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October 17, 2007

Prospectus Hit and Run

Digging in the Hit List Sandbox

by Jay Jaffe

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"What's the highest the Diamondbacks ranked on the Hit List this year?"

Will Carroll asked me that question as we settled in to watch the opener of the National League Championship Series last Thursday at the home of Derek Jacques here in the Big Apple. I didn't have the answer on the tip of my tongue, but in digging for it in the Hit List sandbox, I've built a few sandcastles that are worth displaying.

Before I get to the answer to Will's question, here's a bit of Hit List history. This year's NL participants have the lowest average Hit List Factor, just .532, of any league's postseason slate since the Wild Card's introduction. They also have the second-highest combined Hit List ranking (adding up the individual rankings). It's a trend that the Senior Circuit, which has already shown itself to be the inferior league based on interleague play results and the overall Hit List rankings, is having a hard time shaking over the past few years, one that suggests the league is at its nadir:


Year  TotRk      Year  AvHLF
1999   .607      1999   13
1998   .603      2004   18
2002   .597      1998   20
2004   .582      2000   20
2000   .571      2001   20
2003   .565      1997   22
2001   .565      1996   25
1997   .563      2002   25
1996   .553      2003   27
1995   .552      1995   28
2005   .542      2006   38
2006   .536      2007   38 <-
2007   .532 <-   2005   39

In each of the past three seasons, a team from the Hit List's nether-regions crept into the NL playoffs. In 2005, it was the 18th-ranked Padres, who like this year's Diamondbacks, finished the season with a negative run differential (-44) and a Hit List Factor below .500. Last year, despite an HLF of .497, the 17th-ranked Cardinals overcame that inauspicious regular season showing to win the whole enchilada. This year's Diamondbacks finished the season ranked 15th with a Hit List Factor of .4998, which rounds up to .500 in polite conversation, but is still below it nonetheless.

As bad as the NL currently is, the inverse is true in the American League, where this year's postseason slate set a record with the lowest combined ranking since the Wild Card's inception (they were a respectable fourth in HLF). The 2005 and 2006 slates tied with a few other years for the second- and third-lowest combined rankings:


Year  TotRk      Year  AvHLF
2001   .609      2007   12 <-
2002   .598      2001   17
1998   .586      2002   17
2007   .583 <-   2006   17
1995   .581      1995   18
1999   .577      2005   18
2003   .574      1996   20
1997   .570      2000   20
2006   .569      1997   21
2004   .569      1998   22
2005   .566      2004   24
2000   .564      1999   27
1996   .563      2003   27

To get back to Will's question, the answer is that the Snakes ranked seventh on the preseason Hit List, but fell out of the top 10 within two weeks. After climbing back to 10th place on June 8, they would never be so high again. Looking at a snapshot of their performance, week by week:

Diamondbacks

April  May  June July Aug. Sept. Oct.
  7     21   11   20   19   18    15
 10     21   10   20   19   16
 17     21   18   20   19   15
 22     20   12   19   19   15
        17        18

This presentation should be fairly intuitive, but in case it isn't, the stacked numbers under each month represent the weekly spots occupied by the team, with the second one in July representing the position at the All-Star break. After beginning the year in seventh, the Diamondbacks fell to 22nd by the end of April, slowly climbed to 20th by the end of May, and so on, finally finishing 15th. Their average Hit List ranking for the year was 17.0, a score that conveniently happens to rank 17th among the 30 teams. It's not always that neat; here are the average weekly rankings of them all:


Rk  Team    Avg
 1   BOS    1.6
 2   NYN    3.9
 3   CLE    5.4
 4   NYA    6.1
 5   DET    6.4
 6   SDN    6.8
 7   ANA    7.0
 8   LAN    8.3
 9   ATL    9.7
10   MIL   10.3
----------------
11   CHN   11.4
12   OAK   12.3
13   TOR   12.4
14   PHI   13.9
15   MIN   15.1
16   COL   16.1
17   ARI   17.0
18   SEA   17.7
19   BAL   17.9
20   SFN   18.8
----------------
21   CIN   20.9
22   FLO   21.0
23   SLN   23.1
24   TEX   23.4
25   HOU   23.9
26   CHA   24.4
27   TBA   27.0
28   PIT   27.4
29   KCA   27.5
30   WAS   28.3

The Rockies clinched a World Series berth on Monday night, but they were just one rung above the Diamondbacks in terms of average ranking, and all over the map as far as rankings were concerned; they spent time in both the top five and the bottom five, and on the whole, their snapshot shows the dramatic contrast between the team's slow start and their late-season kick pretty well. Before you heap too much scorn on the NL champs, remember that they finished as the top-ranked NL team:

Rockies

April May  June July Aug. Sept. Oct.
 20    24   22   16   14   11    4
 16    25   21   16   13    8
 16    25   20   16   11    6
 24    26   15   17   14    5
            19        11

While we're at it, we may as well run through the rest of the playoff teams, and a few notable also-rans. First up is the NL East, where the Mets, who finished second in the average rankings but missed out in favor of the Phillies, who finished 13th in the average rankings:

Phillies

April May  June July Aug. Sept. Oct.
  6    14   18   18   10    9    8
 23    17   18   18    9   10
 27    14   17   17   10    9
 14    15   18   13   10    8
            16        10

Mets

April May  June July Aug. Sept. Oct.
 8     1    2    8    3    3     5
 1     2    2    8    3    3
 1     2    6    8    3    5
 1     2    8    4    3    4
            5         4

While the Phillies never outranked the Mets or even got higher than eighth, note that they actually had the edge according to the preseason rankings. Score one for PECOTA on that front. While we're at it when it comes to praising the machine, the same is true for the NL Central, where the Cubs had the preseason and final edges on the Brewers despite the latter having a better average ranking:

Cubs

April May  June July Aug. Sept. Oct.
 10     5   17   11    8   13   11
 19     4   14   10   12   13
 15     8   10    9   13   13
 12    11   11    7   15   13
            11        13

Brewers
April May  June July Aug. Sept. Oct.
 11    4    12    7   12   14   14
  5    3    12    9   15   14
  9    3    11    5   18   14
  6    8    10    8   17   14
             6        17

Finishing out the NL slate, we'll look at the teams left behind by the Rockies' late surge, the Padres and Dodgers:

Padres

April  May  June July Aug. Sept. Oct.
  9     8     4    4   11    8   10
  3    11     3    3   10    9
 12     7     2    3    6    8
  5     5     4   11    7   10
              4         6

Dodgers
April  May  June July Aug. Sept. Oct.
 19     7     5    6    7    7   13
 14     9     8    7    8    7
  4     5     9    7   12   11
  4    10     9    5    6   12
              7         7

Those are a pair of serious crash-and-burn jobs, with the Dodgers' mid-September one a bit steeper, but the consequences of San Diego's falloff are more shocking, given that they missed out on a postseason berth that had been all but sealed.

Over in the AL, it's tough to beat the way the Red Sox seized control of the catbird seat in early May and held it continuously. Broadcasters often talk about a team "building a picket fence" by scoring one run in several consecutive innings, but the Red Sox look as though they went into the fence-building business.

Red Sox

April May  June July Aug. Sept. Oct.
  3    2    1    1    1    1    1
 11    1    1    1    1    1
  2    1    1    1    1    1
  2    1    1    1    1    1
            1         1

It's a bit revealing that the Indians finished third in the average rankings, ahead of the Yankees, whom they rousted from the playoffs in the first round. Aside from one early glitch, the Tribe were impressively consistent, remaining in the top 10 since the end of April and in the top five from mid-August onward. The Yankees had to do much more work in the first half, but spent the final two-plus months ranked second overall, and first on the second-half Hit List. The Tigers, try as they might, could catch neither team despite remaining in the top 10 from late May onward:

Indians

April May  June July Aug. Sept. Oct.
  4    3    3    5    6    5     3
  2    7    4    4    5    4
 18    4    7    6    9    3
  7    3    6    6    5    3
            8         5

Yankees
April May  June July Aug. Sept. Oct.
  1    11   14   10    2    2    2
  8    10    9    5    2    2
  3    12    8    4    2    2
 17    12    7    3    2    2
            10         2

Tigers
April May  June July Aug. Sept. Oct.
 12    10    7    2    4    6    7
 15     6    6    2    7    6
 10    10    5    2    5    7
  9     4    3    2    9    7
             3         8

Out west, the tale of the tape says it's tough to believe that the Angels were ever threatened by the Mariners, whose run differential kept them in the lower half of the Hit List for much of the year. In the average rankings, the M's finished just behind the two NLCS representatives and just ahead of the Orioles, who had their moments in the first half--even cracking the top 10--despite the rather grisly end.

Angels

April May  June July Aug. Sept. Oct.
  5    13    8    3    5    4    6
  4    12    5    6    4    5
 28    11    3   10    4    4
 15     9    2    9    4    6
             2         3

Mariners
April May  June July Aug. Sept. Oct.
 25    22   16   14   18   17   16
 27    23   16   12   16   17
 21    22   12   13   16   18
 26    21   14   18   12   17
            13        15

Getting back to the Rockies, as one might suspect based on what's already been said above, they actually hold the distinction of being the most volatile team on this year's Hit List, as calculated by the standard deviation of the weekly rankings:


Rk   Team  StDev
 1   COL   6.13
 2   ANA   5.34
 3   CHA   5.29
 4   PHI   4.92
 5   NYA   4.54
 6   MIL   4.36
 7   OAK   4.29
 8   SEA   4.25
 9   BAL   4.23
10   TOR   4.20
----------------
11   ARI   3.87
12   CIN   3.87
13   SFN   3.76
14   HOU   3.72
15   MIN   3.69
16   LAN   3.34
17   CHN   3.27
18   DET   3.21
19   ATL   3.13
20   TEX   3.10
----------------
21   SLN   3.05
22   SDN   3.01
23   CLE   3.01
24   FLO   2.40
25   NYN   2.35
26   TBA   2.33
27   PIT   2.13
28   BOS   1.91
29   KCA   1.79
30   WAS   1.72

There are good and bad teams towards both ends of the spectrum, but the edge in quality appears to be in favor of the more volatile ones; four of the five atop this list made the postseason, while only one of the five least volatile ones did. The correlation is fairly weak on the whole (r = -.018). It virtually disappears (r = -.06) if we throw out April, where the first set of rankings is derived from PECOTA, and the other three are based on sample sizes so small that a bad week could knock a good team like the Angels from fourth to 28th.

Negligible correlation or no, it worked for the Rockies, your 2007 NL Champions.

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

Related Content:  Top 11,  The Who,  Hit List,  Rankings,  April,  Fourth Of July,  Top 10

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