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June 21, 2006

Prospectus Today

Best in the West

by Joe Sheehan

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It was just a bit over a year ago that the entire NL East was separated by a game-and-a-half, with all five teams over .500. This year the NL West, which had just one team finish above .500 in 2005, is aping that feat. Slumps by the Diamondbacks and Dodgers have brought those two teams back to the pack, leaving the entire division deparated by that same 1 -game margin. "Last place" is actually a three-way tie for third among the D'backs, Rockies and Giants at 36-35, thanks to both of the latter teams taking the first two games of their interleague series this week.

Last June, there was a clear hierarchy in that NL East. The Braves had the best run differential, and would eventually go on to win the division. The Nationals, who had been outscored on the season but were in second place at the time, would finish last. You can usually look past the records-potentially deceptive even 11 weeks into a season-and discern which teams' status is real and which is just the product of some good fortune. In the West, for example, the Dodgers have by far the best run differential at +48. The other four teams combined are at +29. The Dodgers lead the NL in runs scored-a tremendous feat in their home park-and have done so while dealing with a significant spate of injuries.

You can go deeper than run differential by using the Adjusted Standings Report, developed by Clay Davenport. The ASR goes past win-loss to look at the elements that went into the record, specifically the underlying run elements, the context in which those were produced, and the opposition the team has faced. A team's adjusted record is generally a better indicator of how the team has played to date than its actual record is, and as such is a better predictor of what they'll do in the future, assuming the same personnel.

Here, side-by-side, are the NL West standings in your newspaper and the ASR version (records rounded to nearest whole number):

Padres         37-33  .529   --    Dodgers        38-32  .543   --
Dodgers        36-34  .514    1    Padres         36-34  .514    2
Diamondbacks   36-35  .507  1.5    Rockies        36-35  .507  2.5
Rockies        36-35  .507  1.5    Giants         35-36  .493  3.5
Giants         36-35  .507  1.5    Diamondbacks   34-37  .479  4.5
The high level of agreement between the actual and ASR standings is unusual. Four of the other five divisions have at least one team with a four-game change in their record, and three have a different first-place team. What the similarity does tell us that there are few secrets in the NL West; the five teams have played comparably to date, and no team has a record that is notably deceptive.

Taking it team by team:

  • The Dodgers are slightly better than their record, the main difference being that they've underperformed their actual runs scored and allowed by four games. They've played a relatively easy schedule to date, however, the easiest in the division, which tilts their records back toward each other. The Dodgers looked like the best team in the division three months ago, and given how impressive their depth has been, there's no reason to change that assessment.

  • The Padres have scored six fewer runs than what would be predicted by their run elements, accounting for most of the one-game difference you see above. Overall, their 37-33 mark is an accurate reflection of how they've played to date and their overall expectations of being a slightly-above-.500 team.

  • The Rockies share the distinction, along with the Red Sox, of being the team whose record matches its adjusted record most closely. The two teams are each off by one-tenth of a game. The Rockies are the one NL West team that has been outscored by its opponents. Their adjusted record shows that their true run differential based on the run elements is positive, however, pushing their adjusted record back over .500.

    I would be wary of reading too much into any advanced analysis of the Rockies, either as a team or as individuals. Coors Field is playing so differently in 2006 than it has previously that any introduction of a park adjustment into the work is potentially confounding, whether you use a one-year factor (small sample, possibly skewed) or a multi-year factor (may not reflect the current run environment). It's clear that using a humidor to store the baseballs used in Denver has had a greater effect in 2006 than it had previously,

    Slipping off my analyst's cap for a second, can I ask whether this is such a good idea? If it's possible to make the park at 5200 feet a neutral one, isn't that going too far? And if so, should we be doing the same thing at the other end of the spectrum, adjusting the balls used at Safeco Field and Petco Park and Comerica Park to create league-average offensive environments? The prevailing idea that low-scoring games have some moral superiority to high-scoring ones makes that notion a non-starter, but have we ever considered that part of that viewpoint is due to the preferences of the opinion makers, rather than the fans? High-scoring games tend to run longer and make life harder for writers at the game, people who are working on deadlines and already travel-weary. Not that I don't enjoy a snappy 2-1 game myself, but I also enjoy a slugfest, and I've never heard of a fan who's just enjoyed a 12-10 barnburner complaining about its length. We know that attendance correlates fairly well with run-scoring (higher is better), so why is Coors Field a better place to watch a game now that the baseballs are being kept wet?

    I wonder how much of the idea that low-scoring pitchers' duels are a better brand of baseball than their counterparts is solely a print-media creation, the end result of a vocal segment of the baseball world's desire to get copy into the appropriate edition without stress and get the work day over. I don't think that's the only reason, but I think it's a significant contributing factor.

    I think homogenization is bad, and I believe that unique environments are good for the game. That Coors Field is no longer playing like one is a loss for us as fans.

  • The Giants see little change in their record, having slightly underperformed their actual runs scored and allowed while scoring 15 more runs than predicted by their run elements. Like the Dodgers, they've played a favorable schedule, though not to the same extreme.

  • The Diamondbacks lose the most ground in this exercise. Their actual run differential of +2 looks like -19 when you consider the elements that have gone into it, a change split evenly between the offense and the defense.

Usually, looking at the Adjusted Standings will provide an answer as to who the real achievers are. In the NL West, though, the picture comes only into slightly-better focus. The Dodgers look better and the D'backs look worse, and everyone else is about the same. This could well be a five-team race to the finish, as only the Dodgers seem to have the talent base to win 90 games. It's the kind of division where a gain of a win or two could put a team atop the pack, and because of that, a situation where making a move between now and July 31 could make the difference between playoffs and fantasy football come October. If the trade deadline is usually an overrated point in the season because we tend to overstate the impact one player can have in two months, the NL West is an example of a division where a trade-deadline pickup could push a team into October.

With three veteran GMs, as well as two new ones who cut their teeth under GMs prone to big midseason pickups (Ned Coletti under Brian Sabean in San Francisco; Josh Byrnes under Theo Epstein in Boston), this could be one of the more entertaining subplots of July.

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

Related Content:  Run Differential,  The Who

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