Never give up! What comeback wins tell us about MLB teams like the New York Yankees

Never give up! What comeback wins tell us about MLB teams like the New York Yankees post thumbnail image

For a few weeks this season, the New York Yankees seemed to be establishing an unusual identity for a powerhouse contending team: The Cardiac Clubbers, to put an old-timey moniker on it.

That is, the Yankees seemed to have a propensity for come-from-behind wins. They came from behind to win their first two games this season, in fact, beating the Red Sox both times. By May 12, the Bombers had come back to win 11 times in games they trailed at some point, the highest total in baseball.

New York’s rate of comeback wins has slowed and while the Yankees still top the leaderboard with 13 comeback wins (through Wednesday), other teams have closed in, including the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Diego Padres and Milwaukee Brewers, who all have 12.

When a team enjoys a spate of comeback wins, it generates a lot of narrative energy, especially if most of those rallies happen in the late innings and are punctuated by game-winning hits leading to lots of dancing around the field.

Some might even start to suggest that such a team has developed a “knack” for these kinds of wins. They have a “never say die” spirit and are mentally tough. The thing is, these kinds of ephemeral descriptions make for nice stories but they rarely hold up to analytical scrutiny.

Nevertheless, is there anything we can say about a team with a lot of comeback wins? Does such a trait portend great things down the line? Is it actually a bad thing because good teams don’t fall behind that often in the first place?

Let’s investigate.

How to make sense of comeback wins

First of all, looking at the raw number of comeback wins doesn’t tell us much. Simply put: Good teams tend to get more of them than bad teams. The ability to come from behind is a byproduct of having a good roster. You have a deep bullpen that keeps games from getting out of hand even if you do fall behind. You have a potent lineup that can put up runs even against the lead-preserving contingents of opposing bullpens. And so on.

Looking at comeback wins as a percentage of overall wins doesn’t tell us that much, either. If we use that criteria to establish a level of expectation and see how the team does against that expectation, what we find is teams with really powerful rotations don’t tend to pile up a ton of extra comeback wins because they have many fewer games in which they trail in the first place.

An example: We created a metric to look at this and ranked all teams since 1974. Coming in dead last was the 1998 Atlanta Braves, who won 106 games. They trailed (at any time) in only 86 regular-season games overall. Why? There were five main reasons: Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Kevin Millwood and Denny Neagle.

What we want to capture here is how often a team comes back to win in a game that they trailed at some point. We can then establish levels of expectation for comeback wins (or CBW, for short) using leaguewide totals. From there, we can see how much better or worse a team does against expectation and calculate overall success rate.

Through Wednesday, the Yankees had those 13 comeback wins among their 31 overall wins. They had lost 13 games. By definition, any game in which you lose is a game in which you trailed at some point, even if it was only at the very end of the game. Add the comeback wins and overall losses together, and the Yankees have had 26 comeback opportunities (CBWopps). Those 13 comeback wins translate to a 50% CBW success rate, which leads the majors.

Based on the league CBW success rates (around 30%), the Yankees’ expected number of comeback wins is 8.0. So those 13 come-from-behind wins gives them 5.0 comeback wins above average (CBWAA) which, prorated for the full season, translates to 18.6. That’s the measure we’re looking for: CBWAA per 162 games, which we can compare to teams from past seasons.

New York’s 18.6 CBWAA/162 would be a high number, as would the 50% success rate. However, it’s early and sample size plays a big role in this measure. The best evidence for that is the frequent presence of teams from the truncated 2020 season at both the top and the bottom of the leaderboard for all teams since 1974. (The data, from TruMedia, is available beginning with that season.)

With that caveat in mind, here are the leaders in CBWAA/162 since 1974:

There are a few historically great teams on the list, which you would expect intuitively. They weren’t great because they came from behind a lot but they came from behind a lot because they were great. The average team in the top 30 won 103 games out of 162.

A few of the teams on the list were overachievers from the standpoint of run differential. That includes the No. 1 team — the 2004 Yankees, who had a run differential of an 89-win team but won 101 games. That New York team was one of four teams on the list whose record outstripped what you’d expect based on run differential by at least eight games. None of those teams won a title.

Fourteen of the 28 teams on the leaderboard, outside of the two from the current season, went on to the World Series. Six of them won the title and some of those are among some of the greatest teams we’ve seen: the Reds of 1975 and 1976, along with the 1998 Yankees.

Again, it’s early and these numbers could change wildly in a short period of time. But through Wednesday, this year’s Yankees had the run differential of an eventual 109-win team, while the Dodgers were at a staggering 119.

We’ll see what happens, but if the Yankees and Dodgers continue to maintain these run differentials while putting up more than their share of comeback wins, it’s not the kind of thing that paints them as a fluke. It’s the kind of thing that can happen with a historically great team.

Are hitters or pitchers behind comeback success?

The Yankees and Dodgers both rank among the six highest-scoring teams so far this season, and also rank in the top six by OPS+, which considers ballpark context. They are two of the best-hitting teams in the majors. Meanwhile, the Yankees and Dodgers are also top-five in ERA and ERA+.

In terms of come-from-behind propensity, what’s more important: scoring or preventing scoring?

The real answer is some combination of both — and on the pitching side, some combination of starting pitching and bullpen effectiveness. However, a great offense is likely to have more of an effect on your ability to overcome early deficits than a great pitching staff.

We ran correlations between CBWAA/162 and bWAR for different position groups, as well as the overall team totals. Correlations run between 0 and 1, with 1 representing a perfect correlation and 0 representing no correlation at all. The scores for all teams since 1974:

Overall team bWAR: 0.76
Position player bWAR: 0.63
Pitcher bWAR: 0.40
Rotation bWAR: 0.32
Bullpen bWAR: 0.33

Again, there is a measure of the chicken-and-egg dynamic here. There is a strong correlation between a team’s overall success and its ability to come from behind. But that doesn’t mean that the latter causes the former. It’s more that, frequently, coming from behind is a byproduct of being good.

Still, it is striking that the correlation between hitters and this trait is so much higher than pitchers. It makes sense intuitively. Maybe you can get a jump on a team with a great offense early, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to keep it down for the whole game. If your opponent excelled more because of pitching than offense, then maybe your chances to hold that early lead would grow.

This effect — of offenses being more crucial in coming from behind than pitching — holds true at the league level. While year-to-year range CBW% operates in a fairly narrow band between around 29% up to around 32%, there is some minor fluctuation, and it tends to dovetail with changes in offensive level.

Since 1974, the highest rate of MLB comeback wins was 32.2% — in 2000, which also happens to be the highest-scoring season of the last 90 years or so. The rate dropped closer to 29% when scoring dipped in 2014 and 2015. So far in 2022, the rate has collapsed to 26.8%. If that keeps up, it would be by far the fewest number of comeback wins we’ve seen during the period of the study.

For the Yankees and Dodgers, their elite offenses don’t necessarily mean that they’ll keep piling up the comeback wins. But it does mean they are more likely to mount a rally in a given game than if they had average or worse offenses.

The bottom line is that for all the fun narrative aspects that come with a team reeling off a series of comeback wins, in the grand scheme, it doesn’t mean that much. Over the course of the season, the best teams will tend to be the best at coming from behind, especially if that team has an excellent offense.

What does all this tell us about championship teams?

To finish off this exploration of comeback teams, let’s flip this around. Instead of looking at how teams that compile more than their share of comeback wins do overall, let’s look at championship teams and see how they tend to do through the lens of comeback wins.

Based on the history of this measure, you don’t have to lead the league in CBW proficiency, but you do have to exhibit a solid ability to overcome deficits if you want to win it all.

Of the 47 World Series champs since 1974, seven of them led their league in CBWAA, but it has happened just twice since 2009. Yankees fans might like this fact, as they well know 2009 was the last time New York won it all. But, they might not like it because the other recent team to do it was the 2018 Red Sox.

Overall, 23 of the 47 most recent champs ranked in the top five of CBWAA and 39 were in the top 10. Only three ranked 15th or lower: the 2000 Yankees, 2001 Diamondbacks and 2006 Cardinals.

The 47 champs have averaged 7.7 comeback wins above average per 162 games, which is about one standard deviation above average. And only one of those 47 were actually below average in this regard: The 2006 Cardinals, who won that season’s World Series after going 83-78 in the regular season.

The spate of come-from-behind wins for the Yankees doesn’t guarantee anything. It also probably doesn’t say anything about them in terms of their “moxie” or “grit” or “toughness.” It probably just means that they are really good.

Still, if the Yankees (or Dodgers) go on to win it all, all the comebacks will make for one engaging narrative.

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