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May 9, 2003
In Pythagoras We Trust
The weird thing about the standings in the AL so far this season is how closely they match the projected standings based on runs scored and runs allowed. Usually this early there are more anomalies, more instances of division rivals whose positions in the standings don't reflect the caliber of baseball they've played. (Clay Davenport has taken this notion to an extreme, which you can find both in last week's article and every day in his Adjusted Standings.) Looking just at Pythagorean records, though, the entire American League is lining up the way it should.
The NL is quite a different story. The Central's four contenders are separated by just two games in the stadings, but a whopping nine games based on runs. The Reds' sweep of the Cardinals closed the gap between the two teams to just a game, but the Cards have outscored their opponents by 50 runs, the Reds have been outscored by 48, while the Astros and Cubs fall between those extremes. In the West, the seven-game edge the Giants have on the Dodgers is not reflected in the runs the two teams have scored; the Dodgers have a .596/.592 edge in expected winning percentage.
The NL East is the most interesting case. The Braves have the second-best record in the NL at 23-11 and a 3 1/2-game lead on the Philles. The Phils actually have a +40 run differential and the third-best Pythagorean winning percentage in the league, while the Braves are just squeaking by with a +15 edge. The six-game swing in the standings clouds the issue of which has been the better team so far.
So which tells us more: the records, or the runs? At this point in the season, I'm inclined to trust the runs. The Phillies have been a very good team from Opening Day, and while they have a handful of problems, they have both front-line talent and depth, and their record more closely hews to the performances they've been getting. The gap between their record and that of the Braves is entirely a close games thing.
Differential Phillies Braves 1 4-4 7-2 2 2-2 4-0 3 6-0 3-2 4 1-4 1-2 5 0-1 0-0 >5 7-4 9-5Why have the Braves been so much better in one- and two-run games? Part of the reason is their bullpen, which has pitched much better than the Phillies'. As Rany Jazayerli pointed out back in 1999, a good bullpen can be a factor in a team outperforming its Pythagorean projection. We know that a team's record in close games, though, is largely influenced by their luck. The difference between good and bad teams isn't the close games, but the blowouts. Good teams hammer their opponents more often than bad teams do; neither the Braves nor Phillies rate much of an edge there so far.
Let's back up one more level of abstraction. The Braves' record reflects not just their luck in turning runs into wins, but in turning run elements into runs. According to Clay Davenport's projections, the Braves have picked up nine extra runs compared to what they should have scored, which has been worth about a win (they've allowed exactly as many as expected). The Phillies have been even better at this, though, with projected RS/RA of 155 and 141 and actual totals of 174 and 134.
Say, did any of you shake your head over that claim about the Philles' and Braves' bullpens? You should have. According to Michael Wolverton's Adjusted Runs Prevented, through Wednesday the Phillies' pen had actually been better, saving 3.5 runs vs. the Braves' pen costing the team 1.0 runs.
Those totals are deceiving, though. The Braves' figures are wildly distorted by three low-leverage outings in which two pitchers not currently active got beaten like Zippy Chippy at the Preakness:
I mentioned Maddux's two bad starts in April. Some of the Braves' run differential is due to his disastrous opening month, and it's been argued that the Braves' Pythagrorean record is skewed by performances that won't be repated. Perhaps, but I'm worried about Maddux. Looking at just his last five starts:
31 2/3 IP, 10 R, 7 ER, 5 BB, 15 SO, 3 HRThose are fairly good numbers, but the strikeout rate is still low and the ERA of 1.99 hides nearly a third of his runs allowed. He's putting the ball on the ground with increasing frequency, though, which is the best sign for a pitcher who now needs to work as far down in the zone as the law will allow. I think Maddux will be a 3.50 ERA pitcher for the rest of the season, which leaves the Braves without a true ace for the first time since 1990.
Focusing on the Braves and Phillies ignores the fact that a third team is right there with them at the six-week mark. What can we make of the Expos, whose 21-13 record is an exact match for their projected one? The Spos have benefited from a remarkably easy schedule so far (although not as much as the Braves have), and they aren't getting lucky in terms of run differential or in turning what they do at the plate into runs. They're in the race thanks to a defense that is second-best in the league in Defensive Efficiency, making non-strikeout pitchers like Zach Day, Livan Hernandez and Tomokazu Ohka look good.
I still think the Expos' travel schedule is going to be what kills them. They're a .500 team that will probably wear down as the season goes on, with a seasonal flight path that looks a lot like the 2002 version: hanging around into July, and fading afterwards.
And the other two? I'm willing to buy that the Braves' Pythagorean record is understated thanks to a handful of ugly games, and that their bullpen gives them a edge in close games that will carry through the season. Additionally, now that they're playing with an actual right side of the infield, the Braves may have their best offense since the mid-1990s. The gap between them and the Phillies is much less than it looked like it was going to be eight weeks ago.
However, the Phillies still have a big edge in the rotation with depth to burn, and they lack the giant sucking holes in the lineup that the Braves will be saddled with all year (although David Bell is trying really hard). They've probably played under their potential, as their power core hasn't yet done much.
In Pythagoras We Trust.
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