Baseball Judgments

Baseball Judgments |

Baseball not 'a game of coming back'


By Roger Weber


One night watching baseball, I heard on a post-game report that "baseball is a game of coming back." This statement, of course, came after a late-inning comeback win for the team whose television station the commentator worked for. It does seem, though, that there are a lot of comeback wins in baseball. Occasionally the media keep track of walk-off wins for teams – the 1995 Indians walked off with 25 of their 100 wins. But the idea that baseball is a game of comebacks seemed questionable to me.


What would define baseball as a game of comebacks? The winning team can either win by holding a lead or by coming back from a deficit. The first seems by far the most likely. After all, many games are blowouts. In most blowouts the winning team slowly develops a big lead over the course of the game. Sometimes a team scores seven or eight runs after trailing 1-0. But in most blowouts that doesn't happen. Approximately 45 to 50 percent of games are one or two run games, though. In a one or two run game it makes sense that comebacks happen often.


I suppose that the way the announcer meant the statement, and the way I will treat it, is to assume that a comeback means winning on a comeback. A comeback for our purposes will be defined as any time the runs that secure the final lead erase a deficit. For example, if a team trails 3-1 and then scores five runs to take a 6-3 lead and those six runs end up being good enough to win the game, we'll call that a comeback.


Here is how the numbers actually break down.



% of time win is a "comeback win"

In games decided by 1 run


In games decided by 2 runs or fewer


In games decided by 2 or more runs


In games decided by 5 or more runs


All games



These are ranges because the results differ slightly depending on the sample used. As always I stress that these may not be perfectly accurate because they are based on stats from only the 2006 season and the sample size is only a few hundred games. But we'll assume they are pretty close.


So overall, baseball is not a "game of coming back." Comeback wins only happen about 30% of the time. The team that scores the first run of the game ends up winning the game close to 70% - actually 68.9% - of the time. This is a common cliché that actually is often true. The team that scores first is most likely to win.


But it is surprising that close games are so often comeback wins. There is a hidden variable here though. A one or two run game is most likely to occur when a team comes back. Had a team not come back the game might have been a blowout but because the comeback occurred the game ends up being close. If the comeback occurs in the bottom of the ninth inning, the game ends as soon as the run that takes the lead is scored. Therefore the game automatically ends usually with a lead of one or two runs.


So with these numbers, we should not just assume that certain games are comebacks a certain amount of the time. In fact the comebacks or lack of them sometimes cause the games to be decided by a certain margin. In fact there is no real reason baseball is a "game of comebacks." Teams do not suddenly get better when they are behind and although some teams may let up their guard slightly when they get a lead there should not be any real reason to say that baseball is a game of coming back more than any other sport. It is a game that can be defined by probabilities and percentages and probability says that some wins are comebacks, most are not.


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