Joe Posnanski's "The Three Toughest Outs" blog post is a week old already (OK, a week and a day if you wanna be a dick about it), but I'm just getting around to it now. But, like most things he does, I found it equally entertaining and fascinating. Enough so that I thought it worth dusting off to bring to your attention.
Joe decided to take on the old baseball cliche that the 9th inning consists of "the three toughest outs in baseball". And, like only Joe can, he turned that into a 4,000 word dissertation. If you like baseball (and you probably wouldn't be here if you didn't), you'll enjoy it. Go read it in its entirety.
But we're going to ignore all the fluff right now and highlight the crux of the matter: How batters fair in that final inning.
Hitting by inning since 1970 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage):
1st inning: .270/.342/.413
2nd inning: .254/.318/.389
3rd inning: .263/.327/.402
4th inning: .267/.330/.419
5th inning: .265/.328/.408
6th inning: .267/.333/.418
7th inning: .261/.331/.399
8th inning: .256/.327/.389
9th inning: .247/.316/.372
Now, before we get into this, let's acknowledge that ninth inning statistics are wildly skewed. The home team does not bat in the ninth when it has the lead, so ninth inning statistics lean heavily toward road teams -- ninth-inning stats are about 2/3 road teams. And road teams do not hit as well as home teams. Also, the ninth inning has been handled so many different ways over the years -- there was an era where starters were expected to finish their games, an era of multi-inning firemen, an era of the closer, an era of the high-priced, one-inning closer -- that you can't really directly compare the ninth inning to any other.
That said, I didn't make up the cliche. The cliche is that the ninth inning has the three toughest outs in baseball.
And when you look at the numbers you see it: The cliche is absolutely, undeniably, absurdly wrong. They are the easiest three outs.
I'd be lying if I said I didn't find this a little shocking. I didn't expect the pendulum to really swing in either direction in the 9th. I expected the numbers across all innings to be fairly consistent; the 9th included. You know, that other baseball cliche about everything evening out?
We can discuss why we think the numbers are so much lower in the 9th -- it does make sense, to some degree. In the modern era teams reserve their best bullpen arm for that final frame -- but that's generally only in close games. If we want to use Mariano Rivera as our model, he typically pitches somewhere in the 60-70 game range each season. That leaves nearly 100 other contests that the Yankees have had to rely on someone that wasn't their best pitcher to close out the game. It's quite fascinating, really.
But the next time you hear someone make the claim about how tough those 9th inning outs are, now you know what a bunch of poppycock that is.