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May 16, 2001

Aim For The Head

Expected vs. Actual Wins

by Keith Woolner

This week's question comes from Chuck Hildebrandt, who writes:

Being a lifelong Detroit Tiger fan, I was studying the 1984 season in Total Baseball when I was startled by something I saw in the National League. I noticed that the New York Mets, managed by Davey Johnson, were outscored by their competition, 652-676, yet finished the season with a 90-72 record.

This is a stunning display of overachievement, a team being outscored yet finishing with a .556 winning percentage. Being too lazy to pursue the issue myself, I ask the question of you: what are the greatest differentials, both positive and negative, between expected and actual winning percentage for any single team?

Bonus philosophical question: What do such differentials really say about a manager's influence on a team, versus dumb luck?

Thanks for the question, Chuck.

First, let's limit ourselves to teams that played at least 100 games in a season, as some teams in the early days of professional baseball played incomplete schedules. In order to find a team's expected number of wins, we'll use the Pythagenport formula--Clay Davenport's refinement of Bill James's original Pythagorean formula. The formula is:

Win% ~=  R^E/(R^E + RA^E) , where E = 1.5*Log((R+RA)/G) + 0.45

Given an estimated expected winning percentage, we can compute the difference between a team's actual and expected records either based on winning percentage or difference in wins.

(To answer this question, I'm using the free downloadable statistics database at www.baseball1.com. The database is currently unavailable due to server problems, but is expected to be back online soon.)

Chuck, you have a keen eye. The 1984 Mets turned out to be the second-biggest overachievers ever, at 11.7 wins above expectation, beaten only by the 1905 Tigers, who went 79-74 while scoring 512 runs and allowing 602. They "should" have gone about 66-88, but instead managed to be five games over .500, and 12.8 wins over expectation.

On the underachieving side, there are two teams that lost 13 or more games beyond expectation. The worst underachievers were the 1993 Mets, whose 672 R/744 RA differential should have been good for a 73-89 record. They instead posted a gruesome 59-103 record, or 14.3 wins below expectation. The other unlucky team was the 1986 Pirates, who scored 663 runs and allowed 700, which should have earned them a 77-85 record, but instead they went 64-98, a 13-game differential. The worst underachievers who actually outscored their opponents were the 1907 Reds, who scored 526 runs and allowed 519. They projected to a 79-77 record, but actually went 66-87.

Here's a list of all teams with differentials of 10 or more games:

G500 = Games over .500
Pyth = Pythagenport expected winning percentage
P_W  = Pythagenport expected wins
P_L  = Pythagenport expected losses
DIF% = Difference between actual and expected winning percentage
DIFW = Difference between actual and expected wins

YEAR

TEA

LG

G

W

L

WIN%

G500

R

RA

PYTH

P_W

P_L

DIF%

DIFW

1993

NYN

NL

162

59

103

.364

-44

672

744

.453

73.3

88.7

-.089

-14.3

1986

PIT

NL

162

64

98

.395

-34

663

700

.475

77.0

85.0

-.080

-13.0

1907

CIN

NL

156

66

87

.431

-21

526

519

.506

78.9

77.1

-.074

-12.9

1905

DET

AL

154

79

74

.516

5

512

602

.430

66.2

87.8

.086

12.8

1911

PIT

NL

155

85

69

.552

16

744

557

.630

97.6

57.4

-.078

-12.6

1905

SLA

AL

156

54

99

.353

-45

511

608

.425

66.3

89.7

-.072

-12.3

1905

CHN

NL

155

92

61

.601

31

667

442

.671

104.0

51.0

-.070

-12.0

1975

HOU

NL

162

64

97

.398

-33

664

711

.469

75.9

86.1

-.071

-11.9

1984

PIT

NL

162

75

87

.463

-12

615

567

.535

86.7

75.3

-.072

-11.7

1984

NYN

NL

162

90

72

.556

18

652

676

.484

78.3

83.7

.072

11.7

1967

BAL

AL

161

76

85

.472

-9

654

592

.544

87.6

73.4

-.072

-11.6

1946

PHA

AL

155

49

105

.318

-56

529

680

.390

60.4

94.6

-.071

-11.4

1955

KC1

AL

155

63

91

.409

-28

638

911

.333

51.6

103.4

.076

11.4

1954

BRO

NL

154

92

62

.597

30

778

740

.524

80.7

73.3

.073

11.3

1937

CIN

NL

155

56

98

.364

-42

612

707

.434

67.2

87.8

-.070

-11.2

1917

PIT

NL

157

51

103

.331

-52

464

595

.396

62.2

94.8

-.065

-11.2

1970

CIN

NL

162

102

60

.630

42

775

681

.560

90.8

71.2

.069

11.2

1935

BSN

NL

153

38

115

.248

-77

575

852

.321

49.1

103.9

-.073

-11.1

1972

NYN

NL

156

83

73

.532

10

528

578

.461

71.9

84.1

.071

11.1

1924

SLN

NL

154

65

89

.422

-24

740

750

.494

76.0

78.0

-.071

-11.0

1890

CL6

AA

140

79

55

.590

24

831

617

.643

90.0

50.0

-.053

-11.0

1906

CLE

AL

157

89

64

.582

25

663

482

.636

99.8

57.2

-.054

-10.8

1919

WS1

AL

142

56

84

.400

-28

533

570

.470

66.8

75.2

-.070

-10.8

1924

BRO

NL

154

92

62

.597

30

717

675

.528

81.4

72.6

.069

10.6

1999

KCA

AL

161

64

97

.398

-33

856

921

.463

74.6

86.4

-.066

-10.6

1904

CLE

AL

154

86

65

.570

21

647

482

.626

96.4

57.6

-.056

-10.4

1993

SDN

NL

162

61

101

.377

-40

679

772

.440

71.3

90.7

-.063

-10.3

1911

CHA

AL

154

77

74

.510

3

719

624

.566

87.1

66.9

-.056

-10.1

1970

CHN

NL

162

84

78

.519

6

806

679

.580

94.0

68.0

-.062

-10.0

1932

PIT

NL

154

86

68

.558

18

701

711

.493

76.0

78.0

.065

10.0

1961

CIN

NL

154

93

61

.604

32

710

653

.539

83.0

71.0

.065

10.0

Of course, teams play 162 games today, versus 154 or fewer in years past, so it's a little easier to run up a larger differential over more games. If we look just at differences in winning percentage, there are nine teams that were 75 points or more off expectation. The '93 Mets still top the list, at 89 points below expectation, but a new team, the 1981 Reds, turns out to be the biggest overachiever, exceeding its expected winning percentage by 87 points (going 66-42, .611 versus a projection of 56.6-51.4, .524). Other teams with 75+ point differentials but not a 10-game overall difference include the 1884 Chicago White Stockings (later known as the Cubs) as 78-point underachievers, and the 1894 New York Giants as 76-point underachievers.

Let's consider Chuck's second question: "What do such differentials really say about a manager's influence on a team, versus dumb luck?" Strategic blunders by the manager can certainly influence a team's record, but the magnitude of this effect over the course of a season is hard to estimate. A manager probably has a more important influence on his team in playing the right lineup, managing the pitching staff, keeping his bench fresh, and so on, than in specific game tactics.

A team that underachieves its projection as badly as the teams we're talking about probably lost more than its share of one-run games, which can be caused in part by a lousy bullpen. The 1999 Royals, who are in the table above, had a terrible bullpen, possibly one of the worst ever. When no one is getting the other guys out, it's hard to blame all of that on the manager.

Of course, the arguments above aren't very sabermetric. Let's ask a slightly different question: are teams who underachieve or overachieve likely to continue doing so the next season? This doesn't necessarily answer the question about the manager's impact, because a manager's job is somewhat more at risk following a season that didn't meet expectations, but it's a place to start.

I took the list of all teams with 100+ games and compared their DIFW in one season to the next (assuming the franchise still existed). I computed the correlation of the two differentials. If the correlation was close to 1.0, then teams were more likely to have the same kind of differential (above or below average) the following season. If the correlation was close to -1.0, the reverse is true, which would mean that teams that overachieve one year are more likely to underachieve the next. A value close to zero means that there's no relationship between the two, that nothing from the team's "luck" carries over to the next season. The actual correlation was +0.05, which is pretty close to zero, and suggests that there's no relationship.

We can refine the question a little bit more; since teams who overachieve are more likely to retain their manager, we can focus only on teams that were significant overachievers. I selected five or more games as a threshold. Plotting their win differentials in the following season, we get the following chart, which shows no real trend or pattern, furthering the theory that the manager has little consistent impact on whether a team over- or underachieves it's expected Pythagenport projection.

* * * * *

A few readers wrote in with comments about last week's question about Expected vs. Actual Wins:

Regarding whether Wes Ferrell's Hall of Fame case is enhanced by his offensive production, Kevin Morse writes: "He's certainly more deserving than his Vet Committee-elected brother Rick."

Brian Simpson asks: "What about Orel Hershiser? I seem to remember him being a fairly good hitter before he got hurt." Indeed, Hershiser was pretty good with the stick for a pitcher. His best season was 1993, when he posted a 784 OPS (.356/.373/.411), but that was his only season with an OPS over 600 in 50 or more plate appearances.

Mike Ritzema writes: "I read your article and I was wondering where Darren Dreifort would place. I saw his two bombs against Chicago last year and it gives me hope that he'll hit for his money, too." Dreifort's two bombs helped him to just a 520 OPS last year (.210/.246/.274), his best year to date.

David (no last name given) inquires: "Interesting article about historical pitchers hitting performances. Can those numbers be converted to some familiar sabermetric figures--runs above average, games won v. average, etc. Basically, how does a good hitting pitcher affect a team's ability to win?"

Great question. The upper limit seems to be about 20 runs, for the very best hitting pitching seasons, as shown in the following chart (PMLV is the number of runs contributed on offense above what a league average pitcher would have hit, adjusted for park and league):

YEAR

NAME

TEA

LG

PA

AVG

OBP

SLG

PMLV

1935

Wes Ferrell

BOS

A

171

.347

.427

.533

28.1

1955

Don Newcombe

BRO

N

124

.359

.395

.632

25.6

1965

Don Drysdale

LA

N

136

.300

.331

.508

25.6

1925

Walter Johnson

WAS

A

101

.433

.455

.577

24.1

1923

George Uhle

CLE

A

151

.361

.391

.472

22.4

1958

Warren Spahn

MIL

N

117

.333

.385

.463

22.1

1930

Red Lucas

CIN

N

130

.336

.423

.442

22.1

1931

Wes Ferrell

CLE

A

126

.319

.373

.621

22.0

1930

Red Ruffing

NY

A

106

.374

.415

.596

20.9

1923

Jack Bentley

NY

N

92

.427

.446

.573

20.4

1959

Don Newcombe

CIN

N

122

.305

.402

.410

20.2

1950

Bob Lemon

CLE

A

150

.272

.340

.485

20.0

1943

Schoolboy Rowe

PHI

N

136

.300

.382

.458

20.0

In today's game, pitchers don't throw as many innings or complete games, and rarely would get a chance to bat often enough to clear 20 runs of value. Hershiser's 1993 was worth about 13.5 runs, and that's about the top end for the past couple of decades.

Keith Woolner is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Contact him by clicking here.

Keith Woolner is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Keith's other articles. You can contact Keith by clicking here

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