After Tigers closer Jose Valverde blew a 4-run lead in the ninth inning of the ALCS, one could not help but feel the Tiger's chances of winning Game 1 seemed especially minimal afterward. But does the sense of hopelessness that comes from blowing a late-lead have an effect on the ultimate outcome of the game ?
At some point after the dust had settled from Raul Ibanez's second post-season ninth inning game-tying home run in as many games, and Yankee Stadium III nearly collapsed from the sudden explosive rally cry from its loyal patrons, it is likely that the Detroit Tigers had to remind themselves that they still had to finish out a baseball game they hadn't actually lost yet.
It certainly felt, even as an objective viewer, that the game had already been decided once Ibanez's home-run ball had crossed that outfield fence. All the 'momentum' had shifted to the Yankees, emotionally, and fans of the Tigers had to feel as though all hope was lost for winning Game 1 of the ALCS. I'll admit to getting caught up in the narrative myself, and having very little expectations that Detroit would ultimately win that game after such a morale-vaporizing collapse from the Jose Valverde.
Even some very prominent, respected saberists felt the undeniable shift of energy that seemed to heavily favor the Yankees in those extra-innings:
Win Probability will tell you that the Tigers have about a 35% chance to win this game right now. That feels about 5 times too high.— Rany Jazayerli (@jazayerli) October 14, 2012
In the TBS broadcast, John Smoltz said (something to the effect of) the Tigers needing to get it out of their heads that they have already lost. This actually made me pause and think. I'm sure we've all played competitive sports at one time or another, and I'm sure we've all felt that impending sense of doom after events haven't gone our way. But these aren't pony-leaguers from the south side of Chicago, these are professional ballplayers at the very highest level of competition.
Personally, I have little doubt the Tigers players themselves did in fact feel just as defeated as we might expect. How could they not? They are human, they do have emotions, and, from time to time, we've even seen some of the best shed tears. But the real question is, does it ever have an effect on their performance?
I was curious about this enough to run a query through the retrosheet files for all games in which a team came back to tie the game after entering either half of the ninth inning with a 4-run deficit or worse. In the subsequently ensuing innings, does the Comeback team win more often?
From 2002-2011 I found 53 games that matched this criteria. In 24 of those games the Comeback Team ended up winning the game. In 29 of those games, the team surrendering the late lead ultimately fought back and won, much like the Detroit Tigers had Saturday evening.
Expanding the data-set to 1950-2010 shows evidence of an even larger advantage for the Lead-surrendering Team, where they won 118 games to just 87 losses. Now, it is important that we keep in mind that there may be any number of sampling issues with this-- the team that lead by four runs over the course of 8 innings is probably more often the better team. Blowing a 4-run lead is likely more indicative of one bad reliever, rather than a bad team (which, incidentally, was certainly the case with Valverde and the Tigers in Game 1, by my judgement at least). So a more controlled examination of the subject here may be warranted for another day. But until then, I think this should be food for thought next time we're certain we are watching a team that seems clearly emotionally 'deflated'.
After the game, TBS's Craig Sager interviewed Delmon Young, who ultimately drove in the game-winning run. Sager asked, "How were you able to keep composure after being so deflated?" Young's answer was almost sabermetric, really.
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