April 15, 2015
The Early-Season Odds Changers
Prospectus co-founder Joe Sheehan often says that fans would be better served by baseball writers if they all put down their pens and pushed away from their keyboards from Opening Day until Memorial Day. Rany Jazayerli—another co-founder—ran a three-part study back in 2003 that provides some objective support to that subjective statement: it takes about 48 games for a team’s seasonal performance to become more predictive of their final record than a simple blend of their three previous seasons’ records, and a regression factor. After 10 games, that rough preseason projection is still more than six times as predictive of final record as actual performance is.
Joe isn’t wrong, and Rany’s math wasn’t, either. We have some tools that change the way we perceive the early segment of the season, though. For one, we have PECOTA, which was just making its maiden voyage through April when Rany wrote up his study. For another, we have the Playoff Odds Report, which uses PECOTA and a Monte Carlo simulation that repeats the season thousands of times to give us an estimate of the chances that each team will make it to the postseason.
We don’t have to make silly statements, like that the Royals have a chip on their shoulder because of the national media’s disrespect, or that the Royals learned how to win from James Shields and still carry his spirit with them like the ghost of Ben Kenobi, or that the Royals discovered the joy they feel in playing together and permanently unlocked their potential. We don’t have to project a new and different performance level for a team, based on their minute sample of performance. (The report will do that for us, in small steps, as the season goes along.) We can simply look at how a team’s early-season showing—and that of the rest of the league—has affected their chances of reaching the playoffs, and talk about why, and how much to trust that number. Sam Miller did this just last spring, and I found it to be both fun and informative. Thus, to lighten my tread on Sheehan’s commemorative paver here at BP HQ, I’ll retrace Sam’s steps, only with a new set of teams.
Last year, eight teams saw their Playoff Odds swing by six percentage points or more over the first week. This season, with a few more teams having streakier starts, there are 10 such teams, but the interesting cases are the four biggest risers, and the four biggest fallers. Let’s run them down. (Keep in mind, all of these numbers are as of the end of the action on Monday. Maybe in Week 15 I’ll stay up all night to report on up-to-the-minute Playoff Odds changes. For now, the day-old numbers serve our purposes just fine.)
Kansas City Royals: 13.3 Percent Added, from 14.1 percent to 27.4 percent
They’re hitting .353 on balls in play; opponents are hitting .229 on balls in play. The pitching staff has stranded 79.8 percent of the runners they’ve put on base, the fourth-highest rate in the league. They’ve committed just one error, and are tied for the highest fielding percentage in baseball. Most gallingly, they have a .202 ISO—this team that hit 95 home runs all year last season is one of the best power-hitting teams in the league so far.
They missed Chris Sale in Chicago and Garrett Richards in Los Angeles. Because of Ervin Santana’s suspension and Ricky Nolasco’s balky elbow, they got Trevor May in the first game in Minnesota. The story here is: The Royals are playing out of their minds and over their skis, making no mistakes and missing no opportunities. That all will end soon, but thanks to these banked wins, they’re a little more than a one-in-four shot to reach October.
Detroit Tigers: 11.2 Percent Added, from 53.2 percent to 64.4 percent
Now, the Tigers’ performance is even less sustainable than that of the Royals. They had a .388 team BABIP, which, there are some good BABIP hitters on that team, but the all-time record for team BABIP is .330, so bring them back to at least .320 in your head. Meanwhile, the pitching staff had allowed home runs on only 3.9 percent of all their opponents’ fly balls. These numbers are all coming back toward the pack, but it looks like the Tigers might have some permanent separation from the field.
Chicago Cubs: 9.2 Percent Added, from 41.4 percent to 50.6 percent
There’s real reason for optimism here, though. Through Monday, the team had the seventh-highest walk rate and seventh-highest ISO in the league (though also the seventh-highest strikeout rate; this team will whiff all year). They had a .246 BABIP and a .358 opponents’ BABIP, but still owned a positive run differential (however narrowly). Kris Bryant is but a few days away, now, and the Cubs have only made forward progress toward contention while they wait for him.
Boston Red Sox: 7.6 Percent Added, from 62.6 percent to 70.2 percent
Seattle Mariners: 10.5 Percent Dropped, from 54 percent to 43.5 percent
One hopes the offense won’t hit .197/.237/.372 all season. They have a .202 collective BABIP, which will certainly improve, but it’s harder to know whether their 4.7-percent walk rate is going to get any better: this is not an assemblage of guys noted for taking great at-bats. Seattle is built to win with pitching, and the egg laid by Walker in his first start betrayed that expectation. They’ve already played three one-run games around that, and have an even run differential except for that one blowout loss. They didn’t get off to a good start; their competition did. They still have time to make up what was lost, though.
Miami Marlins: 10.2 Percent Dropped, from 27.6 percent to 17.4 percent
San Francisco Giants: 8.9 Percent Dropped, from 39.9 percent to 31 percent
The Giants are fascinating. They were practically neck-and-neck-and-neck-and-neck with the Cubs, Mets and Padres in terms of total Playoff Odds at the start of the season; they’re now a measurable distance behind all three, and way behind the Cubs. That’s not true if you isolate the odds of winning the Wild Card, but then, that’s kind of the point: The Dodgers outclass everyone in the NL West, including the Giants, so that Wild Card slot is sort of their only good chance. And it’s fading. Already.
Cleveland Indians: 8.5 Percent Dropped, from 33.1 percent to 24.6 percent
What swayed me—aside from the documented volatility of their rotation, which is deep but wildly unpredictable—was the epiphany I had while perusing their offensive core last month: They could really struggle to score runs. It’s not guaranteed. In fact, they still have a shot at an above-average offense. They have some serious downside, though, and not much chance of really breaking out, the way that 2013 team did down the stretch.
It was a little of each problem that set the team back in their first week. They had a collective OBP of .296, but still scored 22 runs in six games, a respectable figure in this era. They held the Astros to three runs in three games, but then surrendered 25 in three against the Tigers. Most of their lost probability comes from the Tigers and Royals sprinting out of the gate the way they did. Cleveland will have chances to get these games back, and nothing in their performance has led me to conclude that panic is appropriate. It’s appropriate—it might even be the universe speaking to us through numbers, though it probably isn’t—that the Indians, Tigers and White Sox were the three teams contending for the AL Central at the start of the season, and that, with the Royals starting this way, the Indians’ Playoff Odds have sagged from one shot in three to one in four.