The Phillies are “Built” to Win 1 Run Games

Much has been made of the Phillies’ record in 1 run games. The 11-3 mark has been pointed to as a mark for why the Phillies are sure to regress. But what if this is not a fluke, because 1 run games are an inherently narrow construct that fails to account for the circumstances that put a team in this situation. So let’s try and construct a team to win a large percentage of 1 run games. Take note that winning 1 run games is not a strategy for a good team, nor is it a strategy that a team should pursue.

Play Close Games:

To have 1 run games you need to have close games. This means you need allow near about the same amount of runs that you score. You have two options for accomplishing this great starting pitching staff and terrible offense, or great offense and terrible starting pitching staff. In my personal opinion the lower the amount of runs the easier it is to ensure that the games stay close because you open yourself up to less random variability.

You Need To Win the Close Games You Lead:

So to have a great 1 run winning percentage you need to win the games you have that lead in. This means you need to have a strong set of high leverage relievers. Because you are going to be in a lot of save situations, you probably need at least 3 good relievers to account for rest and fatigue.

You Can’t Lose By 1 Run:

Part of this is that you cannot lose by just one run, remember we aren’t trying to be good, we are trying to game a stat. If your whole bullpen is good top to bottom you are going to keep the games you are trailing close. This means you will win more 1 run games because your offense will come back on the other team’s bullpen, but you are going to lose some games by 1 run because your offense never came through. This means that your bullpen needs to be shallow. Your primary relievers are working all of the games you are leading and are less available in close games you are losing, so you turn it over to your scrubs to put the game out of reach.

That leaves us with a fairly simple formula:

  • Low run production or a bad offense
  • Great run prevention to keep you close in games, ideally keeping you up by a run or two
  • Good relievers to close out games you are leading
  • Not enough relievers to keep you in close games

Now this is all a theory with no numbers to back it up, but it looks an awful lot like the Phillies. What makes the 1 run game stat flawed is that it assumes many variables and does not account for team production that has wildly different outcomes due to non-ideal team construction. As for things like sustainability, there is no reason to think that this is not a model that could work over a full season if you kept the team built the same. As for year to year, there is no way you would build a team intentionally to look like the 2016 Phillies, it is not a way to reliably win a lot of games nor is it really a way to lose a lot of games either. You have to luck into pitching talent while waiting for hitting talent.

Photo by Baseball Betsy

Author: Matt Winkelman

Matt Winkelman
Matt is originally from Mt. Holly, NJ, but after a 4 year side track to Cleveland for college he now resides in Madison, WI. His work has appeared on Phuture Phillies, The Good Phight, and TheDynastyGuru.


  1. Rujasu

    I wouldn’t even say you have a “theory” at this point, but it’s an interesting hypothesis. That said, I can buy that a team with extremely good pitching/defense and poor offense can sustainably win lots of one-run games with a smaller run differential. Basically, if the overall scores are lower, the run differential could also be lower. It’s something worth exploring for someone with a lot more time and knowledge than I have.

    What I have a lot of trouble buying into, however, is the idea that a team can consistently win close games with a *negative* run differential. I realize run differential is not your favorite stat and you have some objections to it. But over a long period of time, you have to consistently score more runs than the other team, even you’re not outscoring them by much. To consistently win with a negative run differential, you need to basically win lots of close games and lose lots of not-close games. The Phillies are doing that now, but I don’t expect that to continue over the long term. As far as I can tell, it is not something that has happened in the past, and I don’t see what has changed that would enable it to happen in the future.

    • TCup

      Rujasu, I appreciate your well thought out ideas. I agree with you in general. Sustainable, no, but Matt provides a great hypothesis to explain what’s happened in the first month. I think a key, though, is Matt’s last sentence. The way they’re building this, the pitching comes before the hitting. This odd group of players the Phils are rolling out there every night is going to keep getting better as the prospects arrive. It’s a fun process to watch.

  2. Eddie

    1) “In my personal opinion the lower the amount of runs the easier it is to ensure that the games stay close because you open yourself up to less random variability.”

    That’s not just an opinion, that’s mathematical fact.

    2) The word “built” sounds like a conscious design, and I don’t think that’s likely

    3) In any event, the Phillies don’t really fit the formula; it’s not like the difference between their best relievers is all that stark. With the exception of Oberholtzer, they’ve all been ok.

    It really is just flukey.