One-run games make big difference to even best teams

Looking at the Yankees' year-by-year results, 1925 sticks out like a sore thumb. The Bombers' finishes in the American League, starting in 1921, Babe Ruth's second year with the club, look like this: 1, 1, 1, 2, 7, 1, 1, 1.
How did the mighty Yankees finish 69-84, 281/2 games out of first place? The most obvious reason for the one-year hiccup was that Ruth played just 98 games. After collapsing in a train station in Asheville, N.C., and undergoing surgery for an intestinal abscess, the Bambino missed the first month and a half of the season, returning on June 1 when the Yankees were already in a 15-25 hole.
But Ruth's primary sub, Ben Paschal, had a season almost as good as the legend he replaced - in 10 fewer games, he hit .360, a full 70 points higher than Ruth, with 12 home runs and 56 RBI to Ruth's 25 homers and 66 RBI.
Ruth's health problems weren't the only reason he missed games - he was suspended for the first week of September after showing up late for a game at the end of August. But the Yanks went 5-1 during that stretch. So, the Yanks were 20-26 during Ruth's two main periods of absence. That hardly explains their 49-58 record in the rest of their games.
The Yankees also made two major position switches that year. At shortstop, Everett Scott was benched in May after playing 1,307 straight games, and replaced by Pee Wee Wanninger. In June, Wally Pipp was hit in the head during batting practice. Wanninger hit .236 and never played another game for the Bombers - Mark Koenig took over in 1926 and went 9-for-18 in the 1927 World Series. The guy who replaced Pipp started his own consecutive games streak, and was pretty impressive from the start - Lou Gehrig finished his rookie season with 20 home runs, good for fifth in the American League.
As for the pitching, the Yanks' starting five in 1925 were Waite Hoyt, Sam Jones, Herb Pennock, Bob Shawkey and Urban Shocker. None of them had a winning record, but Hoyt, Pennock and Shocker all were key pitchers for the Murderers' Row team two years later.
The staff ERA in 1925 was 4.33, fourth in the American League. The problem was that although the Bombers lived up to their name with a league-high 110 home runs, that was the only way they scored: their 706 runs ranked next to last.
But most of all, what the 1925 Yankees proved is that there's no such thing as "knowing how to win close games." If anyone should have known, it would be a team that had won three of the last four American League pennants. But they didn't, posting a 21-32 record in one-run games.
If 53 one-run games seems like a lot, that's because it is - that total represented 34.4% of the Yankees' games in 1925, compared to the league average of 27.5%. One-run games make a difference: just ask this year's Chicago White Sox, who entered the weekend with 19 wins in their major league-high 27 one-run games. Forty-one percent of Chicago's games this season have been decided by one run - last year the average was 26.3%.
And what about this year's Yankees? Is that what's been ailing them? Too many fluky one-run losses? No, actually, it's just the opposite. The Yanks entered the weekend tied with the Orioles for the lowest total of one-run games in the majors - they've won six of their 10 nail-biters, just 15% of their schedule.
"There will be (more close games)," says Mariano Rivera, who makes his living making sure the Yankees win such contests. "They come along. That's how it is. You always have to be ready for it."
Only 49% of the Yankees' games this season have been decided by three or fewer runs either way, shockingly far below the league average of 60%. They've had seven wins by nine or more runs, nine humiliating losses by six runs or more. Their average win has been by 4.6 runs, their average loss by 3.4. The 1925 Yanks also suffered an average loss by 3.4 runs, but their average win was by only 3.2.
What does all of that mean? It means what anyone who's been watching already knows: On any given day, the Yankees either have it - like against Pittsburgh - or they don't - like in Kansas City. The significant differential between their win margins and loss margins should mean that over the long haul, they will be better than a .500 team. As always, though, it's a matter of translating the "should" from paper to the "will be" on the field.