correlate to any particular baseball skill. He states that “Baseball is a game with a lot of randomness in it already, and that randomness overwhelms the effect of skill. Based on this, I wouldn’t recommend reading much into a team’s one-run record. If your goal today is to win a game by one run… wear white pants”.

But, that doesn’t mean the team is faultless. Carleton does have a caveat to his thesis, that “To say that there is no skill in a team winning one-run games would be wrong. Teams that are good at scoring runs and preventing the other team from doing so will have a better chance at winning them”. And going by that, Cornell has struggled on one front: offensively. Their triple-slash (AVG/OBP/SLG) is currently .220/.293/.280, and that is a far cry from the Ivy League average of .257/.333/.344. Only three Big Red players have an OBP higher than .300 (Kevin Tatum, Dan Morris, Jordan Winawer) in qualified AB’s, and only Tatum and Morris have an OPS above the Ivy League average.

On the pitching front, they’ve been quite excellent. Both Kellen Urbon and Brian McAfee have ERA’s below 1.50 (1.29 and 1.12, respectively) in a combined 45 innings, and Paul Balestrieri has been lights-out out of the bullpen; he currently has a 1.84 ERA and 14/1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 14.2 innings. Michael Byrne has struggled though (4.42 ERA in 18.1 innings), but I would say that his 25 strikeouts show that the sample is too small to judge too harshly.

And in another area, defense, the team has been average. Defensive metrics for NCAA baseball are non-existent, but the one statistic that is helpful is defensive efficiency, or the percentage of batted balls that are converted into outs. The Ivy League average for defensive efficiency is .690, and Cornell’s is… .690. This means that 69% of opposing batted balls are converted to outs, and that is exactly league average.

So overall, this team has an excellent pitching staff, an average defense, and a below-average offense. That shows they’re no juggernaut, but I would argue that this isn’t a 3-11 true talent level team. And if we consider that one-run games are largely determined by luck, then this is a team that can certainly compete in the Lou Gehrig division and in the Ivy League.

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