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the balboni/manning theory of sports teams

In baseball lore, the “Curse of the Balboni” means that teams with sluggers (a player who hits 36 home runs per year or more) don’t win the world series. It is also a short hand for the observation that slugging isn’t always correlated with play off wins. I was reminded of this during this year’s Super Bowl when the Denver Broncos lost the Super Bowl after posting one of the most impressive performances in the history of the NFL. Not only did they lose, they lost very, very badly.

What’s my hypothesis? My theory is that teams with extremely successful offenses tend to overlook the defense. Think of it is an “sense making” issue in athletic organizations. Defenses are often less glamorous and harder to measure in many cases (e.g., good fielding in baseball or blocking in football). So they get less attention than offense. So having top notch offense let’s you off the hook defense wise. It distracts you from problems in the organization. In a league or division with unbalanced teams, it can be easy to wrack up wins. But when you meet more balanced teams in the play offs, or even teams who are a little better at exploiting defense mistakes, your success is limited.

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Written by fabiorojas

May 6, 2014 at 12:01 am

11 Responses

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  1. I suspect the phenomenon is based on personal experience and not on empirical evidence. In basketball, Dean Oliver (Baskeball on paper: Rules and tools for performance analysis) found that offensive efficiency predicts team performance better than defensive efficiency, although both are strongly related to performance.

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    Evidence?

    May 6, 2014 at 6:15 am

  2. Seems like a bit of a jump to equate having a “top notch offense” with having a player who hit 36+ homeruns, no? Last year’s champ (Boston) didn’t have a player with more than 30 HR, but they scored 5.3 runs per game, which was most in baseball.

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    Iyh

    May 6, 2014 at 11:24 am

  3. I know that the Balboni Curse isn’t really the point of this post . . . but not only did Ryan Howard have 48 HR in 2008, when the Phillies won the World Series, but generally the Phillies did worse in the post-season as their “runs allowed” improved and their “runs scored” decreased. I’m guessing that the Phillies would’ve done better in 2010 and 2011 if Howard had kept on hitting over 36 HR.

    http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/PHI/

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    Phillies

    May 6, 2014 at 3:18 pm

  4. It’s not just the 2008 Phillies. Since Jazayerli wrote that B-Pro piece, it’s also the 2011 Cardinals (Pujols, 37 HR); the 2009 Yankees (Teixeira, 39 HR); the 2006 Cardinals (Pujols, 49 HR); the 2005 White Sox (Konerko, 40 HR); the 2004 Red Sox (Ramirez, 43 HR, and Ortiz, 41 HR); and the 2001 Diamondbacks (57 from Gonzalez, plus another 33 from Sanders).

    (The 2007 Red Sox got 35 HR from Ortiz.)

    We could also look at team-wide HR (given the World Series winners that have, as Jazayerli notes, had multiple players on their rosters with HR totals around 30 — which is, indeed, notable) and runs-scored totals (as “Evidence?” suggests).

    And we could discuss PEDs, and changes in levels of league-wide runs scored over MLB history.

    But at the end of the post, I think it’s worth considering Rany just might’ve had his tongue somewhere in the vicinity of his cheek while writing that column…

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    Josh Garoon

    May 6, 2014 at 3:49 pm

  5. What about difference in sample size between the regular season and the play-offs?

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    Eric S

    May 6, 2014 at 6:51 pm

  6. “Eric S”: It’s very weird. Regular season is much larger but the population is different – it’s more random matches between teams. Play -offs are smaller N but smaller margin between teams.

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    fabiorojas

    May 6, 2014 at 7:17 pm

  7. Got it. Thanks, Fabio.

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    Eric S

    May 6, 2014 at 7:35 pm

  8. If there is empirical evidence to support such a curse, it might be worth noting that only 8 of the 28 President’s Trophy winners in hockey went on to win the Cup (that means you, George McPhee). Some puckheads say the psychology of the postseason handicaps offense-heavy teams. Players grip the stick too tight, try to do too much. Players that carry a team with finesse and play relaxed during the regular season are often burdened by scoring slumps in the “amped up” playoffs. I wouldn’t be surprised if some batsmen in baseball, quarterbacks in football carry the same burden.

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    klp38

    May 7, 2014 at 9:39 am

  9. Perhaps ignorance of defense is some of the culprit, but I have another explanation, particularly for baseball. (I’ll note that this hypothesis is almost certainly not supported within the past 10 or 15 years in baseball, SF Giants excluded and leaving aside the completely arbitrary 36 HR choice…what happens when we change to 35…what if productive offenses are focused on rather than just HR?).

    Going from a 5-man regular season rotation to a 5 or 7 game playoff series completely changes the game. High scoring teams might not win as many championships as we expect because of the change in structure of the contest success function in the playoffs vs. the regular season. This is more involved than a small N issue as noted above.

    This is a big reason why we see top-heavy pitching teams like the Johnson-Schilling Diamondbacks rolling through better teams. The 1 and 2 starters have just that much more influence on the outcome of a series.

    In other words, teams that spent money on sluggers are very successful with a 5-man rotation as they spread their remaining defensive dollars across their rotation more evenly. But once they get to the playoffs, all bets are off.

    It’s not clear that these teams are actually overlooking defense, as you say. It’s not easy to get a 1-2 top heavy punch, and teams without those top level pitchers wouldn’t make the playoffs without their sluggers. And of course we know that you can’t win playoff games without getting there first.

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    Brian Mills

    May 13, 2014 at 12:46 am

  10. @Brian: Are there solid data showing that teams that are top-heavy in terms of starting pitching fare better in postseason series than teams with more balanced rotations?

    I suspect that if we go back and check out the postseason rotations (especially in recent World Series), we’ll find relatively few instances in which teams actually run with a three-man starting rotation, and even fewer in which fourth and fifth starters don’t pitch significant innings (“significant” in terms of number and/or leverage).

    I’d be very interested to see evidence that, say, the 2005 Astros are the exception to a rule, rather than further evidence that when it comes to the baseball postseason, chance rules…

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    Josh Garoon

    May 13, 2014 at 2:29 am

  11. Obviously I used an anecdotal data point and would have to go back through for real evidence, so point taken. One of the issues that might be tough to discern is top-heavy vs. just plain good throughout. But I suspect the teams we see winning *more than our expectation* based on regular season record would be those that have the ability to take advantage of the short series structure of the playoffs in baseball.

    Is there really any question that throwing your Top 2 starters in 4 of 7 games is going to give you an advantage if you have 2 of the best starters in the game?

    But as I said, I find the claim that high powered offenses don’t fare well pretty dubious to begin with. I’m sure we could find an arbitrary data point with respect to pitching that would work just as well as the 36 HR cutoff for batters that shows the result we want to show.

    Sure, poor allocation of salary specifically to HR without consideration of other offensive contributions could result in lack of WS rings. But I’m not sure in what world slugging is limited to a single measure of 36 HR or more, and no consideration of anything else. If we look at Runs Scored in baseball the way the Denver Broncos are used here, the conclusion just doesn’t add up.

    2013 Red Sox were #1 in scoring, 2011 Cardinals were #5, 2009 Yankees were #1, 2008 Phillies were #8, 2007 Red Sox were #4, 2006 Cardinals were #8, 2004 Red Sox were #1, 2002 Angels were #2, 2001 Diamondbacks were #7 (but also no question the Johnson/Schilling duo won them the series here), 1999 Yankees were #5, 1998 Yankees were #1…and so on.

    So I guess my question is: what’s the point? The hypothesis makes a large jump from the 36 HR number to the idea that teams must be mis-allocating resources to offense. This could maybe account for some of the effect–we know there have been advances in valuation of certain skills–but most teams know that just paying per HR isn’t the best use of resources already.

    I think this has changed a bit as well, with the increased focus on strong, high-strikeout bullpens over the past 5 years or so in lieu of starters that go 9 innings every time.

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    Brian Mills

    May 13, 2014 at 3:07 am


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