September 7, 2011
Painting the Black
More Than a Mirage?
If Bill Bryson ever decides to write a sequel to Made In America, he could include a chapter on how the transformation of video games from nerd niche to cultural staple has introduced new terminology to everyday conversation. The phenomenon has invaded the sports sector, too; big football hits are now delivered with the hit stick, crazy dunks result from slick button combinations, and amazing offensive numbers are ripped from a console’s hard drive.
Sometimes the avatars representing a sports team perform better in digital ballparks than the real team can on the actual field. You would be hard-pressed to find a better example than the 2011 Dodgers during the first half. In the video game world, the Dodgers were a fantastic team to captain. Not only do they have two of the best players in the league in Clayton Kershaw and Matt Kemp, but they also have a slew of role players whose flaws are left unexposed with a skilled player manipulating their every move. Factor in the Dodgers’ real-life ownership problems, and the imaginary Blue Crew served as an oasis for fans dying to return to the days when baseball was still fun in Los Angeles.
Until the All-Star game, the Dodgers played like the McCourts’ dog had gotten hold of the controller, winning fewer than 45 percent of their games. Such wretched play helped the Diamondbacks go up 11 games on Don Mattingly’s bunch. Since the midseason classic, however, it would seem that a human has reclaimed the controller and righted the ship.
Although the Diamondbacks have still outplayed Los Angeles in the second half (by 4 1/2 games), they are the only National League West team to do so. It isn’t just a divisional thing, either, as the Dodgers have the National League’s fifth-best winning percentage since the break and its third-best Pythagorean record. If the Dodgers’ winning ways continue, should the strong second half put the fan base’s consternation to rest?
Bill James—who, like those aforementioned video games, has become a prominent figure after years on the margins of mainstream awareness—wrote in The Baseball Book about five straightforward indicators that foretold how a team would perform in the next season. One of the indicators was based on a team’s second-half performance. A team that played better down the stretch, he wrote, should improve the next season. His thought process makes sense on a basic level, since a team that improves had to have something go right for it, whether it was restored health, a promoted prospect, a good trade, or just regression to the mean.
However, the theory assumes that the positive factors that caused the improvement are sustainable. That might be true in some cases, but considering that teams can over- or underperform their component measures over a full 162-game season, plenty of issues can pop up when the season is halved. The 2010 Orioles are a great example of a team that played much better in the second half (they played .500 ball after winning just one-third of their first-half games) then fell into the abyss during the following season. All the credit given to Buck Showalter’s tactical savvy and no-nonsense attitude now looks silly.
Sometimes those surging teams do seemingly roll their success over into the next season. In 2000, the Astros won 42 of their final 72 games, then won 93 games in 2001. Those feel-good Padres of 2010 improved on their record by 15 wins, but not before posting a .527 second-half winning percentage in 2009 (following a .409 winning percentage in the first half). The 2004 Expos (gained 14 wins in 2005), 2008 Dodgers (gained 11 wins in 2009), and 2009 Nationals (gained 10 wins in 2010) capitalized on strong second halves as well.
The table above tells the stories of the rest of the teams since the 2000 season that posted sub-.500 records in the first half, which they then outplayed by at least 10 points in the second half. Of the 21 teams that achieved that feat prior to 2010, 13 improved their records in the subsequent season, with nine improving by five or more wins. On the other side, six of the eight teams to decline got worse by five or more wins.
It’s possible that teams on both sides of the fence have logical explanations beyond strong second halves for improving or declining, such as changing the complexion of their rosters. Should the Dodgers choose to do that without selling off their core, it isn’t hard to see them improving in a quick matter (ownership situation allowing). However, if you have to make a guess about whether they’ll improve on their win-loss total based on their second-half record, you might as well flip a coin—unless you’re the McCourts, in which case you can’t risk losing a quarter.