Debunking the “lack of killer instinct” argument

Thanks to the beauty of B-Ref’s Play Index, we can go back and illustrate the existence or lack thereof of a “killer instinct” as evidenced by the Yankees’ record when trailing after the seventh inning.


Year / W-L / W%

  • 1995: 7-49 .125 (Lost ALDS)
  • 1996: 7-54 .115 (Won WS)
  • 1997: 9-46 .164 (Lost ALDS)
  • 1998: 8-43 .157 (Won WS)
  • 1999: 9-55 .141 (Won WS)
  • 2000: 5-64 .072 (Won WS)
  • 2001: 18-45 .286 (Lost WS)
  • 2002: 7-51 .121 (Lost ALDS)
  • 2003: 2-49 .039 (Lost WS)
  • 2004: 7-51 .121 (Lost ALCS)
  • 2005: 13-58 .183 (Lost ALDS)
  • 2006: 9-46 .164 (Lost ALDS)
  • 2007: 6-57 .095 (Lost ALDS)
  • 2008: 4-59 .063 (Missed playoffs)
  • 2009: 9-55 .141 (Won WS)
  • 2010: 9-56 .138 (Lost ALCS)
  • 2011: 4-49 .075 (Lost ALDS)

What does the above array of numbers and tell us? Anything? I tried graphing the winning % and they show what we already know.

Can you ascertain team success with its ability to come back late in the game, as Klapisch postulates?

Not in 2003, when they were an abysmal 2-49 in games they were behind after the 7th inning. Yet, they made it to the World Series, though they lost. The best display of “killer instinct”, as defined by Klapisch, was in 2001, when they were an impressive 18-45, a .286 winning percentage, losing the World Series. Klapisch’s theory would hold water in 2008 (4-59, .063 winning %), but then again, that was just a bad team. However, a comparable team in terms of late inning heroics was an awful 5-64 (.072 winning %). That team? The World Series winning 2000 team. All other years, you would have NO clue whether the team was successful or not. And define success?  I say it’s making the playoffs every year in that array minus one.

So yeah, this measure is bunk.

IIATMS overlord and founder. ESPN contributor. Purveyor of luscious reality.

36 thoughts on “Debunking the “lack of killer instinct” argument

  1. jay_robertson

    Again, good work, Jason. You've proved that most teams, when behind after the seventh inning, are going to lose. At least, most of the time.

    I'll go along with the myth – to the extent that MEMORIES of Paul O'Neil and Chuck Knoblach, along with Jorge's grimace, make me THINK that some of the earlier teams had a killer instinct.

    But to quantify that perception, or to show that it even exists (by using, GASP, numbers) – you've shown us – can't be done.

    Pretty much the same as the "clutch hitter" argument – which was debunked a year or two ago by either you or Larry, again, using those pesky numbers. 😀


  2. jay_robertson

    Oh my. I had only read your rational discourse, before typing. WHAT AN ARTICLE.

    I do believe I'm qualified to be a sports writer. I even have the tin hat.

  3. Not in 2003, when they were an abysmal 2-49 in games they were behind after the 7th inning. Yet, they made it to the World Series, though they lost.

    Not only that, they made it to the World Series behind a huge eighth inning rally.

    • BrienJackson

      Doesn't matter, they didn't win the Series. #failure

  4. brian

    Killer Instinct isn't the right way to put it….

    What it really is… is the difference between believing you CAN win… versus believing you WILL win…

    I first heard that line during preview of a Kevin Garnett led T'wolves team facing Shaq Kobe and company… the t wolves had actually won a few more games in the regular season but the Lakers were, well, the Lakers… and Shaq was still Shaq…

    That line really hit home for me… believing that you CAN win vs. believing that you WILL win…

    from 1998-2001… that yankees didn't just believe they could win, they believed they WOULD win.. and they did, every single time, until they didn't in game 7 of 2001…

    • It's just so easy to say that in retrospect. That's my issue with that kind of narrative stuff and I suspect others' too. (That, and the narrative usually doesn't hold up too well under scrutiny, like you see here.)

      • brian

        Except if you actually read the full post, it wasn't said in retrospect after the Lakers beat the T'Wolves, it was said BEFORE the series started

        The 1998/1999/2009 Yankees KNEW they were going to win before the playoffs even started…. all the other teams (including 1996 and 2000 when they actually did win).. it was a "we can win" feel

        This stuff isn't rocket science

    • billtpa

      Confused as to the difference between "killer instinct" and "can win/will win."
      It's BS either way, useful only to explain things that have already happened that just happen to fit the prefabricated mold.

      • brian

        Killer instinct refers to some notion that when you have a team on the ropes… you BURY them… it exists, but more so in other sports than in baseball

        Can win/Will win refers to your belief in your teams ability to win in the end… doesn't mean it'll happen, but it helps

    • Bill

      Well said. I frequently refer to lack of killer instinct in situations where they could bury an opponent, but the truth of the matter is that the Yankees do not show the WILL to win. Everybody wants to win, and in the case of the Yankees, they frequently can win. The issue is the ability of this team to impose their will on a team, game or series. That just doesn't happen to the degree it once did. You can make the case that the Red Sox handed the division (and wild card) away and the Yankees just happened to be there because the Red Sox didn't have the WILL to win. Likewise, the Tigers didn't win that series, the Yankees lost it. Detroit did everything in their power to hand that series to the Yanks, from the Game 2 semi-meltdown by Valverde to Benoit doing a Calvin Schiraldi imitation in the seventh inning of game 5. Both situations would have resulted in a quick and painless death to past Yankee opponents. Not this time. Just goes to show you how rare it is to find the intangibles required to win a world title.

      • roadduck99

        It could also be that those teams with the WILL to win had another thing going for them. Like maybe BETTER PLAYERS.

        • brian

          I think people are misunderstanding the usage of the word "will"

          I don't mean will as in "the will" to win or anything… like you wanted it more than the other team

          I mean "will" as in that unwavering confidence in your team..

          It's just something that you have to develop naturally

          • roadduck99

            Is it possible for non-Yankee teams to have "Will"? Maybe the Tigers have "will" this year. Or at least bigger will than the Yankees did.

            There are two teams out there trying to win each game. To attribute the outcome solely to the actions of one of those teams is silly.

          • brian

            you still don't get it….

            It's not having "will" as it "will" is an article of clothing or the chicken pox or something….

            It's believing that you ARE GOING TO WIN… versus believing that you HAVE A CHANCE to win

            The 1998, 1999, and 2009 teams clearly believed they would win the world series before the playoffs started… and they did

            Every other year??? Including 1996 and 2000??? Total crapshoot

            The point is, you can't just manufacture that type of confidence in your team, it just has to happen, but, as in the late 90s and 2009, you know it when you see it

          • Damian

            To quote Vincent Gambini, "Everything that guy just said is bulls**t."

          • roadduck99

            I think you don't get it. What if both teams in a series believe in their heart of hearts that they are going to win the World Series? Did you ever consider that the 2011 Detroit Tigers believed they are going to win the World Series before the playoffs started? How do you reconcile that? Does it ultimately get decided on how much will the Yankees have? That's what you seem to believe.

            Maybe the Yankees won in 1998, 1999 and 2009 because they had the best players, not the best will. Or perhaps anything can happen in a short series, and will doesn't have anything to do with it.

          • brian

            OMG… you still don't understand the usage of the word "will" in this context

          • roadduck99

            If I don't understand, then you must keep changing the definition. You said that will means "believing that you ARE GOING TO WIN." (I just cut and pasted that from your comment above.) And I asked, "What if both teams in a series believe in their heart of hearts that they ARE GOING TO WIN the World Series?" (I just copied and pasted that from my comment above, but added emphasis.) It sure looks like I'm using the same words as you. What makes you think that I don't know what you are saying?

            So the question is, what if both teams believe the ARE GOING TO WIN? That's possible, isn't it? I'm sure the Yankees believed they were going to beat the Tigers. Or are you saying that they might have thought they knew they were going to win, but what they really thought in their heart of hearts was only that they had a chance to win, and that thinking they had a chance wasn't enough to get it done?

            And furthermore, are you dismissing outright the notion that the 20110Tigers believe they ARE GOING TO WIN? Are the Yankees the only team that can have this magical, mystical belief?

          • brian

            What's magical and mystical about confidence????????

            Think about two "equal" guys who go out cruising for women at a bar…

            Let's say one guy believes he CAN pick up a hot chick…

            Let's say the other guys believes he WILL pick up a hot chick..

            assuming all else is equal, whose more likely to pick the girl up?

            Stop putting words in my mouth… OF COURSE having better players is the primary ingredient in winning, that's so obvious I didn't think there was a need to actually state it

            And why can't other teams have an unwavering belief in themselves??? When did I ever say they couldn't???? This is a YANKEES BLOG so my posts are yankee centric

            The lack of intelligence of certain people is just sad.

          • roadduck99


            You go on and on about how some intangible, unmeasurable confidence level can be a difference maker in a playoff series.

            THEN, in an attempt to prove your point, you provide as an analogy a scenario that is not at all like a baseball playoff series.

            THEN you say, "well, yeah, talent of course is much more important," which pretty much negates your previous five posts.

            THEN you insult MY intelligence?

            Tell me, how much of the Yankees 1998, 1999 and 2009 championships can be attributed to confidence, and how much can be attributed to having the best players in any given series?

  5. Michael

    I am pretty fed up with hearing terms like this. Killer instinct, gritty, scrappy, fighting spirit, balls, whatever you want to call it and saying that its not quantifiable but it is as clear as day is just nonsense. Its the old "his intangibles are off the charts!" comment. Self defeating logic. There is nothing unquantifiable, there is an explanation for everything, and if you say that it is immeasurable it just means you haven't figured out how to measure it. The whole "they didn't have success so they lack (guts, confidence, intangibles, it factor, etc)" is just circular logic.

    • brian

      To be blunt… like in most debates, people on either end of the spectrum are idiots…

      You're on one end of the spectrum, mocking people on the other

      I'm actually in the middle

  6. brian

    This reminds me of a different post a couple years ago when I had to educate someone about the term "witch hunt"

    The point the other person made was that this whole outing of steroids guys was a "witch hunt"… to which, the obvious correct retort is…. In witch hunts… THERE ARE NO WITCHES…

    These guys actually used steroids, its not witch hunt, it's just a hunt…

    It's sad that people can't grasp elementary concepts like this

    • roadduck99

      Elementary concepts, like the one where "knowing you are going to win" is more important than having better baseball players?

      • brian

        If you can show me where I actually said that… have at it

  7. not Montero's dad

    Klapisch is funny. Are we to be surprised that teams that are losing a game usually lose when they have only two innings to overcome a deficit–and one of those innings might be against a closer, who is often an opponent's best relief pitcher?

    If Klapisch wants to make that argument, the least he can do is go itno secondary analysis. How many of those games were the Yankees behind by 5 runs versus behind by 1 run? Not being able to score 6 runs in 2 innings is not indicitave of lacking killer instinct, but not being able to score 1 run might be. (Just playing devil's advocate here; not necessarily believeing the argument I set forth.)

    Also, if the Yanks are down 5 runs, but score 4 and just fall short, that shows some fight, and does not suggest the absence of killer instinct.

    And why does killer instinct always pertain to hitters? Wouldn't a pitcher's inability to get a key strikeout suggest a lack of killer instinct, by this (largely fictitious) definition?

    The Klapisch article is such useless filler that I can't even comment further.

  8. brian

    I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that Bob Klapisch understands, as I do, that having superior players is more pertinent to winning than "killer instinct".

    I'm also going to say that he noticed what many people noticed, that on mostly a subjective level, that 2009 team had a certain "magic" to them that the 2010 and 2011 teams didn't..

    Is he right??? Maybe, maybe not… maybe it's just hingsight, but to automatically start creating straw mans and dismiss it makes you just as foolish as Klapisch

    • Bill_S

      The 2009 team had magic since they won the WS. Therefore, in order to win the WS you need this intangible magic. It's circular…

      I'd say that the 2001 team had "magic." With all the heroics to get to the WS, the Yankees "lifting a beleaguered city on its back," the ninth-inning heroics… I'd say they had magic. But, apparently, not the killer instinct since the season boiled down to 3 outs. The Diamondbacks had killer instinct apparently. And they had more gut/grit since they were pitching Schilling/Johnson on short rest, etc etc.

      I'm sure whoever wins the WS this year, there will be articles written about THEIR killer instinct and their grit and their confidence and how they knew they WOULD win and marching out on the field was just pretense.

  9. forged

    Wow. The semantics game ….

    Killer Instinct., confidence, belief ….

    I'm sure glad there are stats to measure that.

    I always thought killer instinct is to win games that you are ahead in? So in that case, it would better to measure what the Yankees have a late lead in a game and correspond it to the season result.

    If the numbers that Jason posted for the Yankees are more indicative of a trend for most MLB teams … (poor records when trailing late in the game), then it is likely that most teams have a good record when leading late in the game as well.

    In which case, even "Killer Instinct" is pretty much a moot point.

  10. I may get jumped on for this, but I did not feel that this Yankee team, for whatever reason, had the ability to come back late in games once they got down late.

    If you dive a little deeper into the stats, you see that in close games and in extra inning games they were not a good team, these are the games where one hit here or there makes a huge difference.

    In 2011 they were:

    – 21-24 in one run games,

    – 4-12 in extra inning games

    Meaning that in games that were close, or needed extra innings the Yankees were an abysmal 25-36. For a team that won 97 games, that means in non-extra inning, and non one run games they were 72-29.

    Say what you want about not being able to quantify the Yankees “lack of clutch” play, but in the tightest games you can have they were a bad team.

    Now take a look at the Yankees W/L in the same games when they won the World Series

    2009: 29-19

    2000: 24-22

    1999: 29-14

    1998: 31-12

    1996: 29-22

    It may not be a 100% perfect stat, but in the tightest games this year the Yankees were demonstratively worse than they were when they’ve won the World Series in the wild card era.

    • Joseph

      This debate might be over but just wanted to add one more comment. Regarding your 2011 stats posted above… does the one run games exclude the extra inning games? Because you add up these two stats, I hope they don't duplicate (one-run extra inning games). Also, what were the Yankees numbers in the years they didn't win? Any better? Worse?

  11. Kurt

    Eric is the man in this debate. Losing a lot of close games is a measure of a team's character. Klapiisch is correct in my opinion that the Yankees lacked a killer instinct this year. What he is not right about is that stat on not coming back after 7 innings as several people pointed out here. Very deceptive. Same for the reverse – % games won when leading after 7. For most winning teams this % will be overwhelmingly positive.

  12. JJballz

    3 very close games against the Tigers, with a host of runners left on base. The series swings the other way if just one of A-Rod, Teix, or Swisher's ABs resulted in a big hit or a runner scoring from third with less then two outs on sac fly. There were plenty of other opportunities for other guys as well, but at various times during the series, those guys came through at least once or twice in those losses. Not so for the clean-up hitter and the next two guys. A-rod has an excuse at least, what with a host injury issues. But Teix's overall numbers have declined every year in NY, even with the short porch in RF, and Swisher's act is gone thin, more bad than good from him in his Yankee tenure, esp. in the post-season.

  13. Joseph

    The problem with this debate is that results determine killer instinct or will to win.
    Brian states:
    "The 1998, 1999, and 2009 teams clearly believed they would win the world series before the playoffs started… and they did

    Every other year??? Including 1996 and 2000??? Total crapshoot".
    "but, as in the late 90s and 2009, you know it when you see it ". How? Man if that is the case, Brian should be able to make a boatload by betting when he sees this will to win.
    So with this logic, the Yankees didn't have the will to win in 1996 but managed to win. They didn't have it in 1997. Magically, they got it for 1998 and 1999. Somehow lost it again in 2000 (but still won). Then they lost it for the next 8 years and magically got it back in 2009 (which is weirder because they didnt even make the playoffs in 2008) and then lost it again in 2010 and 2011.

  14. hugh

    "I give the same halftime speech over and over. It works best when my players are better than the other coach's players."

    One of my favourite sports quotes.

    Isn't the whole idea of "will to win" a bit like this?

  15. Adam

    The inverse stat is more telling.

    50% of the seasons where they won 90% or more of games they led after the 7th inning, they won the World Series(98,99,2002,2004,2005,2009). Also 2001, was quite an anomaly. Even though they had more combacks, they also converted 78% of 8th inning leads into wins, the lowest in 15 years. Check out the reverse statistics because it's pretty wild.

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