One-Run Reversal

USA TODAY Sports

A week ago, Carlos Rodon struck out fifteen Georgia Tech batters and allowed one run, only to take his seventh loss of the season because the NC State offense never crossed the plate.

The Pack would go on to win the next two games of the series and remain in contention for one of the last slots into the ACC tournament, but the night was just another in a long trend of close losses for the Pack this year. A year after going 25-8 in games decided by three runs or less, and an obscene 14-4 in one-run games, the Pack has gone in the exact opposite direction. This year’s iteration of the Pack 9 is now 8-12 in games decided by three runs or less and 4-5 in one-run contests.

Obviously winning seventy-five percent of your close games two years in a row is an unrealistic expectation, even though preseason rankings probably failed to take that into account (Two first-round picks?! Top 5!). We can drag out Bill James’ Pythagorean expectation, which uses runs scored and runs allowed to predict how many games a team "should" win, to quickly see how well the team has performed against expectations the last two years.

Year RS RA W-L (Overall) Expected W-L (ACC) Expected
2013 402 252 50-16 46-20 19-10 16-13
2014 378 345 24-19 23-20 9-15 11-13

So the Pack has basically performed how we would have expected this year overall, but it's two wins behind expectations in ACC play. This may not seem like much, but those two wins would put the Pack comfortably in the ACC tournament right now, with a realistic chance of jumping out of the "play-in" game.*

*The ACC will take the top ten teams to the tournament but teams 7-10 have to play an extra game, with the winners moving on to the pool play portion, and from there the tournament will proceed as it has the last few years with winners of each pool playing in the championship game on Sunday.


So what’s led to this sudden negative turnaround in performance in close games?  There are several factors, so let’s just go in order from least impactful to most impactful.

Pitching Depth
When you go 41-2 last year after six innings, and then turn around and go 21-2 in the same situation the next year, the late inning relief is not the problem. The Pack obviously doesn't have the bullpen depth it had last season, but if you give this team a lead late in the game it’s normally enough to get a win. So it’s probably the struggles of the starters, what with Logan Jernigan and Brad Stone both struggling to find consistency, right?

Well, the answer is yes and no. While both those pitchers were expected to slot in behind Rodon and form a stable weekend rotation, their struggles haven’t represented much of a departure from last year. The Pack had the same problem finding answers behind Rodon last season, and in fact the Pack’s ERA in conference play is down almost half a run from last year.

That’s largely thanks to The Wonder Twins – Eric and Patrick Peterson – who together have provided stability in the Saturday slot that the Pack didn't have last year. Sunday has remained a roll of the dice, but again that’s not much different than last season. The Pack has already had twenty-four starts of more than five innings in 2014, ahead of last year’s pace when they finished a sixty-six game season with thirty-one such starts.

Situational W-L 2013 2014
1-Run W-L 14-4 4-5
3 or less Run W-L 11-4 4-7
> 3 Run W-L 25-8 16-7
After 6 leading 41-2 21-2
After 6 trailing 4-12 0-16
After 7 leading 41-2 21-1
After 7 trailing 4-14 0-15
After 8 leading 42-0 23-1
After 8 trailing 2-14 0-17
Opponent 0-2 runs 28-2 17-5
... 3-5 runs 16-2 6-2
... 6-9 runs 6-8 1-9
... 10+ runs 0-4 0-3

Hitting
Perhaps the most glaring stat when looking at the various situational win-loss records the past two years is the Pack’s record when their opposition scores between six and nine runs. Last year the Pack won forty-two percent of those games, and this season the Pack has won ten percent, or just one game, when the opponent scores more than five runs.

So, yeah, the offense has certainly taken a step back. It also shuts down entirely late in the game, with NC State not winning a single contest in come-from-behind fashion after the sixth inning. Overall the Pack has struck out more than any team in the conference, ranks last in the league in doubles and in the bottom five in total bases. In ACC play, the Pack is hitting .250/.322/.338 and has four players with at least thirty at-bats hitting below the Mendoza Line.

And really, that last part seems to be the biggest problem. It’s easy to point to Trea Turner’s batting average drop and say, 'that’s why the offense is struggling', but in reality there are just far too many holes in the line-up. There’s no incentive to throw Turner a decent pitch when half the line-up can’t get the ball out of the infield. Last year in conference play, the Pack had seven of its nine regulars hitting over .280. If we use the same 30 at-bat threshold as above, then only Brett Austin and Andrew Knizner are hitting above that line with two conference series left to play (Chance Shepard and Rodon are both hitting over .280, but are below the at-bat minimum I arbitrarily set).

Luck
"If you get just one extra flare a week – just one – a gorp... you get a groundball, you get a groundball with eyes... you get a dying quail, just one more dying quail a week... and you’re in Yankee Stadium." – Crash Davis

Leave it to Crash Davis to perfectly address the role of luck in baseball. No one really likes to talk about "luck" on TV broadcasts or on the radio because it takes away from the GRIT, DETERMINATION AND WILL TO WIN that good teams possess and that the rest of us clearly lack. Pointing to luck sucks drama from the proceedings, so I see why it’s rarely brought up, but truth be told this is probably the largest reason that NC State went 14-4 in one-run games last year and is 4-5 this year.

They got really lucky last year, and a little unlucky this year. Boring, I know.


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