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September 21, 2010

Expanded Horizons

The Great NL West race

by Tommy Bennett

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The wild card has ruined the thrill of the pennant race, they say. The Yankees and Rays, the two teams who almost by consensus are considered the best in baseball, should be in the middle of a good, old-fashioned dogfight right now. Instead, they are locked in the embrace of the biggest September sister-kiss in recent memory. Both teams were, as of Monday morning, better than 1-in-75 favorites to make the playoffs. This is a bum deal, traditionalists scream. Where’s our September swoon—our choke job for the ages? “I’m not greedy,” you say, “I don’t need Bobby Thomson in a one-game playoff. I just want to watch one go down to the wire.”

Fair enough. Let’s try to construct as exciting a division race as the wild-card era will allow. First, we had better start with three teams. Two teams are great and all, but we want to maximize the number of direct, head-to-head matchups between the teams. The presence of three teams in the race allows us to harness the multiplicative power of factorials to increase the number of games in which both teams have a fighting playoff shot. Now let’s put a little—but just the slightest amount—of separation between the teams, so that there is some potential comeback drama. Say no more than one-half or one game between the teams.

We should be careful, though, to make sure the race has enough parity between the teams. To equalize the difference in the standings, let’s give the third-place team the best expected record (we’ll give them a viable MVP candidate as well). Next, we’ll give the second-place team the second-best expected record (and the best bullpen in baseball). Finally, we’ll make sure the first-place team has excellent starting pitching (but with some questions about whether the ace is the pitcher he used to be).

Now let’s give the teams a bit of an uphill battle. We’ll lower the probability that any of the three teams wins the wild card to single digits, effectively making this a winner-take-all-affair. We’ll even give it some interesting temporal elements: we’ll give one team a venerable 19th-century lineage, one a middle-aged lifespan, and one an adolescent Selig childhood. We’ll put all these elements into our hypothetical blender, along with about two weeks left to play, and crank it up to 11.

Presto change-o: out comes the 2010 National League West. The following table describes the relevant features of the race:


W

L

3rd Order W%

Division Odds

Playoffs Odds

Giants

84

66

.525

44.6%

48.0%

Padres

83

66

.533

34.4%

38.4%

Rockies

82

67

.562

21.0%

24.3%

All numbers above are taken from the playoff odds report, about which you can read more here. The day-by-day data tells the tale of the tape:

Imagine an alternate universe where the cosmological constant is sufficiently large to cause contraction of the universe accelerating until the Big Crunch took place. Got it? You should now have an inaccurate model of the universe but an accurate model of the 2010 NL West in your head. Our playoff odds report is most fascinated with the success of the Giants, since their third-order record is the weakest of the three teams. Let’s look at various rate stats for the race, to see if we can’t handicap it a bit.


TAv

SNLVAR

WXRL

PADE

EqBRR

Giants

.257

23.2

10.2

1.89

-7.3

Padres

.260

21.5

15.0

-0.75

-2.1

Rockies

.262

15.6

6.9

-0.91

3.8

If you want an even race, this is about as good as you’re going to get. Two teams lead the others in two categories—the Rockies (TAv and EqBRR) and the Giants (SNLVAR and PADE)—but finish third in two others. Meanwhile, the Padres may be the most balanced: They lead in WXRL and do not come in third in any category. The reemergence of Jhoulys Chacin (2.72 RA since a mid-August recall from Triple-A) may buoy the Rockies' pitching staff, while the acquisition of Pat Burrell (.266/.372/.516 in a Giants uniform) likely makes San Francisco’s offense better than its seasonal TAv would suggest.

So how about the teams’ schedules? The three teams have relatively balanced schedules. Each has at least one series left against one of its opponents, and both the Padres and Rockies get a crack at the first-place Giants. Of particular note is the final series of the season, which will pit the Giants against the Padres for three games in San Francisco. Meanwhile, the Rockies will hit the road, where they have struggled, to face the disappointing but still dangerous Cardinals. Here are the schedules, in table form:


Giants

Padres

Rockies

9/21

@CHC

@LAD

@ARI

9/22

@CHC

@LAD

@ARI

9/23

@CHC

@LAD

@ARI

9/24

@COL

CIN

SFG

9/25

@COL

CIN

SFG

9/26

@COL

CIN

SFG

9/27

-

CHC

LAD

9/28

ARI

CHC

LAD

9/29

ARI

CHC

LAD

9/30

ARI

CHC

@STL

10/1

SDP

@SFG

@STL

10/2

SDP

@SFG

@STL

10/3

SDP

@SFG

@STL

The most likely outcome is that these teams’ seasons will come down to that final series. TVs throughout the American West, including in the teams’ respective clubhouses, will be tuned in that first weekend in October. If the prospect of this almost perfectly designed playoff race doesn’t get you going, then it’s hard for me to imagine what in baseball would. The structure of the race is complex, prone to rapid swings, and poised to come down to the wire. The teams are each very good, and in different ways. It is here, in a division the wild card will likely leave unsullied, that the great three-way race has blossomed once again.

Related Content:  Pennant Race

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

BP Comment Quick Links

cggarb

I have absolutely no idea what just happened.

Sep 21, 2010 06:55 AM
rating: -2
 
harderj

Thanks for this. As a Giants fan I'm enjoying the race and hope they can hold on, and it was interesting to learn more about the components of each team's season so far.

From the team audit page it would seem that the Giants are underperforming their expected won-loss percent by the most, despite the biggest average run differential. Doesn't that bode well for them?

Team, ave runs scored, ave runs allowed, run diff, pythag over/under, hitter vorp, pitcher vorp, def effic, hit list:

Giants 4.32 3.69 0.63 -1.6 166.8 246.8 .708 6
Padres 4.23 3.64 0.59 -1.4 149.3 221.7 .703 3
Rox 4.91 4.34 0.57 -1.1 239.6 160.3 .682 2

My worries for the Giants - no lead-off hitter and less good defense while Andres Torres is out; general offensive production two and three games ago against Milwaukee; having to play Jose Guillen in the field and letting him run the bases; continued battles of Pablo Sandoval.

Thanks again!

Sep 21, 2010 07:36 AM
rating: 2
 
Aaron Rosenbaum

Yes, the wild card can create some fun races... but it kills the chance of watching the best two teams duke it out. BP has been a proponent of getting the best talent on the field out of respect/love for the game. Why would we be interested in watching the "2nd" tier teams battle it out while letting the best of the best linger. The Rays/Yankees matchup should be MLB's September billing - instead... it's washed out by the wild card.

Burrell? Torress? Guillen? Sandoval? That's what we want to watch @ crunch time? Really?

The wild card has effectively eliminated the premium playoff chase.

Sep 21, 2010 08:18 AM
rating: -2
 
ScottyB

Aaah, but Yankees-Rays can be MLB's October top billing. Without the wild-card, that couldn't happen as an inferior team from a different time zone effectively takes the spot of the 2nd best team in baseball...

Sep 21, 2010 10:17 AM
rating: 0
 
CRP13

Some people would say "a different team from an inferior time zone". But then, those people think the American east coast is New Jerusalem.

Sep 21, 2010 14:42 PM
rating: 2
 
Benjamin Harris

I guess it's just a matter of preferences. I'd rather watch Tampa and the Yankees battle in the ALCS than have it decided while Tampa is playing Seattle, Baltimore and Kansas City to finish the season. I would say it extends the possibility of the best two teams duking it out in the playoffs, which is the way I would prefer it.

Sep 21, 2010 10:18 AM
rating: 1
 
Scott D. Simon

You forgot one essential aspect of the perfect divisional race: The games have to be played before I go to sleep!

Sep 21, 2010 08:37 AM
rating: 0
 
Schlom

How in the world can the Giants have the best defense out of these three teams? With the exception of Andres Torres are they average at any position (except for maybe Posey)? This shows the absolute unreliability of defensive stats and why any metric that uses defensive value has to be taken with a large grain of salt.

Sep 21, 2010 09:22 AM
rating: -2
 
CRP13

"Imagine an alternate universe where the cosmological constant is sufficiently large to cause contraction of the universe accelerating until the Big Crunch took place. Got it? You should now have an inaccurate model of the universe but an accurate model of the 2010 NL West in your head."

Where else can you find this kind of analogy? Great writing!

Sep 21, 2010 14:38 PM
rating: 1
 
anderson721

Who cares about this? what I want to know is, who should I pick up for my fantasy team , Sanchez or Chacin?
In actuality, this is great work. Just depressing that the Dodgers aren't around to embiggen the fun.

Sep 21, 2010 14:40 PM
rating: 0
 
kcellis224

Worth noting that the Giants' games against the Cubs are at Wrigley, not AT&T.

Sep 21, 2010 17:05 PM
rating: 0
 
Tommy Bennett

Thanks for catching that. It should be fixed now, and I regret the error.

Sep 21, 2010 20:55 PM
rating: 0
 
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