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February 28, 2011
“I’m anxious to see how it all blooms together.” —Astros General Manager Ed Wade
Among the most enduring spring training clichés is the idea that every team has a shot. The standings are tied in March, with thirty teams sporting .500 records (undefined records, if you want to be a math nerd about it). This idea gets reinforced throughout the season, too, since the odds are always good that at least one unexpected team will end up in the playoffs. With the news that Adam Wainwright is sidelined for the season, these hopes live new life in the NL Central.
But of course we know it’s a big lie, a noble truth we tell our younger selves when the swallows come back to Capistrano. That’s why we have an elaborate system to calculate postseason odds, that’s why we predict winners and losers for the offseason, and that’s why the over/unders in Vegas aren’t all 81. But just how untrue is it that teams get a new chance and that there is always hope in next year?
Well, one way to look at it would be to compare last year’s actual playoff teams with our best estimate of 2011’s group of playoff teams.
Note that I give the Dodgers the wild card because they are the team with the higher average win total in the Monte Carlo simulation. The Braves are very close and may in fact have an advantage for the NL wild card. Viewed this way, there doesn’t seem to be much hope—at least not for bottom feeders. Of last year’s eight playoff teams, five are projected to repeat the feat.
But there is another way of looking at this question: we can also ask how much better this year’s teams are expected to be than they were last year. We could do this in a couple of different ways. We might want to know the expected absolute improvement in the win column for each team. This is pretty straightforward. For example, here are the top gainers if we look at things that way:
This isn’t quite right, though, since all we’re really seeing here is the teams that were the lousiest in 2010. Put another way, the losers by this methodology are the Rays, the Twins, the Reds, the Padres, and the Blue Jays. That’s three playoff teams and two pleasant surprises. And does anyone really think the Pirates are going to be baseball’s second most improved team? There may be nowhere to go but up from 57 wins, but a Cinderella season is hard to envision. (Who’s the ace? Paul Maholm? James McDonald? Their rotation has literally been subsidized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.)
Wouldn’t it be better if we could first correct for all the noise that makes bad teams likely candidates for a dead cat bounce? Of course it would be! That’s just what third-order winning percentage allows us to do. We’ll just take last year’s raw (i.e. unregressed) third-order wins from last year’s adjusted standings. Remember, third-order wins are calculated by taking aggregate batting and pitching statistics, adjusting for opponent strength, and then running them through Pythagenpat, thus eliminating most random fluctuations that aren’t included in individual batting and pitching lines (although some noise, like that introduced by the rate of hits on balls in play, remains). Comparing these more refined win percentages against the depth- chart-driven predictions yields a more interesting picture:
Argh, those pesky Pirates! It turns out that they were even worse than their record last year indicated. And sure, they have a young core of position players. The bullpen is better and more flexible than it has been in years past, and they have solid options at every position except perhaps shortstop (maybe they should try Ronny Cedeno as a starter?). So perhaps the Pirates have some hope.
What about the Orioles? They were a popular choice to improve last year, too, and look how that turned out. Aha, you say, but what about the Buck Showalter magic? Surely they won’t start the season 15-41 again! And what about potentially promising sophomore showings from Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta? What about a new starter at more than half of the infield positions—Mark Reynolds at third, Derrek Lee at first, and J.J. Hardy at short? And what about the addition of Vladimir Guerrero?
The Brewers' hope is clear and manifest in their brand new one-two punch of Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum. Perhaps more than any other team, the Brewers represent neither the hope of next year (the kind that sets in when teams fall out of contention) nor the reminiscing of last year (what was worth enjoying about the Brewers last year?), but the anticipation of this year. Greinke, Gallardo, Marcum; Braun, Fielder, . . . Betancourt?
It wouldn’t be hope if it were a sure thing.