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May 25, 2004

Prospectus Today

A Trip Through the Adjusted Standings

by Joe Sheehan

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I want to thank everyone who has called and sent in e-mail professing sympathy for the loss of Doug Pappas and providing remembrances of him and his work. Doug reached so many people, and created so many good memories for those with whom he crossed paths.

--

I was checking out BP's Adjusted Standings report this morning. I think we're far enough into the season that the report is useful in indicating which teams' win-loss records are clouding their true performance, for better or worse. Schedules are pretty unbalanced--how many games have the Red Sox played in Skydome this year? Six? Seventeen? Twenty-five?--and the effects of under- or overperforming Pythagenport, or being particularly efficient or inefficient in generating runs out of offensive events, are beginning to be felt. It's interesting to look at these gaps and find the performance issues--great, now I'm going to trip spam filters--that cause them.

Take those Red Sox, for instance. With 228 runs scored and 180 runs allowed, their record of 27-17 is a match for their Pythag mark. But according to Clay Davenport's calculations, the Sox should have a 241-167 edge in runs. The offensive gap, which has cost them at least one win, is mostly explained by the team's early-season struggles with runners on base: 251/.342/.403, as opposed to a whopping .281/.364/.468 with the bases empty. There's no reason to believe that the Sox have some inability to hit with runners on--most teams hit a bit better in that situation--and their performance in May has been much better than what they did in April, so they should be find going forward.

The Yankees have been trading paint with the Red Sox in the AL East, but are behind them by 4.5 games on Clay's report. The Sox' struggles with men on base explains part of that, and the Yankees' inability to find starters for the back of the rotation explains the rest. Their 216-204 edge in runs would make them barely a .500 team, but they're actually 25-18. This is largely because they've suffered a handful of blowout losses with the back of the rotation on the mound. With Jon Lieber solving half that problem, and the inevitable acquisition of a real fifth starter, this should not be expected to continue.

That the Red Sox are a game-and-a-half ahead of the Yankees, with underlying quality indicators that show them to be the better team, and with them having yet to get anything from about $14 million worth of hitters, is a great sign for Sox fans.

The Blue Jays are underperforming their projected record by 3.4 wins, the biggest negative gap in baseball. That seems to be reflective of their bullpen problems, which have contributed a number of close losses, the most recent of which was last Wednesday's heartbreaking game where they gave up four runs to the Twins in the ninth inning to lose 6-5.

While a team's record in one-run games is largely due to a confluence of factors we tend to call "luck," one tangible factor is the performance of the bullpen. Rany Jazayerli discovered that team's with good pens do show an edge in one-run games. (The article, published at ESPN.com, appears to no longer be accessible. Rany's follow-up piece is here.) The Jays, despite having relievers with good performance histories, haven't had a good pen this year, which is why they've suffered so many late losses.

Over in the AL Central, the White Sox look like they should be five games ahead of the Twins. Instead, they're tied, and that after taking three of four from them over the weekend. Like the Yankees, the Twins have suffered enough blowouts--usually in games started by Kyle Lohse or Seth Greisinger, who I think was found in a van down by the river--to skew their runs allowed. Even at that, the Twins have managed to allow 19 fewer runs than would be expected by their run elements and competition. That should be defense, but since the Twins are dead last in MLB in defensive efficiency, I'm forced to conclude that the Twins have progressed from messing with the air conditioning at the HHH Dome to employing snipers to eliminate baserunners, using Bert Blyleven's "circling" of fans as a distraction.

(OK, it's probably a 28-point OPS edge in pitching with runners in scoring position vs. with the bases empty. Overall, the Twins have allowed a .350 opposition OBP, and if they continue to do that, they will not reach the postseason.)

Great day in the morning...the Twins recalled Justin Morneau. I take it all back, they're wonderful.

Perhaps the most surprising thing I see in the Adjusted Standings is that the Rangers are right where they should be. Their record of 25-18 is a dead match for their third-order record, which indicates that while they may be getting fluky seasons from some players, those performances are legitimately making them a contender. They remain three games behind the Angels, however, who have a record four games better than their underlying indicators.

The Angels are crushing the ball with runners in scoring position, a .321/.384/.535 line that explains part of their edge. The rest can be attributed to their being the anti-Blue Jays in the bullpen: 12-4 in one- and two-run games. Francisco Rodriguez, Kevin Gregg and Scot Shields have been awesome. (Shields' 3.31 ERA is inflated by two lousy outings in the first week of the season.) Unlike some of the other overperformers, the Angels can actually be expected to keep this up; their bullpen is a significant competitive advantage over their opposition, and has been for three years now.

The NL doesn't have as many standout numbers. The Expos are a little bit better than they've looked, dragged down by a ridiculously poor performance--.195/.285/.289--with runners in scoring position.

The close race in the NL Central is being run by three underachievers and one massive overachiever. No team in the NL is further ahead of its projected record than the Reds, and there doesn't appear to be any underlying reason for it: their bullpen has been just OK, they're not hitting impressively in the clutch, and they're just 7-7 in one-run games. I thought the Reds could be an 84-win team this season--last year's disaster was reflective of injuries, not the true talent level--and I still expect them to end up in that range, and out of contention.

The Astros have been lousy in close games, in part because Octavio Dotel and Brad Lidge have been off for the last month. That has cost them three wins as compared to their expected record. Meanwhile, the Cubs and Cardinals are just a little bit off in turning run elements into runs, and runs into wins, enough to make the NL Central seem a lot more mediocre than it really is.

The Dodgers, who, had the biggest positive gap in baseball a week ago, are now just 1.7 games better than their projected record. Starting out the season 10-0 in one-run games will do that. Eric Gagne and Guillermo Mota are a big advantage in close games, and the Dodgers have some extra OBP lying around, particularly on the bench, that they didn't have last year. This helps them tactically in the many low-scoring games they play at Dodger Stadium.

With the NL West rapidly dividing into haves and and have-nots, the Dodgers are left to battle the Padres, who have a three-win edge over their projected record. The Pads are getting phenomenal work from the bullpen, especially the right side, where Akinori Otsuka, Scott Linebrink and Trevor Hoffman have been fantastic. That's helped them to an 8-4 record in one-run games. The Pads are also "saving" 13 runs by allowing just a 674 OPS with runners in scoring position (vs. an overall mark of 719).

Some of the differences between a team's projected record and actual are sustainable competitive advantages, such as the Angels bullpen. Others are just small-sample flukes, such as the Dodgers' success in close games. Using the Adjusted Standings Report as a guide to where teams are picking up and losing wins is one way to figure out what is going to happen the rest of the way.

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

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