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July 16, 2003

Lies, Damned Lies

PECOTA Mid-Season Review

by Nate Silver

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Watch SportsCenter this time of year, or read the Sunday baseball page--that's the one with the long list of players sorted by their batting averages--and you're sure to see plenty of stories about what a wonderful, surprising baseball season this has been. Why, who would have thought that Dontrelle Willis would have been drawing Mark Fidrych comparisons, that the Royals would be 10 games over sea level at the Break, that Melvin Mora would be an MVP candidate, that Esteban Loaiza would be the best arm in the American League? Perhaps there's some Joe Namath among you, some Nostradamus, some Miss Cleo, but we certainly didn't.

Then again, how would you have felt if you came across headlines like these:

  • Though All-Star Newcomers Abound, Baseball Proves Predictable (N.Y. Times)
  • Yanks, Bonds, Smoltz: Still Good (USA Today)
  • METS SUCK!!! WE TOLD U SO!!! (N.Y. Post)

With 30 teams, and 750 ballplayers divided among them, every baseball season is sure to have its share of surprises. But all things considered, this has been a remarkably predictable baseball season. Compare the All-Star break standings to those predicted by PECOTA before the season--you can find the relevant links here and here--and you'll get a correlation on winning percentage of .74. Pretty good, huh? PECOTA must really be onto something.

Well, it seems pretty good, until you consider that the correlation between the year-end 2002 standings and the year-to-date 2003 standings is even greater--around .79. Make no mistake: that's an unusually high figure, as we can see by comparing it to the correlations from previous seasons.


Year-over-year correlations in Winning %
	2003 (partial year) v 2002 	        .79
	2002 v 2001				.69
	2001 v 2000				.50
	2000 v 1999				.47
	1999 v 1998				.58
	1998 v 1997				.34
	1997 v 1996				.35

The last time that the correlation was so high was between 1965 and 1966--that was in a league with a balanced schedule, 20 teams, and no hint of free agency. Sure, there's still plenty of baseball left to be played, but if anything, you'd expect partial-season results to be more erratic than year-end results.

So what does it all mean? Well, I think there are about three lines of thought here:

  1. The skeptic. The consistency itself is a fluke.
  2. The cynic. Results like these are proof positive of "competitive imbalance."
  3. The functionalist. The year-to-year consistency indicates that teams are doing a better job than ever of evaluating talent, and implementing sustainable, long-term strategies.

Although I think there's an element of truth in each theory, you can pretty much tell from the phrasing which one I'm most inclined to believe. Whether it's a sign of improved business models or not, we haven't seen any teams engaged in a full-scale bailout this year, as the Marlins performed after 1997 or the Padres after 1998. With the possible exception of the Phillies, we also haven't seen any teams kick it into the turbocharged, win-at-all-costs gear that Tom Hicks made famous a couple of winters ago. Most teams stand at about the same place in terms of their willingness to spend as they did a year ago, and most teams' time horizons have not shifted dramatically.

On the other hand, there may not be as many possibilities for arbitrage as their once were. Between 1997 and 1999, the A's advanced from 65 wins to 87, simply by giving the guys in their farm system a chance, and picking up veteran spare parts that nobody else wanted. A team like the Tigers or the Reds might have their hearts in the right place, but there are more teams competing for "unappreciated" talent, and fewer teams willing to take on a Bobby Higginson- or a Barry Larkin-type of contract. The hill has become that much steeper to climb.

There's still plenty of baseball left to be played, of course, so all of this discussion may be premature. In the meantime, let's take a division-by-division comparison of the PECOTA projected standings against the year-to-date actuals. Actual figures are prorated to 162 games, and we'll look at runs scored and runs allowed projections as well as the win totals.


AL EAST
            Actual                 Projected                 +/-
        W     RS      RA      W       RS      RA      W       RS      RA
NYA    99    880     719     109     986     688    -10     -106     +31
BOS    96    998     826     104     914     673     -8      +84    +153
TOR    84    948     878     80      838     846     +4     +110     +32
BAL    73    819     824     69      674     788     +4     +145     +36
TBA    56    681     893     57      674     923     -1       +7     -30

We boldly predicted that the AL East standings would resolve themselves the same way that they have for each of the past six years, and though the Jays seemed poised to throw a wrench--or is that a B.J. Birdy?--in those plans for a while, it's a bet that seems even safer now than it did at the start of the season. Sure, the Red Sox still have a shot, but with the Yankees' medical outlook improving, and George Steinbrenner's wallet yet to make its presence felt, New York is in the driver's seat.

Don't think they'll be winning 109 games, though.

PECOTA's Greatest Hits

  • Jeremy Giambi not hitting like his big brother.

  • Blue Jay pitching depth their weak link.

  • David Wells durable and effective as a 40-year-old fatso.

PECOTA's Greatest Misses


AL CENTRAL
            Actual                 Projected                 +/-
        W     RS      RA      W       RS      RA      W       RS      RA
KCA    90    840     840     64      762     951    +26      +78    -111
CHA    78    677     701     86      850     797     -8     -173     -96
MIN    77    749     812     84      799     768     -7      -50     +44
CLE    71    695     784     67      732     879     +4      -37     -95
DET    44    523     812     55      647     913    -11     -124    -101

They haven't played up to their April numbers, and they've given up as many runs as they've allowed, but the Royals remain the biggest surprise in baseball, and there's no doubt that this is a more talented team than we expected it to be.

Still, Royals fans have some cause for concern. Like last year's Angels, the Royals have been superbly good with runners in scoring position:


Royals, overall:		.272/.338/.429
Royals, RISP:			.301/.378/.455

As the Angels proved, sometimes flukes like that can maintain themselves over a full season, but more likely than not, the Royals are going to give something back. As a result of their performance in clutch situations, the Royals have scored 35 more runs this season than their raw numbers project them to. Combine that with their favorable record in one-run games, and this is a team that's been lucky twice over.

On the other hand, with a seven-game cushion, and the White Sox and Twins apparently headed in reverse, that might be enough. It's better to be lucky than bad.

Hits

Misses


AL WEST
            Actual                 Projected                 +/-
        W     RS      RA      W       RS      RA      W       RS      RA
SEA   101    817     606     90      788     705    +11      +29     -99
OAK    94    746     645     89      788     710     +5      -42     -65
ANA    86    792     681     82      781     772     +4      +11     -91
TEX    66    805    1007     83      858     833    -17      -53    +174

Here's what I wrote about the Mariners in March:

A lot of people are ready to write the Mariners off; of the 30 or so people who filled out prediction forms at our Chicago Pizza Feed last weekend, just a couple picked the Mariners to win the division, while a couple more expected them to sneak in as the Wild Card. Many of their vulnerabilities were exposed last season: Freddy Garcia (190, 3.81), worn down by heavy usage, pitched horribly in the second half, Edgar Martinez (.274/.394/.483) suffered through an injury-riddled campaign that looks like the beginning of the end, and Jeff Cirillo (.255/.306/.348) did everything he could to counteract Andres Galarraga's example that road stats for Rockies shouldn't count...But the Mariners are still a good team...Because the starting lineup is old, there aren't many breakout candidates among the bunch, but if the A's and Angels both fall back to earth, slow and steady could win the race.

Lest I make too much of this, I should remind everyone that I didn't maintain my faith in the Mariners in our more subjective projection exercise, bucking the PECOTA projection and picking the A's to hold on to the division in our pre-season projection roundup. But the Mariners are a strong, healthy, balanced team, well ahead in their division without any individual performances that are obviously flukes (well, excepting Shigetoshi Hasegawa). I should know better than to count out any team with Billy Beane at the helm, but the Mariners' hold on the AL West seems solid.

Hits

Misses

  • Is there something in the water in Arlington? Or the hot, sticky air? The Rangers' inability to find even a half-decent group of pitchers has sunk them.

  • An Eric Chavez breakout.

  • Gil Meche. PECOTA doesn't know what to make of injured pitchers.


NL EAST
            Actual                 Projected                 +/-
        W     RS      RA      W       RS      RA      W       RS      RA
ATL   106    881     746     85      763     717    +21     +118     +29
PHI    92    771     615     94      825     672     -2      -54     -57
MON    84    736     717     82      760     756     +2      -24     -39
FLO    84    771     738     79      710     731     +5      +61      +7
NYN    70    678     820     82      691     680    -12      -13    +140

There's been a lot of talk about the Braves, but the Phillies might be the more interesting team. Their season has been thought of as a disappointment because the Braves pulled so far ahead so early, but the Phils are on pace to win 92 games. Compare and contrast their situation with that of the Cubs, a nominal playoff contender because of their weak division, who have much of Chicago clamoring for a future-is-now deadline deal even as they sink back to .500.

The Phillies have far and away the best pitching in the division, perhaps the best pitching in the league. If Pat Burrell can get it turned around, this is a very dangerous team.

Hits

  • Randy Wolf as one of the best pitchers in the league.

  • Tom Glavine's peripherals and Greg Maddux' age finally catching up to them.

  • Dontrelle Willis' numbers translating well into the big leagues. OK, maybe not that well. But in terms of achieving immediate success in the bigs, a favorable minor league walk rate (and perhaps a favorable home runs allowed rate) may be more important than an overwhelming minor league strikeout rate.

Misses


NL CENTRAL
            Actual                 Projected                 +/-
        W     RS      RA      W       RS      RA      W       RS      RA
HOU    86    815     696     89      830     731     -3      -15     -35
SLN    84    920     815     86      789     725     -2     +131     +90
CHN    81    719     722     83      698     672     -2      +21     +50
CIN    75    756     951     79      734     762     -4      +22    +189
PIT    73    721     794     78      734     769     -5      -13     +25
MIL    64    744     883     68      639     791     -4     +105     +92

In terms of wins and losses, PECOTA has done remarkably well with the NL Central: Each team is on pace to finish within a few games of its wins projection (albeit in every case on its downside). The runs scored and runs allowed numbers, however, tell a much different story. This is a three-tiered division: the Astros and Cardinals are serious contenders, the Cubs are waiting until next year, while the Reds, Pirates and Brewers mostly serve to provide a bottom as generous as J-Lo's.

Hits

Misses


NL WEST
            Actual                 Projected                 +/-
        W     RS      RA      W       RS      RA      W       RS      RA
SFN    98    769     689     84      754     716    +14      +15     -27
ARI    90    779     705     86      699     649     +4      +80     +56
LAN    85    571     531     82      674     669     +3     -103    -138
COL    84    894     878     82      935     930     +2      -41     -52
SDN    59    687     856     72      656     764    -13      +31     +92

This might end up being the most interesting division in baseball. Though the Giants have lead from the get-go, the top four teams are separated by just a couple of games in the Pythagorean standings. What's more, these are all tremendously different teams. The Giants are as dependent as ever on their superstar; the Diamondbacks have made it here largely with performances from unknowns and underappreciateds. The average Rockie game involves about 11 runs scored; the average Dodger game, fewer than seven--sure, you've got park effects involved, but that's still a lot of fun. Now that Rickey Henderson has joined the party, East Coasters may want to reschedule any 8 a.m. conference calls they have lined up for late September.

Hits

Misses

If we combine the season-to-date standings with the PECOTA projections for the balance of the season, here's what we come up with for a revised list of playoff teams and their win totals:

AL: Yankees 103, Red Sox (wc) 99, Mariners 96, White Sox 81
NL: Braves 97, Phillies (wc) 93, Giants 92, Astros 87

I'll buy most of that, including the possibility that the AL Central is won by a team without a winning record, though I expect that the Cardinals will pick up a pitcher or two at the deadline and win the division handily. Enjoy the rest of the baseball season, and we'll check back in on PECOTA's progress in October.

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

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