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September 20, 2010

Prospectus Perspective

How Important is the AL East Title?

by Ben Lindbergh

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Over the next four nights, the battle for the American League East will rage in the Bronx, as the Yankees host the Rays for the teams’ final head-to-head confrontations of the regular season. Scant daylight separates the two clubs in the standings, as the Rays enter the (Evil) Empire State trailing the division-leading Bombers by just a half-game, and tied in the loss column. That may sound like a pressure-packed scenario, but at this point in the season, it’s safe to say that each team has become accustomed to hearing the other’s footsteps:

A competition depicted by a graph like this would have caused quite a stir in, say, 1993, and not solely because the Rays were little more than a twinkle in Vince Naimoli’s eye at the time. The Yankees and Rays haven’t had a margin as large as even three games between them since July 26. Before the advent of the wild card in 1995, a race as tight as this one would have transfixed baseball fans across the country. Of course, if we’re proposing alternate history scenarios, we needn’t stop there: If this race between the league’s best two teams had taken place in, oh, 1967, the loser could have gone home in time to declare the death of the Haight-Ashbury hippie, while the winner could have proceeded straight to the World Series without passing Go.

However, this isn’t the time or the place for a debate about the merits of baseball’s playoff structure. The wild card is here to stay, and though its benefits are real, the trivializing of this particular race stands as one of many black marks against it. With the Orioles and Blue Jays eliminated from contention, and the Red Sox' minuscule chances of playing baseball after October 3 dwindling toward zero, both the Yanks and Rays are all but assured of sealing playoff spots in the near future. While the senior circuit still features a few exciting races, the AL playoff field has all but been finalized: barring a historic collapse, the Rangers will win the West, and the Twins will clinch the Central, joining the two AL East clubs in the quest for the pennant.

The secure positions in which both the Yankees and the Rays find themselves as they square off this week invites the question of whether it’s in either team’s best interest to treat this series as a momentous matchup. All else being equal, both teams would prefer to win the division, but if doing so would mean hamstringing one’s playoff preparedness, would it be worth the effort? No one’s suggesting that either team intentionally tank any of its remaining contests, but to what degree should each team exercise caution? Should the will to win it all trump the will to win this series?

Before we pass judgment (or even permit the jury to deliberate), we should review the stakes. Perhaps the most obvious consequence of a team’s particular route to the playoffs is the identity of its first-round opponent; the victorious party in the AL East will play the winner of the West, while the wild card winner will tackle the Central’s representative. In any given year, either one of those assignments could be a curse, but the spoils of finishing with the best record in the league—home-field advantage—should always be a blessing. In the first round, laying claim to home-field advantage imparts the privilege of kicking things off at home, as well as hosting a decisive Game Five, while in the ALCS, the initial and final two games take place at the advantaged team’s ballpark. Thanks to the All-Star heroics of Brian McCann, home-field advantage in the World Series will belong to a National League team this season, regardless of the way in which the rest of the season plays out.

Both the Rangers and the Twins are formidable opponents. The Twins have the better actual and third-order records, but this late in the season, retrospective records don’t always serve as the most accurate gauge of team strength, since each club’s roster inevitably undergoes some turnover between April and October. The Twins have made only minor outside acquisitions (all involving relievers), and have missed the services of Justin Morneau since early July, but they’ve set a blistering pace in the second half. Meanwhile, the Rangers came out on the buying side of the season’s biggest trade—no, not the blockbuster that brought Jeff Francouer to the Lone Star State, but the swap that landed them perhaps the league’s best pitcher in Cliff Lee. Although the Yankees have dominated the Twins during the Ron Gardenhire era, neither Minnesota nor Texas seems like a clearly preferable draw from the AL East perspective.

Winning the wild card has hardly been the kiss of death for past teams’ playoff chances. In the 15 postseasons since the field was expanded from four teams to eight, four World Series have been won by wild-card teams, which have accounted for a quarter of the contenders and taken home slightly more than 25 percent of the trophies over that span. However, 15 postseasons is a fairly small sample; since wild-card teams are often inferior to their fellow playoff participants (though not in the case of this year’s eventual winner) in addition to being deprived of home-field advantage, it might be unwise to expect them to continue holding more than their own forever.

So how beneficial is home-field advantage? As Matt Swartz noted last year, home teams have won about 54 percent of games throughout the history of the sport. Adding four percentage points to one’s chances of winning an important game is significant, and there’s some evidence to suggest that the advantage has grown in recent years:

Home-team winning percentage is pushing 56 percent this season. As Mitchel Lichtman observed recently, it’s tempting to draw a connection between the banning of amphetamine use in 2006 and the apparent spike of home-field advantage in the seasons since—perhaps travel takes a greater toll in the absence of uppers—but we’ll have to wait to find out whether this represents a trend or a single-season blip. Even if the “true” home-field advantage in 2010 is closer to the historical average than it appears, it shouldn’t be disregarded; as R.J. Anderson wrote, teams with home-field advantage often end up playing fewer home games, but according to Sky Andrecheck, a club with a 54 percent home-field advantage should win a seven-game series roughly 51.3 percent of the time. Both Andrecheck and Patriot noted that home-field advantage has been observed to be higher in the playoffs, which makes some intuitive sense, but thanks to strength-of-schedule and sample-size issues, we can’t come to any definitive conclusions about its true post-season size.

Winning the division instead of earning a wild-card berth may confer some additional benefits that aren’t as easy to quantify, and not just in terms of pride or the nature of the pennants plastered onto outfield walls. Playoff appearances are enormous financial windfalls, especially when they don’t come consecutively (as this year’s won’t for the Rays, thanks to last season’s third-place finish). In Diamond Dollars, Vince Gennaro valued the financial benefit of a non-consecutive playoff appearance at 8.5 percent of the following season’s baseline revenue, due in part to a 13 percent increase in attendance (despite a four percent-greater-than-average hike in ticket price).

A World Series victory adds even more profit to a team’s coffers: Gennaro estimated the total worth of the triumphant playoff appearance by the White Sox in 2005 at $46 million, including both short-term revenues and long-term enhancements to the team’s brand. Although he didn’t distinguish between the financial benefits (or morale boosts) accruing to division winners and wild cards, it seems safe to say that there might be some tangible disparity between the two. As Joe Maddon last week, “It’s great to say you won the American League East. It’s the most difficult division in baseball, and to be able to raise that flag is very important to the organization.”

One prominent school of thought about end-of-season etiquette insists that momentum matters—that rolling over the competition right up until the Division Series instills a team with the confidence necessary to play deep into October (or, for at least one more year, November), while greeting the postseason with tail inserted tightly between legs predisposes a club to an early exit. While this belief could be true in certain cases, it doesn’t seem to apply on the whole, and some of the hottest and coldest teams of the past have experienced sudden, drastic shifts in team temperature immediately upon entering post-season play.

Though the players continue to pay lip service to the importance of winning the division, the words and actions of the Yankees’ leadership tell a different story. During last week’s series against the Rays, Joe Girardi chose to lose with Sergio Mitre on the mound rather than risk burning out his usual high-leverage relievers as October draws near. Brian Cashman weighed in this weekend, reflecting, “Over time you get educated. You want to all be macho and say, ‘American League East at all cost,’ but hey man, I’ve been part of the Yankees now for a long time. I’ve been beaten by a wild card Red Sox team in ’04. I’ve been beaten by a wild card Florida Marlins in the World Series in ’03. I’m not saying give me the wild card. I’m just saying we’ve got to realize perspective. We’re in this to try to win a World Series. If we don’t, people remember that we didn’t more than whatever we did. This is about trying to line us up and getting our guys in a position to play at full gear if we can get ourselves to October.”

Clearly, Cashman has a far better sense of the state of his team than any outsider, no matter how well-informed. He and his front-office analysts, along with his team’s doctors, trainers, and coaching staff, must attempt to determine whether the benefit of fielding fresh limbs outweighs the potential loss of home-field advantage, and the same goes for their counterparts in Tampa.

As Steven Goldman casually observed elsewhere, the players who compose the Yankees’ roster have seen more seasons than the members of any other unit in the league. Bomber batters trail only the White Sox and Red Sox in years, and Yankees pitchers are second to none in birthday candles blown out. On both sides of the ball, the defending champs find themselves on the wrong side of 30, and they seem to be feeling their age: Mark Teixeira, Nick Swisher, Brett Gardner, and Mariano Rivera, among others, have all suffered from nagging aches and pains in recent weeks. As Will Carroll noted on two occasions earlier this month, the Yankees have treated injuries quite conservatively this season, and it’s unlikely that they’ll deviate from that pattern during the regular season’s denouement.

The Rays aren’t suffering from the same problem, having seemingly had better luck discovering the fountain of youth in Florida than Ponce de León ever did. At a collective age (weighted by playing time) of 27.5, Tampa Bay’s hitters have barely missed out on being the youngest unit in the AL, while the pitchers, at 28.1, find themselves ensconced in the middle of the pack. The Rays may be tired, but they’re otherwise prepared to play.

This late in the season, every injury is potentially season-ending; since every pitch delivered could tear a ligament, every pitch faced or head-first slide attempted could fracture a bone, and every break out of the box could strain a muscle, managers must experience a strong temptation to encase their stars in carbonite until playoff rosters are submitted (though facing Cliff Lee or Francisco Liriano wouldn’t be any easier with a case of hibernation sickness). The Yankees currently have 19 position players on their active roster; if they so chose, they could field a defensive alignment featuring Kevin Russo, Greg Golson, and Colin Curtis in the outfield, Ramiro Pena, Eduardo Nunez, Juan Miranda in the infield, and Chad Moeller behind the plate, hemorrhaging win probability in order to keep their starters at full strength. Of course, teams must walk a fine line between driving their players too hard, and easing off the reins enough that the breather begins to affect their timing.

The following tables list the Yankees and Rays who could most use a rest:

Name

Age

G

PA

Name

Age

GS

IP

Robinson Cano

27

147

638

CC Sabathia

30

32

224.0

Derek Jeter

36

145

681

A.J. Burnett

33

30

175.3

Mark Teixeira

30

145

650

Phil Hughes

24

28

163.0

Brett Gardner

26

140

527

Javier Vazquez

34

28

148.7

Nick Swisher

29

137

581

Andy Pettitte

38

19

121.7

 

Name

Age

G

PA

Name

Age

GS

IP

Evan Longoria

24

147

642

David Price

25

29

193.7

Carl Crawford

29

141

601

James Shields

29

30

187

B.J. Upton

26

140

556

Matt Garza

26

29

185.7

Ben Zobrist

29

138

599

Jeff Niemann

27

27

160.7

Carlos Pena

32

131

537

Wade Davis

25

26

152.3

 
Cano and Longoria have played in nearly all of their teams’ games, but only Jeter has been involved in almost every contest among the over-30 crowd. Sabathia is the only starter to have cracked 200 innings thus far, but he’s no stranger to crossing that threshold. Neither team has asked a reliever to throw as many as 65 innings in 2010, and the Rays haven’t yet had one hit 60. At the end of a long season, players who wouldn’t benefit from a bit of R&R must be few and far between in major-league clubhouses, but the beasts of the AL East don’t appear to have run their horses into the ground en route to their enviable positions in the standings.

Still, for a variety of reasons, it’s not in the Yankees’ best interest to jeopardize their title defense by treating this series as a must-win affair. The head-to-head record between the two teams thus far favors the Rays (who’ve won eight of the 14 contests), so a tie in the division would grant the Rays home-field advantage unless the Yankees sweep this week. The remaining schedule also leans in the Florida team’s favor: the Yankees play Boston in six of their remaining nine games, while the Rays get to tee off against the dregs of each division—the Mariners, Orioles, and Royals. The aged Yankees also have more to gain by resting their walking wounded.

As the younger and healthier unit, the Rays likely require less rest. Given their domed home, they may also have more incentive to seek the home-field advantage. The Yankees have played well at home since New Yankee Stadium opened for business, but Matt Swartz’s research revealed that the Rays enjoyed the most dramatic home-field advantage over a five-season span. Since 1998, the Rays have a .497 winning percentage at Tropicana Field, and a .379 mark on the road; only once (in 1999) has the team managed a better record on the road than at home. Although Matt found little evidence of a persistent team-specific home-field advantage, he did discover a tendency for “domed home teams to do well in domed stadiums.”

These facts aren’t far from Joe Maddon’s mind, but he and Girardi share a goal that can’t be achieved until after the curtain falls on the regular season. As much as the two men would love to lay claim to a division title, both are equally aware that any divisional victory that reduces the probability of a championship could only be classified as pyrrhic. Look for these opposing skippers to manage with that in mind as the AL East drama unfolds over the next few days.

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

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