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Do good MLB teams suffer more walk-off losses?

When Boston’s Tommy Pham singled home Christian Arroyo for the game-winning run last night, that secured the Yankees their eighth walk-off loss of the 2022 campaign. That number is tied for the most in baseball, with only those very same Red Sox even with New York in that respect.

Nobody likes walk-off losses. They’re the breaking point of an emotional rollercoaster of a game that leaves you with a sour taste in your mouth, as your team’s best relievers — or in Wednesday’s case, the baserunners — prove unable to get the job done that day. Even worse, the pain of these losses get relived over and over, as (unsurprisingly) highlight reels tend to replay the moment over and over, especially when they occur in nationally televised games, rivalry matchups, or worst of all, rivalry matchups in nationally televised games. Let’s just say that there’s a reason I tend to have the television turned off before the winning run scores at the end of a Yankees walk-off loss.

And yet, as much as individual walk-off losses annoy me, in the aggregate, they haven’t really bothered me. By definition, a walk-off loss is a close game rather than a blowout, because the losing team kept the score tied until the last second, and may even have held the lead. I’ve often felt that good teams are more prone to walk-offs than bad ones, simply because they generally avoid blowouts and tend to keep games close even when it’s not their day. The fact that these Yankees have been walked off this season as much as they have has only reinforced this thought, because as frustrating as they have been, they’re still very much a good team.

Feelings, however, can lie. And so, I decided to test my gut and dive into the numbers to see if good teams truly suffer more walk-off losses than bad ones. To do this, I went back through the last five full seasons (so, 2016-2019 and 2021) and found each team’s winning percentage and number of walk-off losses, taking my data from the Schedules and Results page on each team’s Baseball Reference Site; due to the unusual nature of the 2020 season, it was not included in the data. Overall, with five years’ worth of data for all 30 teams, I had 150 data points.

The results were … well, just take a look for yourself.

Let’s ignore the calculated trendline for a moment. Looking just at the data points themselves, nothing immediately jumps out, except for perhaps a tendency for them to form straight lines. The trendline sheds a bit of light on things, as the downwards slope suggests that reality is the exact opposite of my original hypothesis: good teams are in fact more likely to have fewer walk-off losses than bad ones, not more. That R-squared of 0.048, however, complicates things again, as it reveals that there is less than five percent of the variation in the number of walk-off losses that can be attributed to the team’s winning percentage. In other words, while it may be true that good teams are less likely to compile walk-off losses, there is a lot of apparent randomness in the system.

So if a team’s quality has minimal effect on the number of times they’re walked off on in the season, which stat might actually be more predictive? I’d wager that bullpen quality has something to do with it. Although it’s important for good teams to have good relievers, every October sees at least a couple of teams put together a strong postseason run despite question marks outside the rotation, while middling-at-best teams sometimes have surprisingly dominant bullpens (see the 2014- 16 Yankees); this combination of factors could explain the noise in the data. Properly analyzing that hunch, however, is a discussion for another day — the dark days of the offseason, perhaps.