Why you should care
A new formula measures exactly how excited you should feel during a baseball game. Nerds rejoice!
If you win the World Series but put all your fans to sleep, does that really count as a win?
That’s what my unofficial stats man and baseball article collaborator, Jeff Lacouture, and I have been wondering this World Series. Lacouture is the creator of the Exciting Game Index (EGI), which measures how “exciting” any game or playoff series is based on lead changes and late-inning drama. Shutouts like Sunday night’s, when the San Francisco Giants took the lead from the Kansas City Royals in the first inning and never looked back, make for awfully unexciting games. And there’s worse to come: Unless Tuesday’s Game 6 and a possible Game 7 on Wednesday are the Michael Bay movies of baseball, this could turn out to be one of the most boring World Series in history.
“That’s the gold standard of boring baseball — I don’t know if anything will ever top that. But this series is sure making a go of it.”
There have been duller. Leaving aside the deadly earthquake that postponed Game 3, the 1989 World Series was a rather dull affair that saw the Oakland A’s dominate their Bay Area rivals the Giants in four open-and-shut games.
“It was far and away the least-exciting series ever,” said Lacouture. “The Giants didn’t lead for a single inning in that series. The games were only tied for two full innings. The games start out tied. That’s the gold standard of boring baseball — I don’t know if anything will ever top that. But this series is sure making a go of it.”
Six years ago, Lacouture was sitting on his couch, a few blocks from baseball’s birthplace, Elysian Fields, in Hoboken, New Jersey, after watching one of the best baseball games he’d ever seen. It was the 2008 American League Championship Series, and his hometown Boston Red Sox had just come back from a 7-0 deficit with two outs in the seventh inning to eventually win 8-7 over the Tampa Bay Rays.
It was an incredibly exciting game, but Lacouture’s obsessive need to quantify everything left him wanting a way to compare it to other exciting playoff baseball games. Every other exciting playoff game.
Lacouture’s method was win expectancy. Because there have been so many games over the 130 or so years of professional baseball, every situation you can imagine has happened dozens, hundreds, even thousands of times, so you can calculate the likelihood of each team winning in that situation. The chances of the Red Sox coming back in that 2008 playoff game, for example, were less than 1 percent.
“Now he knows how excited he should feel when he watches games.”
Lacouture figured that the most exciting games feature lots of back-and-forth lead changes, so his system measures changes in win expectancies, adds them up and divides by the total number of plays.
“You can quantify everything in baseball,” said Lacouture, “and I figured the one bar argument you couldn’t settle with statistics was which series or game was the most exciting. Now you can.”
“Now he knows how excited he should feel when he watches games,” his girlfriend, television sports producer Lena Glaser, said sarcastically from the couch as the three of us watched Sunday night’s game.
The metric has yielded all kinds of interesting facts and comparison points. According to EGI, the most exciting World Series game ever was Game 6 of the 2011 series, when the Texas Rangers were up 7-5 over the St. Louis Cardinals, just one strike away from winning the series, but gave up two runs on a David Freese triple, blew another two-run lead in the 10th and lost on a Freese home run in the 11th.
The second best came a century earlier, in Game 2 of the 1912 World Series between the Red Sox and the New York Giants, at the newly minted Fenway Park. After the Red Sox squandered a 5-3 lead in the eighth, the game went back and forth until it was called in the 11th inning due to darkness, with the score knotted at 6-6. They could have continued the game the next day but instead called it a tie and played a whole new game to boost ticket revenue (and you thought modern NFL owners were greedy …).
The 2011 game scored a 66 on Lacouture’s index, the 1912 tie a 62. While there’s no limit to how high a game can score on the index, the highest score of the 25,000 games Lacouture has tracked — every playoff game ever and every regular season game since 2004 — was a 74 for a late-scoring, 10-inning win by the Washington Nationals over the New York Mets in July 2012. The lowest was a Los Angeles Dodgers drubbing of the Cincinnati Reds in 2005 that scored a measly 7 on the EGI. The average game is a 34.
This year’s World Series has a good shot at going a full seven games, and has featured some amazing work from Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner, who has the lowest earned run average (0.29) of any pitcher to ever throw at least 30 innings in the World Series. But what this year’s series hasn’t had a lot of is excitement. ESPN baseball writer David Schoenfield angered plenty of Giants’ and Royals’ fans when he called their matchup “the worst World Series ever” in a blog post before the first pitch was even thrown. But the stats are making him look like a prophet. Last night’s game scored a 16 on the EGI, making it the 597th most exciting of 639 total World Series games. Game 1 scored a 17, and Games 2-4 averaged a very average 33.
Any series that goes more than four games is, almost by definition, more exciting than a sweep, but in a series like this one, it’s not much more exciting.
“We’d need back-to-back 20-inning games with 15 lead changes each just to make this a moderately exciting World Series,” said Lacouture. “The most exciting thing that could happen is for the Giants to win an average Game 6, making this the most boring six-game World Series ever,” he continued, laughing. “Statistical history being made — now that’s exciting.”