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July 18, 2006

Prospectus Hit List

Remixed

by Jay Jaffe

The short week after the All-Star break creates an opportunity here at Hit List Central. Rather than cycle through another team-by-team roundup after just three or four games--I'd rather saw off my tongue I love doing this column, but not that much--I decided to step back and examine the rankings from a few different vantage points.

First, a reminder. Perhaps the single most common lead-in to a piece of the Hit List-related reader mail I receive is something along the lines of "How can you rate ______ (that high/that low/ahead of my team), you (moron/imbecile/jerkass)?" Last week it was somebody complaining about the Royals being behind the Cubs and Pirates. Ever see beer foaming out of a Prospectus author's nose? It's not pretty.

I don't "rate" teams per se, the Hit List Factor formula does that, and while the formula (an average of the actual, first-, second- and third-order winning percentages as reported in Monday morning's Adjusted Standings) is admittedly arbitrary, the rankings are created by the data, not by my opinions. I don't always agree with what the formula spits out; the Indians--who finished last year at #1 despite missing the playoffs, and who linger in top ten territory this year despite being several games under .500, their season shot to hell long ago--remain a particular thorn in my side, for example. But as I see it, it's my job to explore the "why" of those rankings while hammering home the concept of run differentials as indicators of team strength.

Why use all four winning percentages? Let's start with a refresher course of what the ones beyond the actual winning percentage are:

  • First-order winning percentage is computed (via Pythagenpat, Pythagoras' slightly more sophisticated sibling) using actual runs scored and allowed

  • Second-order winning percentage uses equivalent runs scored and allowed, based on run elements (hits, walks, total bases, etc.) and the scoring environment (park and league adjustments).

  • Third-order winning percentage adjusts for the quality of the opponent's hitting and pitching via Equivalent Average (EqA) allowed and opponents' EqA.

By using the four percentages, we're correcting for teams that over- or underperform relative to how many runs they've scored and allowed, how many runs they should have scored/allowed given the number and type of hits, walks and other events, their ballpark environment and their quality of competition. There's nothing written in stone about this formula, but there's no hidden agenda, either. It's simply a way of looking at the question, "How good is each team?" and giving weight to various categories of performance without overcompensating for any of them.

Anyway, before we dig much deeper, here are this short week's rankings for you completists out there, noted, as they say, without comment:


                Overall  Week
Rk  Team          W-L    W-L   trend  HLF
-------------------------------------------
1   Tigers       62-30   3-1     -1  .636
2   Yankees      53-36   3-0      1  .610
3   White Sox    57-34   0-3     -1  .593
4   Red Sox      54-36   1-3     -1  .584
5   Mets         55-37   2-1      0  .576
6   Blue Jays    51-40   2-1      0  .568
7   Rangers      47-45   2-2      0  .538
8   Twins        50-40   3-1      1  .534
9   Cardinals    52-39   4-0      1  .529
10  Angels       46-45   3-0      1  .528
11  Indians      41-50   1-3     -1  .527
12  Dodgers      46-46   0-4     -1  .524
13  Padres       48-43   0-3     -1  .520
14  Reds         49-44   4-0      1  .504
15  Giants       46-46   1-2     -1  .495
16  Rockies      44-47   0-4     -1  .495
17  Mariners     44-48   1-2      0  .490
18  Athletics    48-44   3-1      1  .488
19  Braves       43-49   3-0      1  .486
20  Diamondbacks 45-46   2-1      1  .481
21  Astros       45-48   2-2      1  .467
22  Marlins      40-50   2-2      0  .465
23  Phillies     42-48   2-1      1  .455
24  Brewers      45-48   1-2      0  .455
25  Orioles      43-51   2-2      0  .441
26  Nationals    39-54   1-2      1  .430
27  Devil Rays   39-53   0-3     -1  .417
28  Cubs         35-56   1-2      1  .408
29  Pirates      32-61   2-1      0  .401
30  Royals       32-59   1-3      1  .366

The most obvious feature of the list right now is the American League's dominance; seven of the top eight slots and nine of the top 11 come from the Junior Circuit. Overall, AL teams average a 12.1 ranking and .523 Hit List Factor, while NL teams average an 18.5 ranking and .481 HLF. That's an even wider disparity than last year, when the numbers were 13.4 and .509 for the AL, 17.3 and .492 for the NL.

That dominance, of course, is an artifact of last month's interleague play. The AL went 154-98 (.611) against the NL this year, outscoring their NL "rivals" (if we can call such pairs as the Twins and Pirates rivals for anything beyond Bert Blyleven's personal favorite World Series winner) by a score of 1,336-1,115. That projects out to "only" a .586 winning percentage via Pythagenpat, a margin of 6.3 extra wins in the AL's favor. Still, that's a pretty decisive advantage, and it's helped leave the NL with just four teams above .500, two more are right at .500, and another two within three games of the mark.

Those imbalanced results are a product of five teams wailing the tar out of the NL; the Red Sox and Twins both went 16-2, the Tigers went 15-3, and the White Sox and Mariners went 14-4. All but the latter wind up in the aforementioned top eight. In general, the AL spread their beatings around rather equitably; the Rockies (11-4) and Giants (8-7) were the only teams to wind up with winning records in interleague, but every NL team besides the Pirates (3-12) and Cubs (4-11) won at least five games.

Breaking the leagues down into divisions, we can get a closer look at who has the hammer, and how the balance of power has shifted since the end of last year:


            ----2006----    ----2005----
Division    Avg RK   HLF    Avg RK   HLF
AL Central   10.6   .531     14.0   .500
AL East      12.8   .524     14.0   .508
AL West      13.0   .511     12.0   .521
NL West      15.2   .503     24.4   .443
NL East      19.0   .482     13.2   .522
NL Central   25.0   .461     14.8   .508

Despite being weighted down by the Royals, who've been in the #30 spot for 15 out of 16 editions of the Hit List (all but week 1) this season, the AL Central shines the brightest this year, with two of the list's top three teams and four of its top eight. Not too shabby. The AL East, with three of the list's top six teams, is a solid second, though weighted down by the Orioles (#25) and Devil Rays (#27).

The AL West sports two ignominious distinctions. The A's lead the division by one game, though they're actually the lowest-ranked of the four teams, which is rather bizarre. They're also the only division leader sporting a negative run differential (-4), which is nothing to write home about either. Meanwhile, the second-pace Rangers rank a respectable #7 and carry a +25 differential, and the third-place Angels this week cracked the top 10 for the first time all year, their run differential finally in the black as well.

Turning to the NL West, last year's doormats are the league's strongest division this year, and the most improved (+.060) as well. Had the Dodgers and Padres not both endured sweeps this week, those two teams would have been in the top 10, and the division would have given the AL West a run for its money in terms of average ranking (I know this because I calculated preliminary breakdowns with Saturday's Adjusted Standings). Even their worst team, the Diamondbacks, is ranked a relatively respectable #20. Well behind the West, and below .500 collectively is the NL East; though the Mets are the NL's top team, the other four are clustered between #19 and #26.

Bringing up the rear is the NL Central, the division that not surprisingly has taken the biggest hit since last year. Not only does the Central have two of the bottom three teams (#28 Pirates and #29 Cubs, both suffering from a terminal case of The Suck) and four of the bottom 10, but without the Cardinals' sweep of the Dodgers, they might have closed out the week without a top 10 team. The Cards are 13 games over .500 but with just a 28-run differential, one that comes out in the wash by the time we do all those adjustments--park, league, and quality of competition--to get to third-order winning percentage. Theirs is just .493, and their +7.1 Delta-W3 is the majors' highest. It's also worth noting here that the team currently holding the NL Wild Card lead, the Reds, is ranked just #14. Given the insanely imbalanced trade the Reds made with the Nats, we shouldn't expect them to hold onto that lead.

Moving on, we can use the Hit List to help quantify which teams have shown the biggest improvement since the end of last year:


Team         7/16  2005 fin.  dif
---------------------------------
Tigers       .636    .466    .170
Rockies      .495    .409    .086
Dodgers      .524    .447    .077
Blue Jays    .568    .505    .063
Giants       .495    .439    .056
Reds         .504    .455    .049
Diamondbacks .481    .439    .042
Mariners     .490    .450    .040
Padres       .520    .483    .037
Mets         .576    .539    .037
Yankees      .610    .574    .036
White Sox    .593    .561    .032
Rangers      .538    .515    .023
Red Sox      .584    .565    .019
Twins        .534    .516    .018
Royals       .366    .360    .006
Devil Rays   .417    .419   -.002
Orioles      .441    .475   -.034
Angels       .528    .562   -.034
Pirates      .401    .436   -.035
Marlins      .465    .501   -.036
Nationals    .430    .474   -.044
Brewers      .455    .510   -.055
Braves       .486    .544   -.058
Cardinals    .529    .591   -.062
Athletics    .488    .558   -.070
Indians      .527    .598   -.071
Astros       .467    .549   -.082
Phillies     .455    .552   -.097
Cubs         .408    .510   -.102

Not surprisingly, it's the surprising Tigers at the top of the list; they've posted a gain that's bigger than the next two teams combined. The Dodgers, who have still suffered their share of injuries, are nonetheless among the majors' most improved, and in fact the trend is that the NL West as a whole has seen four of the seven largest year-over-year improvements. Also much improved is the AL East, a result that seems somewhat counterintuitive. Not only have the Blue Jays posted the fourth-biggest gain, but those two Beasts of the East, the Yankees and Red Sox, have also improved as far as the Hit List is concerned, with the Bombers just one point off the gains of their Big Apple cohorts. For all of the chatter about how the AL East is winner-take-all because of the strength of the Central, this past weekend's Yankees sweep of the White Sox has left the Yanks ahead of the defending champs not only on the Hit List, but in the Postseason Odds report as well.

On the other hand, the NL Central has seen three of the six largest year-over-year declines, including the Cardinals, who spent 14 weeks ranked #1 last year but live on the fringes of the top 10 this year. Note that for all of the disappointment about the Indians, who missed the playoffs last year despite ending up #1 on the Hit List, their 71-point decline is still outstripped by three other teams, including the defending NL champion Astros.

Looking back at our preseason Hit List, which was driven by a PECOTA-based Postseason Odds report, we can see which teams have over- and underperformed by the widest margins relative to projections:


Team         7/16    PECOTA   dif
---------------------------------
Tigers       .636    .512    .124
White Sox    .593    .506    .087
Blue Jays    .568    .488    .080
Rangers      .538    .494    .044
Padres       .520    .481    .039
Rockies      .495    .457    .038
Mets         .576    .543    .033
Yankees      .610    .580    .030
Angels       .528    .500    .028
Marlins      .465    .438    .027
Reds         .504    .481    .023
Mariners     .490    .475    .015
Twins        .534    .519    .015
Red Sox      .584    .574    .010
Diamondbacks .481    .475    .006
Giants       .495    .494    .001
Nationals    .430    .432   -.002
Cardinals    .529    .531   -.002
Devil Rays   .417    .426   -.009
Royals       .366    .377   -.011
Dodgers      .524    .537   -.013
Indians      .527    .543   -.016
Astros       .467    .500   -.033
Orioles      .441    .475   -.034
Braves       .486    .525   -.039
Brewers      .455    .519   -.064
Phillies     .455    .531   -.076
Athletics    .488    .574   -.086
Pirates      .401    .488   -.087
Cubs         .408    .525   -.117

Again, the Tigers top the list, which includes some real surprises. But before we get carried away with the extremes, note that 15 out of 30 teams are within .030--over the course of the year, that's five games in either direction--of their PECOTA-based Pythagorean projections. The Tigers and White Sox, of course, have far outstripped their projections; I've already conceded the point to those once-angry Pale Hose fans. Even the dinged-up Yanks are ahead of their projections, as are the Angels, who had been written off just a few weeks ago, and the Twins, who were left for dead after a seven-week bellyflop to start the year.

Towards the middle of that bunch we can see that PECOTA had the Cardinals pretty well pegged, that the Dodgers are still underperforming slightly relative to expectations, and that the Indians aren't all that far off of PECOTA's expectations (as opposed to our loftier human ones). Meanwhile, the preseason #1 A's have been one of the year's biggest underperformers, as have the Pirates, shiny new manager and all.

Our final list looks at the average week-by-week rankings of each team:


Team         Avg Rk
-------------------
Tigers         1.5
Yankees        2.8
Mets           3.9
White Sox      5.4
Red Sox        6.1
Cardinals      8.1
Blue Jays      8.5
Indians        9.4
Dodgers        9.9
Reds          11.9
Rangers       12.1
Rockies       13.6
Diamondbacks  13.7
Brewers       14.8
Padres        16.5
A's           16.7
Giants        16.7
Astros        17.5
Braves        18.2
Angels        18.8
Mariners      20.2
Twins         21.1
Phillies      21.5
Cubs          22.3
Nationals     23.0
Orioles       23.1
Marlins       23.4
Devil Rays    26.6
Pirates       28.1
Royals        29.7

Again, we see just how dominant the Tigers have been. Not only have they held first place for 10 out of the 15 regular-season weeks (including this short one), but they've never dropped lower than third. The Mets have been the only other team to remain in the single-digit rankings all year; their lowest ranking is sixth place. On the other hand, the Royals have been 30th in all but the first week. Note how far above their average rankings the Twins and Angels currently are, by about 13 and nine games respectively. On the other hand, the Brewers are about nine slots below where they've spent most of the year.

Can the Tigers hold on? To me, that's the single most interesting question the second half will answer. They've dominated all things on the Hit List, but whether they can continue to make that stick in the standings... well, that's why they play the games.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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