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September 7, 2007

Prospectus Matchups

The World Turned Upside Down

by Jim Baker

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What's all this talk of division champions and Wild Card teams? What is our unrelenting obsession with success in this country? Hell man, there's a whole other world below the surface of the water, too! What of it?

Today, we're going to look at the six races (well, five, one of them is on ice already) for last place in the divisions. I'm not so sure how much shame is affiliated with finishing last anymore. Time was, when there were eight and 10 teams in each league, last place was a far piece from first--seven to nine teams away. With the current divisional alignments, a last-place club is never more than five teams from the team in front, and can be as close as three. This isn't taking into account games back, of course, but somehow, finishing in fourth, fifth, or sixth place to come in last doesn't seem to bear quite the stigma that finishing in eighth or tenth seemed to. Or is that just my perception?

To determine who has the best shot at coming in last, we're going to reverse the Baseball Prospectus Postseason Odds Report. (For an excellent explanation of how it works, be sure to check out Derek Jacques Toolbox piece on that very subject.)

Below you will find charts (which do not include yesterday's handful of games) that look similar to those that you'll see in the Postseason Odds Report. They'll look like they're upside down, though. This is because these show you which teams stand the best chance of coming in last. The first column you see is marked "Last Place." This shows the percentage of simulated seasons in which the teams came in last in their division. Clay Davenport, who I am grateful to for running a million seasons to come up with these charts, explains the other two columns as follows: "The worst team in the league that doesn't win a title is the 'Wild Card.' The playoff column just adds the 'division titles' with the 'wild cards,' so it is their chance of being a 'playoff team'... if playoffs were defined by golf scores, the lowest score instead of the best."

American League East

The Devil Rays have been beating up on the Orioles of late (taking five of the last six, including a 17-2 route on Wednesday), but this race was essentially decided earlier this season when the Orioles took eight of the first nine meetings between these two teams. These are their remaining schedules:

Orioles
Away: Boston 3, Anaheim 3, Kansas City 1, Toronto 3, New York 3
Home: Toronto 3, New York 3, Texas 4

Devil Rays
Away: Boston 3, Seattle 4, Anaheim 3, Toronto 3
Home: Toronto 3, Boston 3, New York 3

The O's have a slight edge in the remaining schedule, with five games coming against teams south of the .500 mark in the Baseball Prospectus Hit List. The Rays get no such break; all of their remaining games are either against contenders or the Blue Jays, a fairly strong also-ran. In contrast, Baltimore has a makeup game against Kansas City and four against Texas, although we saw what happened last time the Birds met the Rangers. (When you first heard that Texas had beaten Baltimore 30-3, didn't you assume the game had been played in Arlington?) Tampa Bay's overwhelming chances of finishing last can be partially attributed to this. They also have the continuing indignity of having their own fans outnumbered by those of their opponents when the Red Sox and Yankees come to town, although how much of an actual difference that makes and how that can be measured given the diversity of these clubs is probably impossible to tell.


AL East    W    L  Pct3  Avg W  Avg L  Last Place  Wild Card  Playoffs
Rays      58   82  .461   66.8   95.2   88.22343    10.24680  98.47023
Orioles   60   78  .491   70.9   91.1   11.77623    57.97219  69.74842
Jays      71   68  .538   82.8   79.2    0.00033     0.00886   0.00919
Red Sox   84   56  .625   97.7   64.3    0.00000     0.00000   0.00000
Yankees   78   62  .572   90.0   72.0    0.00000     0.00000   0.00000
Average AL East Wins by place: 97.7 90.0 82.7 71.1 66.6

For their part, the Orioles haven't finished in last place since 1988, when they got off to the 0-21 start. It helps to have the Rays there cushioning the fall at the bottom.

American League Central

The Royals, bless 'em, will break their three-year 100-loss season schneid with their very next victory. They are also in an excellent position to win 70 games for just the second time this century. The White Sox haven't come in last since 1989, but have worked their way into being the odds-on favorite to do so this year:

Royals
Away: Cleveland 3, Detroit 3, Baltimore 1, Chicago 3
Home: New York 3, Minnesota 3, Chicago 4, Cleveland 3

White Sox
Away: Kansas City 4, Minnesota 3 Home: Minnesota 3, Cleveland 3, Anaheim 3, Kansas City 3, Detroit 3


AL Central     W    L  Pct3  Avg W  Avg L  Last Place  Wild Card  Playoffs
White Sox     59   80  .420   69.0   93.0   77.75537     9.40640  87.16177
Royals        62   77  .436   72.2   89.8   22.19452    22.22375  44.41826
Twins         69   71  .501   80.0   82.0    0.05012     0.11760   0.16771
Tigers        74   65  .536   87.0   75.0    0.00000     0.00013   0.00013
Indians       81   58  .536   93.5   68.5    0.00000     0.00000   0.00000
Average AL Central Wins by Place: 93.5 87.0 79.9 72.7 68.5

American League West

Since winning the division in 1999, the Rangers haven't finished anywhere but third or fourth. Those are the only options open to them this year, too, with a pronounced emphasis on last. They and the third-place Athletics have mutual remaining opponents in division rivals Seattle and Los Angeles, although the A's have six games against the Mariners to the Rangers' three. The Rangers have Detroit, while the A's have Cleveland, a fairly equal tradeoff. One edge the Rangers have is that they host the Orioles four times while Oakland must travel to Boston for two mid-week day games in the last week of the season. The Rangers also have seven head-to-head games with the A's in which to reduce the overwhelming odds that indicate a trip back to the cellar.

Rangers
Away: Detroit 3, Oakland 4, Minnesota 3, Seattle 3
Home: Oakland 3, Baltimore 4, Anaheim 3

Athletics
Away: Texas 3, Seattle 3, Cleveland 3, Boston 2
Home: Texas 4, Seattle 3, Anaheim


AL West        W    L  Pct3  Avg W  Avg L  Last Place  Wild Card  Playoffs
Rangers       65   74  .457   75.1   86.9   87.68477     0.00836  87.69313
Athletics     69   72  .520   79.8   82.2   12.19092     0.01592  12.20684
Mariners      74   64  .485   85.6   76.4    0.12432     0.00000   0.12432
Angels        82   57  .536   94.6   67.4    0.00000     0.00000   0.00000
Average AL West Wins by Place: 94.6 85.7 79.9 74.9

At least when the Rangers finish last, they do so with some style--they either have the best record among the six last-place teams or second-best. This year will be no exception, as they have a good chance to once again finish with the best record among the dead-enders. That's got to count for something.

National League East

There was a feeling prior to the season in more than one quarter that this was a year in which the Nationals were going to give the 2003 Tigers a run for their money as the worst team of the decade. Not only has that not happened, but there is a decent chance they won't even finish in last place in their division. Instead, the Marlins are the faves to do that, as they have failed to build on last year's youthfest and will not be coming anywhere near 2006's 78 victories. Meanwhile, the Nationals only need to go 8-14 the rest of the way to match their 2006 win total. That might sound like treading water, but given how they were written off before we even got started, it's a nice way to end the season.

The schedules of the two teams appear to be a wash. Washington's only real break comes against the Marlins, and the Marlins can make the converse claim. All of their combined remaining games come against .500 or better teams.

Nationals
Away: Atlanta 3, Florida 3, New York 3, Philadelphia 3
Home: Atlanta 3, New York 3, Philadelphia 4

Marlins
Away: Philadelphia 3, Colorado 3, Atlanta 3, New York 3
Home: Washington 3, New York 3, Chicago 3


NL East        W    L  Pct3  Avg W  Avg L  Last Place  Wild Card  Playoffs
Marlins       60   80  .468   69.7   92.3   71.99637    14.99694  86.99331
Nationals     63   77  .437   71.8   90.2   28.00152    29.98430  57.98582
Braves        71   69  .536   83.1   78.9    0.00198     0.00382   0.00580
Phillies      73   66  .532   85.6   76.4    0.00013     0.00005   0.00018
Mets          78   61  .567   92.0   70.0    0.00000     0.00000   0.00000
Average NL East Wins by Place: 92.1 86.0 82.5 72.4 69.1

National League Central

This is the one to watch, the division where the chances of finishing last are just about equally divided between two teams, and going by the last performance of each of those main contenders, it's going to be a race to the finish. The Astros allowed five home runs to the Brewers, were throttled by Yovani Gallardo, and lost 14-2 on Wednesday. Yesterday, the Pirates stood in wonder as ball after ball flew over their heads to land safely behind the infield or over the wall, as they were murderated by Rick Ankiel and the Cardinals (a team that seemed to have some last-place credentials of its own earlier this year).

This is also the only division where a third team has a fighting chance to land in last, and the Reds are that lucky outfit. Looking at their remaining skeds, the Pirates have a 10-game road trip, something of a rarity this time of year. Otherwise, though, there isn't much separating them. Based on the Hit List Rankings, the Reds have a slight edge over Pittsburgh and a little bigger edge on Houston. These gaps are not big enough to inspire betting, however.

Pirates
Away: Houston 3, San Diego 4, Chicago 3
Home: Chicago 3, Milwaukee 3, Arizona 3, St. Louis 3

Astros
Away: New York 3, St. Louis 3, Cincinnati 3
Home: Chicago 3, Pittsburgh 3, Milwaukee 3, Atlanta 3

Reds
Away: Milwaukee 3, St. Louis 3, Houston 3, Chicago 3
Home: Milwaukee 3, Chicago 3, San Francisco 4


NL Central     W    L  Pct3  Avg W  Avg L  Last Place  Wild Card  Playoffs
Pirates       61   78  .426   71.2   90.8   46.61222    20.15023  66.76244
Astros        62   78  .421   71.5   90.5   41.29070    20.65927  61.94997
Reds          63   77  .466   73.7   88.3   12.01328    14.06854  26.08183
Cardinals     68   68  .464   80.6   81.4    0.07980     0.12917   0.20897
Brewers       71   68  .503   83.0   79.0    0.00206     0.00445   0.00651
Cubs          71   67  .501   83.8   78.2    0.00194     0.00283   0.00477
Average NL Central Wins by Place: 85.1 82.6 79.8 74.5 72.1 69.7

National League West

With the surprising success of the Rockies, and with the Diamondbacks continuing to outplay their run projection, the Giants have been left alone at the bottom of the division, and as you can see, they have an overwhelming chance of staying there. It's been 11 years since San Francisco brought up the rear in the West. Back then, it was still a four-team division, and they rebounded to make the short trip up the stairs to first the next year. Is it too outlandish to suggest that history could repeat itself? Obviously, a lot would have to happen, but the Giants are barely being outscored by their opponents (594-607 through Wednesday), so their launching platform for 2008 isn't as low down as it would appear. Of course, the Giants aren't going to find a farm system overnight, and their lineup isn't getting any younger or less Pedro Felizier, so it's a rather unsupportable proposition.


NL West        W    L  Pct3  Avg W  Avg L  Last Place  Wild Card  Playoffs
Giants        63   77  .495   73.9   88.1   99.61012    0.00023   99.61035
Rockies       72   67  .526   83.8   78.2    0.21429    0.00018    0.21448
Dodgers       73   66  .545   85.5   76.5    0.15799    0.00000    0.15799
Padres        76   63  .521   87.9   74.1    0.01218    0.00000    0.01218
Diamondbacks  78   63  .476   87.9   74.1    0.00542    0.00000    0.00542
Average NL West Wins by Place: 89.6 87.4 85.4 82.7 73.9

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