November 1, 2007
Prospectus Hit and Run
Dis and Data
First things first: the World Series. As if it weren't totally apparent by the Red Sox's four-game sweep, the best team won, not just the best team in the series but the best team in baseball, as measured in a few different ways. The Red Sox outscored their opponents by 210 runs in the regular season, 19 more than the Yankees did theirs, and over 100 ahead of everybody else. They projected to win a major league-best 103.1 games by their third-order Pythagorean winning percentage, 7.6 more than any other team, and topped the season-ending Hit List, which they'd led since early May.
Surprisingly-or perhaps not, if you bear Billy Beane's most famous quotation in mind-a team in the Red Sox's position converts their regular season superiority into a World Championship less often than you think, and you can blame those nefarious short playoff series. Since division play began in 1969 (but excluding the 1994 strike year), the team with the best run differential has won just nine out of 37 times:
1970 Orioles 1975 Reds 1981 Dodgers 1984 Tigers 1986 Mets 1989 A's 1998 Yankees 2002 Angels 2007 Red Sox
All of those teams led the majors in third-order wins as well, and wound up topping their respective retroactively compiled year-end Hit Lists. The 1978 Yankees met those latter two criteria, but finished third in run differential, a single run behind the Dodgers and Brewers. Rightfully, they belong with the above nine, bringing our "the best team won" total to 10 out of 37 times.
By comparison, before division play, back in the days when pitchers went nine innings and a pennant race meant a pennant race, the Hit List leader won the World Series 40 out of 65 times (remember, the Series started in 1903 but didn't happen in 1904). The run differential leader won it 44 times, as did the third-order wins leader, though those latter two lists aren't identical.
Subdividing the division era into the two-tiered and three-tiered playoffs, and ditching 1981 for its historically anomalous postseason format, we find that the Hit List leader won six out of 23 times (26.1 percent) in the two-tiered era, and three out of 13 times (23.1 percent) in the three-tiered era. Going by run differentials excludes the 1978 Yankees, trimming the two-tiered total to five out of 23. Going by third-order wins takes us in the other direction by adding the 1983 Orioles to this very short list; they finished second on that year's Hit List, .003 behind the White Sox in Hit List factor, and only three runs behind the Winning Uglies in run differential.
In other words, it's no cakewalk for even the best of teams, with roughly one in four emerging as champions. It's more true than ever that the postseason remains a crapshoot.
Four years ago, James Click introduced a method to improve upon Bill James' Defensive Efficiency (DE) metric, which tells us how often a team turned a batted ball into an out. Click brought park effects into the equation in a metric he called Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, or PADE. PADE works by comparing each team's Defensive Efficiency at home to that on the road, throwing in a park factor specific to DE (as opposed to runs, home runs, or some other component stat), incorporating the unique composition of each team's schedule, and ultimately providing us with the percentage of balls in play above or below the league average that each team converted into outs.
Click last published PADE numbers in 2005, shortly before moving on to greener pastures inside a major-league front office. For the first time since he left, we're getting PADE again, thanks to the hard work of our data team, notably Bil Burke and Jason Paré. This data was compiled for various World Series previews done by our authors, but it hasn't been published in its entirety. In the interest of providing that stray data with a loving home and a water dish of its own, here are the 2007 numbers:
TEAM DE MLB DE ParkFactor PADE BOS .7050 .6872 0.9878 3.22 COL .7006 .6872 0.9781 3.07 CHN .7054 .6872 1.0003 2.62 SFN .6968 .6872 0.9958 1.61 NYN .7007 .6872 1.0087 1.51 ARI .6928 .6872 0.9925 1.19 TOR .7041 .6872 1.0265 1.12 ATL .6979 .6872 1.0087 1.11 DET .6909 .6872 0.9943 0.82 SDN .7009 .6872 1.0320 0.38 PHI .6856 .6872 0.9923 0.15 NYA .6892 .6872 1.0052 0.03 CLE .6857 .6872 0.9951 0.02 WAS .6976 .6872 1.0306 -0.03 SLN .6872 .6872 1.0079 -0.40 OAK .6922 .6872 1.0238 -0.46 KCA .6840 .6872 0.9998 -0.47 BAL .6874 .6872 1.0141 -0.67 CHA .6806 .6872 0.9949 -0.71 LAN .6842 .6872 1.0057 -0.72 HOU .6847 .6872 1.0154 -1.13 MIN .6865 .6872 1.0262 -1.40 ANA .6791 .6872 1.0077 -1.56 TEX .6808 .6872 1.0167 -1.76 CIN .6781 .6872 1.0163 -2.12 PIT .6739 .6872 1.0056 -2.21 SEA .6734 .6872 1.0205 -3.00 MIL .6768 .6872 1.0400 -3.44 FLO .6614 .6872 1.0021 -3.86 TBA .6559 .6872 1.0227 -5.64
There are two things to note before we move on. First of all, since the numbers are clustered so closely, I've gone to the fourth decimal place rather than displaying the usual three. Second, these DE numbers differ slightly from those in our sortable report; Click used a formula where DE = [1 - (H + ROE - HR) / (PA - BB - SO - HBP - HR)]. If I'm not mistaken, our stats report doesn't include Reached On Error in the numerator, making it effectively DE = (1 - BABIP). Click's version penalizes teams for batters reaching on error, which makes more sense when evaluating defense.
With that out of the way, notice that the two teams at the top are the ones who just met in the World Series. Fenway Park and Coors Field are two very non-traditional ballparks with their own sets of quirks which can obscure the quality of their residents' play in the field. Coors has the lowest park factor of any major league stadium; its immense dimensions (347-390-415-375-350, according to Ballparks.com) make it the toughest park to defend by far. Fenway, with its asymmetry, odd angles, and of course the 40-foot Green Monster in left, has the second-lowest park factor. By Click's method, the Sox ranked second in the majors in raw DE, just a few hairs behind the Cubs, while the Rox placed sixth, with the Blue Jays, Padres, and Mets ranking between the two World Series participants. Having good defenders in tough parks is a recipe for success, and both Theo Epstein and Dan O'Dowd deserve credit for assembling teams that overcame the unique challenges of their environments.
Having adjusted for ballpark, we find that both World Series teams converted over three percent more balls in play into outs than a league average team. That's about 21-22 points of DE above average. Converting back into the familiar form, here are the adjusted DE (ADE) numbers:
Team ADE BOS .7093 COL .7083 CHN .7052 SFN .6983 NYN .6976 ARI .6954 TOR .6949 ATL .6948 DET .6928 SDN .6898 PHI .6882 NYA .6874 CLE .6873 WAS .6870 SLN .6845 OAK .6840 KCA .6840 BAL .6826 CHA .6823 LAN .6823 HOU .6794 MIN .6776 ANA .6765 TEX .6751 CIN .6726 PIT .6720 SEA .6666 MIL .6636 FLO .6607 TBA .6484
There's a bit more of a spread in the adjusted numbers than the unadjusted ones; the standard deviation jumps from 11.9 points to 13.7 points, which comes out to a two percent difference. Extrapolating from Click's 2005 calculations, a one percent difference equates to about 16 runs, or 1.6 wins over 81 home games, just on the basis of balls in play. That ain't hay, folks.
A quick look up and down the list shows that with the exception of the Angels the playoff teams placed well, and that the teams at the top tended to be contenders, with the exception of the Giants. The two Florida teams, whose pitching staffs racked up some dubious accomplishments, are at the bottom along, with two contenders who faded late in the season, the Mariners and Brewers. Both of those teams play in pitchers' parks, with Miller ranking as the easiest park in the majors to defend. According to our Secret Sauce report, where the Rox and Sox top the Fielding Runs Above Average rankings, the Brewers were third-to-last in that department as well. Bad glovework from Prince Fielder (-17 FRAA), Rickie Weeks (-7), Bill Hall (-11), Kevin Mench (-10), and especially Ryan Braun (-29) almost certainly cost them the NL Central title, suggesting that Doug Melvin and company have their work cut out for them in trying to shore up the team's defense this winter. Moving Braun to left field, installing Corey Hart (+25) in center, and shifting Hall to third, where he's been +2 runs per 100 games over his career, is one option worth considering.
One important feature of PADE that Click noted is that the park factors do not average out to 1.0 because teams tend to play better defense at home than on the road; for 2007, the average park factor is 1.0089, which is just .00002 off 2005's average, and well in the range of the last 35 years. Astute reader V.W. pointed out the convergence between Click's work and my Playoff Prospectus piece on Chien-Ming Wang and the home-field advantage in BABIP enjoyed by pitchers. Familiarity with the angles and bounces of the fences and the amount of foul territory, tailoring a team's construction to match a ballpark's tendencies-a speedy center fielder like Willy Taveras and a strong-armed corner like Matt Holliday in Coors, say-and some help from the groundskeepers may all be contributing to this home-field advantage. It's very real, and as the two pennant winners can attest, very important.