Uh oh. Football season is coming.
This is a tough time for baseball fans. For those who enjoy football too, it’s a period of sharply divided attention. For those immune to the charms of the pigskin, it’s a discomfiting eclipse, someone else’s obsession stepping on their own. The culture clash is painful, and I will not contribute to it here, much.
Okay, one point on why baseball is better than football: Baseball season-ticket packages don’t require you to buy exhibition-season games at full price.
There is one peculiar thing that an impending football season brings to baseball commentary. (You might hear it before, but it’s much likelier when football is actually being played.) Some news reader will be running down the day’s baseball scores, and there will be some high score with just the right combination of numbers. The reader, trying to inject a dash of interest into a string of results that must be a thankless blur to someone trying to build up a career, will say with a voice like a nudging elbow:
“And a football game broke out at Wrigley today …”
“Atlanta with the late field goal to beat the Phillies …”
“Oakland missing the extra point to fall short against Minnesota …”
You can forgive them this silliness. It’s a way to jazz up a list of numbers, and it’s one more cliche in a sport that not just tolerates but cherishes its cliches. And where there is a baseball cliche, there is invariably somebody ready to peek behind it and see what’s really there.
Today, that someone is me. I am taking on the phenomenon of “football scores” in baseball. How often do they happen? What patterns do they follow or break? And does this overlap of baseball and football somehow explain the two-sport longevity of Joe Buck?
As you can tell from that last jape, no, this is not a very serious study. I don’t pretend it’s going to crack some abstruse code about how to win baseball games. It’s a look at baseball (and a certain other professional sport) from an unusual angle, a way to pick up a few interesting facts. It’s something fun, and baseball is supposed to be fun. (Even football is too, from what I hear.) So let’s have a little fun.
The quantum theory of football
What makes a score a “football score?” A big run total helps: Very high baseball scores are still low for football. The ideal thing, though, is for the scores to come in packets of sevens and threes. There are other possible scores in football, more so than before, but the seven for a touchdown plus extra point and the three for a field goal produces a very familiar pattern.
This is a key difference between football and, not only baseball, but most other team sports. Football has different numbers of points, and quite high ones, awarded for different methods of scoring. There’s something like this in basketball, with two and three-point field goals along with single-point free throws, but scoring is so high in that game that any pattern is quickly washed away. The closest analogue is rugby: The rugby union version currently has seven points for a try plus conversion, and three points for a drop goal or penalty goal.
Baseball scores have nothing like the “shape” of football scores. You would thus rarely see the cliche reversed, with a gridiron final jocularly reported as a baseball score, probably happening only when both teams scored in single digits. That’s rare in football, but not unheard-of, as we shall see.
Football’s “contours” are not that rigid. Two-point safeties are uncommon, but can produce otherwise unusual scores. More often, we have the relatively new two-point conversions for touchdowns that can produce scores of eight rather than seven. A missed conversion gives a score of six, but since that’s the same as two field goals, it fits the accustomed shape.
These plays broaden the range of plausible football scores, but perhaps not the range of what we would call, at a glance, “football scores.” This may be the product of an older generation holding to the shape of the numbers before the two-point conversion was instituted in 1994. For fans 25 and younger, though, football has “always” had the two-point conversion, the way that for anyone 45 or younger, the American League has “always” had the designated hitter. That’s right, the two-point play is football’s version of the DH.
And I just blew your mind. Er, sorry about that.
Expectations are one thing, but results on the field are another. I will be using what happens on the field. I have compared all the scores in major league baseball for the 2011 season with all the scores in the NFL for the 2011-2012 season. Where a specific score is shared by at least one baseball and one football game, I will declare that a “football score.” We can talk later about whether it looks like a football score.
There were 2,429 regular-season major league games last year (the Nationals and Dodgers missed a make-up), plus 38 games in the postseason, for 2,467 total. The NFL had 256 games, plus 11 in the postseason, for 267 in all. This gives us 658,689 possible matches. It’s no spoiler to say we won’t get too close to that number.
Generally speaking, the higher-scoring baseball games appear the most eligible to find a football match. There were only two major league games in 2011 where one team scored as high as 20, which would be considered a pretty moderate score in the NFL. (The NFL average in 2011 was 22.2.) Those games were a 22-9 romp by the Yankees over the A’s on Aug. 25, and a 20-6 Rangers beat-down of the Twins on July 25.
That Rangers game especially looks promising, but both have some hope, assuming Mark Teixeira hauled in Derek Jeter‘s two-point conversion pass (thrown flying backwards in mid-air, of course). No such luck: Both games are misses. Instead, the highest single-team score for a match is:
17-3: 1 BB/1 FB
The Yankees got in on the act after all, wiping out the Orioles in this July 30 nightcap. New York put things out of reach fast with a 12-run first inning, tossing in three in the second for emphasis. The Yankees’ one-through-eight starters all had at least two hits, including Robinson Cano going five-for-five with two doubles. The football part of the equation was Jacksonville beating a winless, Peyton Manning-less Indianapolis on Nov. 13.
For the highest total score that got hits on both sides, I give you:
14-10: 1 BB/1 FB
The Rays visited the Astros, and they put together a pretty fun game. Things went back and forth several times, Houston edging out to an 8-7 lead in the seventh before Tampa Bay got four in the eighth. Houston climbed within one, but a late Rays field goal (yeah, I’m doing it now) closed out the scoring. (This game scores a 664 on the modified WPS Index I laid out a couple weeks back, just below Mookie/Buckner level. Fun, as I said.) On the gridiron side, Cleveland beat Jacksonville on Nov. 20, the very next game after Jacksonville beat Indy to get on our list. Jacksonville obviously likes its baseball.
The next matching score is the first one where multiple games match up on one side.
14-3: 2 BB/1 FB
The Mets spanked the Tigers by this tally on June 28, and then the Padres walloped Florida by the same amount on July 20. Yes, that’s right: The Padres scored 14 runs. Baseball really is a funny game. Football’s contribution was Pittsburgh defeating Cleveland on Dec. 8. Now it’s the Browns involved twice in a row on the list. Can Pittsburgh keep the chain going?
13-9: 2 BB/2 FB
This score is unique on the list, the only one with multiple baseball and football games producing it. This could well be the ultimate “football score” in baseball, or the ultimate “baseball score” in football, the center of the overlap on the Venn diagram.
(And think about it. If you have two circles on a Venn diagram—meaning they look like baseballs—if they merge just right, the overlap looks like a football! Coincidence? Yes, of course. Don’t be silly.)
The Indians and Blue Jays hit the 13-9 mark on June 1, and the Red Sox beat the Royals by the same score on July 26. In football—yes! Pittsburgh does it, twice! Not only did the Steelers defeat Kansas City by that score on Nov. 27, but they capped off the regular season on Jan. 1, 2012 by hanging a 13-9 final on Cleveland, whom they’d beaten by a “baseball score” just four weeks back.
This doesn’t prove much, but it’s bizarrely interesting all the same. What’s next?
13-8: 1 BB/1 FB
The Cardinals and D-backs gave us baseball’s half of this equation on April 12; the 49ers and Bengals contributed their part on Sept. 25. Now, Sept. 25 is still within baseball’s regular season; it’s conceivable this game could have had its score matched on the day it was played. How likely would a same-day match be?
When doing my searches for this article, I set aside all football games where both teams scored under 20 points as plausible candidates. There were 39 on the year, out of 267 games, a rate of 14.6 percent. If you take the subset of games played in September and October, which fairly well covers the chance of overlap, the number takes an odd dip. It’s just 14 out of 116 games, a 12.1 percent rate. And much of that comes from one outlying week (Week 3), when seven of 16 games had both teams scoring under 20.
Does this mean low football scores are less common early in the season? There’s something like that in baseball: Scores rise in summer, as greater warmth of the air and the baseball makes hits fly farther. The opposite path would seem to pertain for football. Winter’s cold turns the football into a hard-to-pass rock, and one expects a low-scoring war of attrition on “the frozen tundra,” as NFL Films’ fabled voice John Facenda called it.
As low scores do become moderately more common as November hits, this explanation seems plausible. The sample size is nowhere near large enough to be confident, though, and there are other factors involved. There’s a lot more pro football played in warm-weather cities now than in the days of The Ice Bowl. It could be that hot-weather games depress scoring by wearing down players physically, while the milder temperatures found down south at the end of the year are ideal for sustained performance and thus scoring.
This is something well outside the scope of my article, or of any article at this site. I will gladly allow football analytics writers to handle this matter—which some of them probably have already.
I haven’t forgotten my question about same-day matches. I’ll get to it, I promise.
12-7: 9 BB/1 FB
Here is where the numbers begin moving fast, baseball piling up “football scores” matching that Jaguars-Ravens Monday night matchup. Glad to see Jacksonville participating again. As a percentage of games played in their respective seasons, we have hit equality: 0.36 percent of baseball games and 0.37 percent of football games shared a 12-7 score in the 2011 season. It happens here as a bit of a fluke, though.
Looking at all baseball games where the winning team scored 12 runs, there are nine 12-7 games. There are only two 12-9 games, two 12-8 games, and one 12-6 game. The 12-7 result is a strange spike. The numbers do get higher with lower loser’s scores: There were eight 12-5 contests, and six 12-4 games. Weirdly, two of those 12-4 finals were consecutive games, the Yankees defeating the Rangers on June 14 and 15.
10-3: 15 BB/1 FB
The weight is now definitely on the baseball side of the scale. One can argue the numbers are now looking more like baseball scores than football scores, or football finals anyway. 10-3 is probably pretty common for halftime. I’m not going to run down or link all the baseball games with this score. As for the gridiron, it was Kansas City over Chicago. We’ll be seeing KC again in a bit.
All right, back to that same-day match question. Giving things away a bit, there were 149 baseball games with scores that matched 10 football games in 2011. Thanks to the two-by-two match of 13-9 scores, this creates 151 different matches out of all 658,689 possible combinations. That means there’s a one in 4,362 chance that a randomly chosen baseball and football game will have the same score.
We will assume that an average NFL season will have its first four games overlap with the major league regular season. We’ll also pretend that all baseball teams will be playing each day a football game happens, which isn’t the case but does give us a theoretical ceiling. That’s 16*15*4=960 BB/FB combinations thus created. After that we have baseball’s playoffs. Again as a ceiling, call it four baseball games for one week, two for the next two, and one on the fourth week. This goes up against 13 NFL games a week (as the bye-week system has now kicked in). This adds 117 games to the pool, for a total of 1,077. Ignoring the possible warm-weather effects, we would thus expect about one-quarter of a same-day match in a season, or in layman’s terms, zero.
That is what happened in 2011: no same-day matches. It would have been nice to have an example to show off, a baseball game hitting the same score as a football game on the same day, even at the same time. What perfection, too, if it involved the same two cities. But that is too much to expect, here at the dull, mundane end of the law of averages.
However, we are about to meet the other end of that law. His name is Tim Tebow.
7-3: 56 BB (plus 2 postseason games)/1 FB
The numbers are wholly on baseball’s turf, with over 2 percent of major league games ending at 7-3. The lone NFL game with this score was a regular-season ending Jan. 1 contest, with Kansas City visiting the Denver Broncos. Denver’s quarterback, Tim Tebow, is most famous for causing clutch-ability skeptics’ heads to explode.
After assuming starting quarterback duties in midseason, Tebow reeled off a string of improbable late-game comeback wins that helped to make him, for a few months, simultaneously the most loved and most hated player in football. This game satisfied the latter half of the equation. Fighting for his team’s playoff life, Tebow could muster only 60 passing yards, and had no comeback magic in the final minutes.
Baseball’s ranks of clutch doubters could exult with their football counterparts—for a week. Denver snuck into the playoffs, and in the Broncos’ first-round game, Tebow struck for an 80-yard touchdown pass on the first play of overtime to save the day yet again. He was broomed out of the playoffs the next week by the New England Patriots—who would then go on to lose the Super Bowl to a last-minute game-winning touchdown drive by Eli Manning, for the second time in five seasons.
Those skeptics who survived the latest round of head explosions were stuck wishing Tim Tebow into oblivion. The good news is that an offseason trade consigned Tebow to the media black hole that is New York City. That should do the trick.
6-3: 60 BB/1 FB
The NFL’s contribution was a midseason game between also-rans Cleveland and Seattle. This raises a peculiar point. Of the four NFL teams to play in games with all single-digit scores, none had a winning record. There’s a certain expectation in football that a very low score is the result of two incompetent teams playing each other, or of extreme weather conditions.
(Personal tangent: One of the most enjoyable football games I ever watched fell in the latter category, when the Dolphins and Steelers played in a downpour that turned Heinz Field into the Okefenokee Swamp. The teams wallowed impotently and hilariously for over 59 1/2 minutes before Pittsburgh somehow managed a field goal to win. The emblematic play of the game was a punt that fell to the mucky turf and stuck fast. No bounce. Major league bseball, for good and ill, would never stand for that today, though it had its moments in the past.)
This is not the case in baseball. When two cellar-dwellers play, we don’t tend to assume that it’ll be a low-scoring affair, or a high one for that matter. There may be such an effect, but it isn’t big enough to be obvious to the average fan. In football, though, offensive futility seems to trump defensive futility.
There’s a quick and very dirty check of this I can do. The 10 football games on the list are all low-scoring, a maximum of 24 points where the league average is above 44. Tabulating the records of the teams involved, counting each team for every time it appears, we get a cumulative record of 147-173, a .459 winning percentage. Not even close to definitive, but it points in the right direction.
As for whether bad teams in baseball tend to produce high or low-scoring games, or whether it doesn’t matter … hm. I’ll get back to you on that one. Give me a few weeks.
Running out the clock
In the 2011 season, 149 out of 2,467 major league baseball games—6.04 percent—ended with scores matched by at least one NFL game. In the same year, 10 out of 247 NFL games—3.75 percent—ended with such a match. The phenomenon’s moderately more common in baseball, which adds a bit of impetus to why the cliche runs in the direction it does, baseball games having “football scores” and not vice versa.
The great majority of those matches come from just two scores—pretty normal scores for baseball, but unusually low ones for football. That exposes the element of luck in taking these numbers from a single season, mainly on the football side for having one-ninth as many games. The 7-3 and 6-3 scores were virtually the best of the super-low football scores for making matches. A 7-6 game would have gotten only 49, 6-0 matching 43, and 7-0 matching only 42. 3-0 would have garnered 59, edging out 7-3, but aside from Pittsburgh monsoons, that’s an extremely rare score.
The more moderate football scores, with winning tallies in the teens, come more frequently, but they depend on good luck on the baseball side for any matches. There were multiple NFL games with 17-13, 17-10, 16-13, and 13-10 finals, but nothing in major league baseball matched them in 2011. Game Three of the World Series made a gallant attempt by going 16-7, but the NFL missed the connection. (The whole 16 series is almost a comedy of misses. The NFL had a 16-10 and 16-6 game; baseball had 16-9, 16-8, 16-7, 16-5 and 16-4 scores. You’d think the two sports weren’t even trying to cooperate with my theme here.)
At this point, there’s not too much juice left to squeeze out of the orange, so I will wind things up. I’ve done everything I had hoped to with this article: I acknowledged the oncoming football season, dug up a few trivial tidbits, cracked wise a few times, and noted how Tim Tebow is like Reggie Jackson and David Ortiz, which is not the most natural comparison to make.
Best of all, I found an interesting little baseball question that I can subject to some rigorous, and mostly serious, scrutiny in the near future. I say mostly serious because, as I said before, baseball is meant to be fun. Baseball writing can stand to follow its example sometimes.
References & Resources
As usual, Baseball-Reference was hugely helpful. Not as usual, I got a look at B-R’s sibling site, Pro-Football-Reference, too. It was an eye-opener on how sports analytics is spreading beyond baseball, and though there are still rough edges in its work, it is very promising and very interesting.