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July 15, 2010

Prospectus Hit and Run

Resetting The Races

by Jay Jaffe

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With the All-Star break upon us, it's a convenient time to re-evaluate the playoff races relative to our pre-season PECOTA projections. Unlike last year, when three teams the system tabbed as potentially playoff bound had more or less flatlined by the break, none of our initial picks are totally out of the running. That said, injuries to several Phillies and Red Sox have turned both teams from favorites into underdogs with regards to reaching October, and no less than 11 teams have seen their chances of making the playoffs fall below 2 percent.

That's the conclusion when we compare the plain vanilla version of our Playoff Odds report against our pre-season projections. In that report, each team's current record and third-order Pythagorean record— their record after adjusting for scoring environment, run elements, and quality of opposition—are factored into a Monte Carlo simulation of the rest of the season, with their records regressing not to .500 but to their third-order winning percentages. Run differentials are the key here; from a predictive standpoint, the sun tends to shine on teams that outscore their opponents by the widest margin.

Dividing the teams into three batches, here are the biggest losers:

 

Team

Win %

3Ord%

Div

WC

Total

Proj.

+/-

Phillies

.540

.517

11.7

10.3

22.0

61.5

-39.5

Mariners

.398

.459

0.1

0.0

0.1

34.1

-34.0

Red Sox

.580

.580

14.7

30.6

45.4

73.1

-27.7

Diamondbacks

.382

.451

0.0

0.0

0.0

25.6

-25.6

Indians

.386

.444

0.0

0.0

0.0

20.0

-20.0

Athletics

.483

.496

7.6

0.0

7.7

26.0

-18.3

Astros

.404

.393

0.0

0.0

0.0

15.6

-15.6

Cubs

.438

.466

0.7

0.1

0.8

16.2

-15.4

Giants

.534

.510

6.8

7.0

13.8

29.0

-15.2

Brewers

.449

.449

0.7

0.1

0.8

13.2

-12.5

 

The above columns represent each team's actual winning percentage (Win%), third-order winning percentage (3Ord%), estimated chances of winning their division (Div) and wild card (WC), total chance of reaching the postseason, their pre-season odds of reaching the postseason (Proj.), and the change in those cumulative odds over the course of the first half (+/-).

Where the Phillies initially figured to have a 3-in-5 chances at October, they're down to about a 1-in-5 shot. Having swapped out Cliff Lee for Roy Halladay over the winter—oh, what might have been had they kept both—they were favored to take the NL East for the third straight time, but instead they find themselves in third place, 4 ½ games out. Halladay has been among the league's top starters, but no other member of their rotation has a Support Neutral Winning Percentage above .500. The bullpen has suffered greatly with the absences of Ryan Madson and a functional Brad Lidge, while the offense has been merely middling, at one point averaging 2.5 runs per game over an 8-17 stretch. Note that the numbers don't reflect the impact of the absences of Chase Utley and Placido Polanco, both possibly out until September due to thumb and elbow injuries.

Forecast to have the game's best record, Boston's chances have fallen below 50 percent. The Red Sox have soldiered on gamely amid injuries, producing the majors' highest-scoring offense while missing two-thirds of their starting outfield as well as Josh Beckett, and while they may soon be whole on those fronts, Dustin Pedroia and their catching tandem of Victor Martinez and Jason Varitek are now on the shelf. Elsewhere, the Mariners put up an overdue white flag with Friday's trade of Lee, though the blame lies in their inept offense and not their excellent rotation. The Diamondbacks' hopes died a cruel death when Brandon Webb failed to return from his shoulder injury in a timely fashion; he's yet to throw a pitch, but the team has already celebrated Snake Whacking Day.

On to the biggest gainers:

 

Team

Win %

3Ord%

Div

WC

Total

Proj.

+/-

Padres

.580

.531

38.9

18.6

57.5

4.2

53.3

Rangers

.568

.528

79.3

0.1

79.4

37.9

41.5

Reds

.544

.513

48.3

5.3

53.6

12.8

40.8

Yankees

.636

.592

58.0

26.4

84.4

44.4

40.1

Braves

.591

.548

69.5

8.6

78.1

44.9

33.2

White Sox

.563

.528

40.9

1.3

42.2

26.1

16.1

Rays

.614

.571

27.1

37.8

64.9

51.3

13.6

Mets

.545

.507

16.1

11.5

27.6

15.0

12.6

Tigers

.558

.526

31.9

1.4

33.2

26.5

6.7

Rockies

.557

.558

37.2

19.0

56.2

49.6

6.6

 

Among the happy stories, none is happier than the Padres. Projected for 73 wins during a rebuilding season, they instead have a two-game lead in the NL West and a better-than-even shot at making the playoffs. Their offense is nothing to write home about even after adjusting for the hitters' graveyard that is Petco Park; their .252 True Average ranks 15th in the league, and Adrian Gonzalez (.322) is their only premium hitter. On the other hand, both their rotation and bullpen have been the league's elite according to our win expectancy-based stats, with 22-year-old Mat Latos emerging as an ace in the making, Clayton Richard and Wade LeBlanc putting up surprisingly strong first halves, and Heath Bell ranking as the league's most valuable reliever, with set-up man Mike Adams fifth.

Similarly, the Reds, who were forecast for 77 wins, have risen up to snatch first place in the NL Central, where the gap between the Cardinals and the rest of the pack appeared to be larger than that of any other division. Joey Votto has emerged as an MVP candidate for the Reds, Scott Rolen is enjoying a strong rebound, Jay Bruce is finally delivering on his blue-chip promise, and youngsters Johnny Cueto and straight-to-the-majors rookie Mike Leake have anchored the rotation.

Elsewhere, the Rangers have put themselves in a commanding position in an AL West race with no overwhelming favorite as of opening day, with Josh Hamilton and Vladimir Guerrero rebounding impressively from subpar 2009 showings. Their acquisition of Lee to prop up an underperforming rotation is as much about playing deep into October as it is getting there. The Yankees, who failed to land Lee just when they appeared to have sewn up a deal, have overtaken the Red Sox and Rays to finish the first half with the majors' top record. Andy Pettitte, CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes have formed a strong big three at the top of the rotation, and Robinson Cano and Nick Swisher have picked up the slack for an offense elsewhere affected by injuries, age, and subpar performances by Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson. The Braves have filled the void atop the NL East thanks to timely comebacks by Troy Glaus, Tim Hudson and Billy Wagner, not to mention the emergence of rookie Jason Heyward.

Finally, the teams which have more or less held their ground:

 

Team

Win %

3Ord%

Div

WC

Total

Proj.

+/-

Dodgers

.557

.528

17.0

12.5

29.5

24.7

4.9

Twins

.523

.540

26.8

1.2

28.0

26.7

1.3

Blue Jays

.494

.531

0.2

1.1

1.3

1.0

0.2

Angels

.516

.469

12.9

0.1

13.0

15.0

-2.0

Pirates

.341

.339

0.0

0.0

0.0

4.1

-4.1

Nationals

.438

.475

0.1

0.1

0.2

4.9

-4.7

Orioles

.330

.433

0.0

0.0

0.0

6.5

-6.5

Cardinals

.534

.523

50.2

5.0

55.3

64.6

-9.4

Marlins

.477

.514

2.6

2.1

4.7

14.1

-9.4

Royals

.443

.484

0.4

0.0

0.4

11.4

-10.9

 

Aside from the Angels and the Cardinals, these teams fit into two categories: contenders in crowded fields who haven't lost hope yet (the Dodgers and Twins) and non-contenders whose status as such has been confirmed. The Halos, whose unimpressive pre-season forecast drew plenty of ire given that they'd won four of five previous AL West flags, climbed back into the race with an 18-9 June but still have a negative run differential. The Cards entered the year with the highest odds of any NL team due to the projected gap between them and the rest of the NL Central field. Their odds stood at 85 percent on June 5, and while they've lost considerable ground, they still rate a better-than-even shot.

Remember that teams can move the needle by more than 20 percent with a good or a bad week. Projections are not destiny, and for most of these teams, it's not too late to rewrite the future.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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

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18 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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Richie
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Again with the 'Cliff Lee will really help them come playoff time!' shtick.

Nate Silver's research showed there's nothing/nothing/nothing special about starting pitching in the postseason. At all. No different than adding a big bat to the team, or filling any position player hole.

Really, if your very own research hadn't debunked this, I'd stop haranguing about it. Which I'll stop now anyway. The end.

Jul 15, 2010 09:19 AM
rating: -4
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

If you're referring to the Secret Sauce, remember that it's much closer to a rule of thumb than a bulletproof formula.

Anyway, the three relevant things Nate found to be relevant were staff strikeout rate (EqSO9), Closer WXRL and team defense via FRAA. Add Lee (6.5 EqSO9 in 2010) to the Phillies rotation in place of Kyle Kendrick (3.7 EqSO9) over the course of a full season and that's going to significantly improve the team's standing in that department and thus in the Secret Sauce formula.

Jul 15, 2010 09:27 AM
 
Tommy Bennett

I am still curious why you think Secret Sauce says Cliff Lee wouldn't be helpful in a playoff series.

Jul 15, 2010 11:08 AM
rating: 0
 
ahemmer

Richie,

I am confused as to where you come up with the idea that starting pitching is not a predictor of success in the playoffs. In the "Secret Sauce" article, Nate Silver states that there are 3 predicotrs of success:

"A power pitching staff, as measured by normalized strikeout rate.
A good closer, as measured by WXRL.
A good defense, as measured by FRAA"

Lee would classify as a power pitcher, with an above average strikout rate. He would certainly improve the Rangers chances come playoff time, because he is likely replacing a pitcher with a lower normalized strikout rate. The difference may be small, but there is still a difference.

Jul 15, 2010 11:34 AM
rating: 0
 
Ira

Don't forget that right now, Lee replaces Omar Beltre in the rotation. Beltre is a nice story, but his 3 innings per start schtick got old fast. likely Beltre was done anyway, with Harrison going back into the rotation, but, like figureing out an unearned run from reconstructing the inning, deciding which replacement level pitcher they replaced with one of the 5 best starters in baseball is a huge upgrade to the team. Even if its not a specific upgrade for the playoffs, it still makes the team better, and that will help in the playoffs.

If Rich Harden gets healthy and effective or Derek Holland can come back and be effective, then you push Scott Feldman out and your in even better shape. A playoff rotation of Lee, Harden, Wilson, Lewis, and Hunter should scare a lot of teams, especially with a pen which is chock full of guys who strike out more than a batter per inning and allow much less than a hit per inning (like Oliver: 25 hits, 43 k's, 39.2 innings, or Feliz: 27 hits, 42 k's, 37.2 innings)

Jul 15, 2010 13:32 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Lee is a definite improvement atop the rotation, and certainly helps their cause towards reaching October. But but as I said all over Twitter last Friday, the Rangers' playoff rotation doesn't exactly scare me. He's the obvious #1, and while I like Lewis, I'm not sure he's a legitimate #2 and worry about his innings jump (176 in Japan last year, 204 pace this year prior to postseason), and I don't see anybody else in their pool who is a #2 based upon current health and performance.

The guys in that pool who don't miss bats (Hunter, Feldman) aren't great bets - just look at the latter's regression to the mean this year after his big 2009, or the fact that the former had a 2.00 ERA through six starts last year and a 5.09 mark the rest of the way.

Meanwhile, the ones who do miss bats are the ones with the high walk rates that have caused them to depart early and force the Texas bullpen to throw more innings than any other AL team. Wilson's going to run into an innings problem, Harden's got a 4.59 ERA and 4.8 BB/9 while averaging 5.3 innings per start over the last two seasons AND missing about 1/3 of his starts.

There's plenty of upside in the Rangers' rotation from a long-term standpoint. I'm just not at all convinced they can tap into it in time for October 2010.

Jul 15, 2010 13:58 PM
 
BP staff member Matt Swartz
BP staff

Sometimes it is best to just look at odds of winning a baseball game. How much does having a solid starter increase your odds of winning a baseball game? Answer that question, compute the percentages, and then move the Secret Sauce stuff around at the margin to bump things up or down by a couple percentage points. Being better at baseball than one's opponents doesn't need a study to confirm it. Nate found 3 interesting things that shined above the noise, but that doesn't mean that the same things that make one team have a more than 50% chance of winning a game won't be important, too. You still need to assume the better team wins a baseball game more often than not.

Jul 15, 2010 15:46 PM
 
zpatterson

Cole Hamels .513 SNWP seems above .500 to me.

Jul 15, 2010 10:05 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

It rose from .492 to .513 with his 7.2-inning, 0-run performance on Sunday (see here for a screenshot if you don't believe me). The piece was submitted to our editors and ESPN on Sunday night, and we didn't get a chance to double-check that factoid with refreshed stats on Monday morning.

Jul 15, 2010 10:19 AM
 
Dr. Dave

No words for the Rays, with their blazing start and subsequent semi-fold? It's hard to think of them as "gainers" at the moment, relative to expectations. It all comes down to which part of the first half was the fluke.

Jul 15, 2010 10:29 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

As with most ESPN pieces, this one had a limited word count, and I chose mainly to emphasize the teams at the top of each bracket.

As for the Rays, I don't look at what's happened to them as much more than regression to the mean. There's a reason nobody goes wire-to-wire playing at a .727 clip (their 32-12 high-water mark). The Rays went 22-22 over their second set of 44 games, but they're still 20 games over .500 and the favorite to win the Wild Card, with no major injuries that would temper my assessment of those odds the way those of, say, the Phillies sans Utley need to be taken into account. On the contrary, they have an impressive amount of resources to draw upon from within - starting with Jeremy Hellickson - as I note in today's other piece, the AL East Mid-Season Prescriptions.

Jul 15, 2010 11:06 AM
 
worldtour

So what does it say about the model if 10 teams have under-performed, 10 teams are doing what they were supposed to do, and 10 teams are over-reaching the projection?

I'm not trying to be Jose Contrerian, just making a neat (if not so satisfying) observation.

Jul 15, 2010 12:46 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Actually, it's 17 teams that have "underperformed," which is to say that their odds have lowered since opening day. I've lumped them into three groups rather than two more for illustrative purposes, but the third group is skewed towards dwindling chances rather than improvements.

It's not surprising that the majority of teams would see their odds decrease, either, given that we're more than halfway through the season and that the regular season ends with 8 teams at 100% and 22 teams in the negative.

Jul 15, 2010 13:43 PM
 
TGisriel

While the Orioles have certainly been a disappoinment this season, you can't fall very far on this metric when you start at 6.5%.

Also of note, the Orioles have the largest increase comparing Win% to #Ord%. Does that come from playing in the AL East?

Jul 15, 2010 12:55 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Some of that is owed to playing in the AL East, yes - the quality of opposing hitter/pitcher adjustments are made at the third-order level. Some of it is probably owed to having the league's second-worst bullpen (via WXRL), though their offense and starting pitching are no great shakes either. They're 7.4 wins below their third-order projection, while no other team is more than five below.

Jul 15, 2010 15:29 PM
 
mglick0718

I love BP's projections, but to me the Phillies' 11.7% to win the division does not pass the smell test (even more so since you say this does not factor in Utley's or Polanco's injuries). Someone wants to give me 8-to-1 odds to take the Phillies being in first at the end of the season, I'll take it. Sure, a 4.5 game lead (now 5.5) with 75 to go makes the Braves a solid favorite, but I can't believe the Phillies' chances are truly that long.

Does BP go back to past years to see how accurate the in-season playoff odds hold up? Seems to me we've seen several very-long shots end up making the playoffs in recent years, suggesting perhaps that the ex ante probabilities need some recalibration (but that's just based on imperfect memory).

Jul 16, 2010 12:13 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

I'm not sure how much empirical testing Clay has done on the odds in recent years, but remember, it's not as though the Phillies are competing in a vacuum. They're in third place in the East, down by 5.5 games, and have the worst run differential of the three contenders, and their third-order run differential after adjusting for run elements and the level of competition is just +8. Furthermore, they're in sixth place in the Wild Card standings. That's heavy traffic to navigate. The vast majority of teams in that position don't come back, but some certainly do.

Look at it another way: there are seven teams right now with between a 5 and 20 percent chance of winning the division, and 11 teams with chances greater than that, four of which have chances greater than 50%. Knowing that, how many of those seven teams in the 5-20 bracket would you want to bet on?

Jul 17, 2010 07:52 AM
 
greg26

I, too, am a fan of the BP projections. I have always been struck, though, at how fast things can change. Does it really make sense that a team's odds can move 20 points with a good or bad week? Clearly at the end of the season, but with this much time to go?

Jul 20, 2010 07:45 AM
rating: 0
 
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