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The Value of Things: Trailing Pythagoras

Can we use past results to predict the future?

Portrait Pythagoras, Greek philosopher. Drawing. Undated. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images) Portrait Pythagoras, griechischer Philosoph. Zeichnung. Undatiert.

On a long enough timeline the survival rate drops to zero. Baseball analysts began using the Pythagorean method back in the 1970s. Essentially the idea is that when you look at a team’s runs scored and runs allowed you should be able to reasonably predict their record. If you collect enough data you will realize that most teams will finish around where they should be.

As logical and common sensical as that sounds, it flew in the face of the prevailing wisdom at the time. The experts would utter adages like, “the great teams win the close ones.” The problem was that there was very little empirical evidence to support such a claim. What actually happens is that the great teams blow their opponents’ doors off.

In any one season a team could overachieve their expectations. However, those results normally do not sustain themselves. In the baseball vernacular, there simply was no constant force that would dictate why a team happened to be successful. Some thought it was having a great bullpen. Others thought that clutch hitting actually exists. It might exist but not necessarily on a team wide basis.

We can measure the same things in football. The ole adage would seem to indicate that great teams win the one score games decided in the fourth quarter. Is this actually true or do the great ones blow out their opponents like they do in baseball? Well, to test this we are going to clump the top ten teams together and the bottom ten teams together. We will then look at their collective record in one score games and games decided by nine points or more.

The Good

The cutoff for our selection of good teams were teams with ten or more wins. There were ten such teams, so that would be a grand total of 170 games played. Hopefully, the sample size is big enough to reach some conclusions.

Overall Record: 113-57 (.665)

One Score Games: 43-33 (.566)

Record in Blowouts: 70-24 (.745)

So far the same holds with great football teams as great baseball teams. The good ones blow their opponents out. There were outliers as there always are. The Patriots had the worst record in blowout games as they finished 7-4. Obviously the results are pretty skewed.

Most of the teams finished around .500 in the close games. Buffalo went a horrendous 0-5 in close games. Tampa Bay was the best team at 6-1 in those close games. Obviously we can reach some conclusions based on these numbers, but I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. First, we need to pay off on the bottom eleven teams that all lost ten or more games last season.

The Bad

Again, the prevailing wisdom is that the bad teams are probably not as bad as it seems. They are just too inexperienced or undisciplined to win those close games. In baseball we find this not to be true over extended time. I suspect the same thing is true with football, but let’s go ahead and check. There should be 187 games for these 11 teams.

Overall Record: 57-129-1 (.307)

One Score Games: 31-48-1 (.469)

Blowout Games: 26-81 (.243)

Obviously there are individual outliers that skew these numbers one way or the other. Hopefully, they even themselves out. Atlanta finished a ridiculous 7-2 in close games. For the math impaired, that means they were shut out in the blowout games. Again, we will talk about the implications of that in a subsequent article.

The Ugly

Obviously, you are waiting to get the Texans numbers out of the way. This is where we get the good news and the bad news. The good news is that the Texans got all of their wins in blow outs. They were 4-9 in blowout games. We normally expect regression to the mean, so their 0-4 record in close games is not sustainable. The law of averages says they should win one or two of those.

The bad news is that they played in more blowout games than any other team in the league. Again, we will need to do a deep dive to figure out what that means for the future. My first inclination is to say it seems like rough waters lie ahead, but I have been wrong before. We will study that next time.