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July 18, 2008
Prospect Hit List Remix
Twisting and Shaking in 2008
I always look forward to the short schedule surrounding the All-Star week, as it provides me with a golden opportunity to take a breather from the weekly Hit List format. Instead I turn to what I call the Hit List Remix to examine some of the season's underlying trends. With the interleague slate now a memory—a warm fuzzy one for most AL teams, a nightmare for most NL ones—and each team having played about 95 games, we've got a decent sample size at hand to examine the relative strength of the leagues and divisions.
First, a quick refresher course for those of you who have stumbled in here glassy-eyed and still reeling from Tuesday's 15-inning affair. The Hit List is BP's version of the power rankings, and it's based not on subjective criteria but on an objective formula which averages a team's actual, first-, second- and third-order winning percentages via the Adjusted Standings. To go into a bit more detail:
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 and allowed given the number and type of hits, walks and other events, their ballpark environment, and the quality of the competition. There's nothing written in stone about this formula, whose average is called the Hit List Factor (HLF), 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.
Now that we've gotten that out of the way, here are the official rankings up to the All-Star break:
Overall Week Rank Team W-L W-L HLF trend 1 Red Sox 57-40 2-1 .616 0 2 Cubs 57-38 2-1 .596 0 3 Rays 55-39 0-3 .585 -1 4 White Sox 54-40 1-2 .578 -1 5 Athletics 51-44 1-2 .563 0 6 Phillies 52-44 2-1 .554 0 7 Mets 51-44 3-0 .548 1 8 Yankees 50-45 1-2 .533 -1 9 Blue Jays 47-48 2-1 .530 1 10 Cardinals 53-43 2-1 .530 1 11 Angels 57-38 2-1 .529 0 12 Braves 45-50 2-1 .525 1 13 Brewers 52-43 1-2 .525 -1 14 Twins 53-42 2-1 .508 1 15 Tigers 47-47 1-2 .507 0 16 Diamondbacks 47-48 1-2 .506 0 17 Dodgers 46-49 1-2 .504 0 18 Rangers 50-46 2-1 .497 0 19 Marlins 50-45 2-1 .485 0 20 Orioles 45-48 1-2 .483 -1 21 Indians 41-53 3-0 .477 1 22 Reds 46-50 2-1 .452 1 23 Astros 44-51 2-1 .447 0 24 Royals 43-53 2-1 .444 0 25 Giants 40-55 1-2 .438 0 26 Rockies 39-57 0-3 .430 -1 27 Mariners 37-58 1-2 .421 0 28 Pirates 44-50 1-2 .414 -1 29 Padres 37-58 1-2 .407 0 30 Nationals 36-60 1-2 .369 1
With the Cubs ranked second and the Phillies, Mets, and Cardinals all cracking the top 10, the upper reaches of the Hit List don't lean completely towards the American League as much as in years past. However, the composite numbers show that the junior circuit remains the superior one:
AL Avg Rank HLF 2008 12.9 .520 2007 14.9 .506 2006 12.6 .513 2005 13.4 .509 NL Avg Rank HLF 2008 17.8 .483 2007 16.0 .495 2006 18.1 .488 2005 17.3 .492
The 2005-07 numbers are year-end numbers, whereas 2008 obviously involves mid-season numbers, but if the current trend holds, the gap between the two leagues will be the widest it has been since I started doing the Hit List. The average AL team has a Hit List Factor 37 points better than the average NL team, equivalent to a whopping six games in the standings (.037 * 162 = 5.994). Most of that has to do with the 149-103 advantage the AL enjoyed in interleague play this year, a 12-game improvement over last year's results (137-115) but still five games behind 2005 (154-98). It's worth noting, however, that the gap between the two leagues may narrow by the end of the year. Last year's midsummer gap of 24 points shrank to 11 by year's end (m denotes midsummer, f denotes final):
League Avg Rank HLF AL 2007f 14.9 .506 AL 2007m 13.9 .513 NL 2007f 16.0 .495 NL 2007m 16.9 .489
Turning to the division-by-division breakdowns, this year one division is running away with the Hit List Factor crown:
--------2008-------------- --------2007------- HLF Division Avg RK WPct HLF D3 Avg RK WPct HLF +/- AL East 7.4 .536 .550 -15.6 13.0 .504 .525 .025 AL West 12.8 .512 .503 3.1 14.8 .514 .502 .001 AL Central 12.4 .503 .503 0.7 17.0 .499 .490 .012 NL East 18.0 .491 .496 0.7 14.4 .500 .504 -.008 NL Central 14.5 .518 .494 24.1 20.5 .472 .469 .025 NL West 22.6 .439 .457 -13.0 12.2 .520 .516 -.059
The American League East features two teams that have topped this year's Hit List, the Red Sox and Rays, and has at times seen all five teams with winning records, though lately both the Orioles and Blue Jays have fallen below .500. Collectively, the division has outscored opponents by 182 runs, though if anything, they're lagging behind where they should be, because all five teams have fallen short of their third-order projections, by anywhere from 0.6 games (Baltimore) to 5.7 games (Toronto).
Beyond the AL East, things get a little strange. The NL Central has the majors' second-best winning percentage, but their collective Hit List Factor lags behind by 24 points. The division as a whole has a case of what we might call Diamondback-itis: they've been outscored by 22 runs but are 19 games above .500 and 24.1 games above their third-order projection (D3). Even with that shortfall, they're in a dead heat with the AL East for the most improved division since the end of last year. The gap between their actual and expected winning percentages suggests that there's some regression to the mean ahead, however.
The AL's two other divisions are in a virtual tie for second place in Hit List Factor, while the NL West has surprisingly fallen on hard times. At the end of last year it ranked first in winning percentage and average Hit List rank, and second in Hit List factor. This year, the division has been collectively outscored by 223 runs, and none of its teams has a record above .500. Three of the five teams are among the bottom six on the Hit List, including the defending NL champion Rockies and the team they beat out for the Wild Card in a Game 163 playoff, the Padres. Which brings us to the next chart, comparing this year's Hit List Factors with the 2007 year-end figures:
Team 2008 2007 +/- Rays .585 .430 .155 White Sox .578 .427 .151 Cardinals .530 .459 .071 Athletics .563 .496 .067 Cubs .596 .529 .067 Marlins .485 .452 .033 Rangers .497 .464 .033 Orioles .483 .453 .030 Twins .508 .487 .021 Royals .444 .426 .018 Phillies .554 .544 .010 Brewers .525 .516 .009 Astros .447 .439 .008 Diamondbacks .506 .500 .006 BlueJays .530 .528 .002 Pirates .414 .415 -.001 Mets .548 .551 -.003 Reds .452 .459 -.007 Red Sox .616 .624 -.008 Braves .525 .536 -.011 Dodgers .504 .522 -.018 Angels .529 .550 -.021 Giants .438 .467 -.029 Tigers .507 .548 -.041 Yankees .533 .591 -.058 Nationals .369 .436 -.067 Mariners .421 .498 -.077 Indians .477 .566 -.089 Padres .407 .533 -.126 Rockies .430 .556 -.126
The Rays have a slight lead over the White Sox for most improved team; recall that the Sox actually finished one spot below them on the final 2007 Hit List. Evan Longoria, Matt Garza, a functional bullpen, and a real-live infield that plays defense have done wonders to elevate the Rays, a club that had known nothing but futility and the promise of a better tomorrow for a decade. As for the White Sox, their offense, rotation and bullpen have all been middle-of-the-pack, and they've exactly hit their third-order projection; being a club without a glaring weakness may be enough in that division this year.
The A's are among the most improved clubs this season, a sign that despite the head-scratchiness of the Rich Harden deal, Billy Beane does seem to know what he's doing when it comes to rebuilding (paging Mr. Mulder and Mr. Zito...). For a further case in point, there's now also yesterday's trade of Joe Blanton (5-12 with a 4.96 ERA) to the Phillies for three prospects. Elsewhere among AL clubs, the Rangers and Twins have shown modest improvements that have put them in a position to challenge for a playoff spot.
Among NL teams, the Cardinals have leapt back into contention despite a plethora of injuries to the league's most effective rotation, and the Marlins have crept into contention as well. That pair of results is even more surprising given that last year's NL East and Central winners, the Phillies and Cubs, are stronger teams this time around. Even the Diamondbacks, who've gone 27-40 since the beginning of May, are actually six points ahead of where they finished last year.
Further hope for the recently downtrodden can be seen all over the upper half of this list, as mediocrities like the Orioles, Royals, and Astros can claim at least some forward progress from the end of last year. Yes, you too, Toronto—by all means, please spare J.P. Ricciardi's job, as it makes sharpening the Hit List knives something I look forward to every week.
Meanwhile, the Angels, Dodgers, and Tigers find themselves in the hunt for post-season berths despite considerable falloffs since the end of last year. The same could be said about the Yankees, at least if you have faith that they'll overcome the potentially season-ending injury to Hideki Matsui on top of the injuries of Chien-Ming Wang, Philip Hughes, and the lost-at-sea batting approaches of Melky Cabrera and Robinson Cano. If you're scoring at home, count this Yankee fan among the nonbelievers.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Padres and their play-in partners have both fallen off the furthest, and in rather shocking fashion given the former's recent competitiveness and the latter's base of young talent... which may not be all that talented at all, I suppose. They're not alone in their falls from grace; the Indians were one win away from a trip to the World Series last year, but have taken quite a tumble due to injuries (Victor Martinez, Fausto Carmona, Jake Westbrook) and ineffectiveness (Travis Hafner, Asdrubal Cabrera, both outfield corners), while the ship has sunk for those 2007 overachievers, the Mariners. Remember, kids, when it comes to dishing out Hit List justice, nobody kicks ass like Pythagoras.
Finally, we check in with our PECOTA-derived Preseason Hit List:
Team HLF PECOTA +/- White Sox .578 .475 .103 Orioles .483 .407 .076 Athletics .563 .494 .069 Cardinals .530 .463 .067 Twins .508 .451 .057 Red Sox .616 .562 .054 Blue Jays .530 .481 .049 Marlins .485 .438 .047 Rangers .497 .451 .046 Rays .585 .543 .042 Cubs .596 .562 .034 Phillies .554 .531 .023 Astros .447 .444 .003 Braves .525 .525 .000 Giants .438 .438 .000 Royals .444 .444 .000 Angels .529 .537 -.008 Brewers .525 .543 -.018 Diamondbacks .506 .531 -.025 Mets .548 .580 -.032 Dodgers .504 .537 -.033 Pirates .414 .451 -.037 Reds .452 .494 -.042 Mariners .421 .463 -.042 Tigers .507 .562 -.055 Yankees .533 .599 -.066 Padres .407 .481 -.074 Nationals .369 .444 -.075 Rockies .430 .506 -.076 Indians .477 .568 -.091
The White Sox are the runaway winners here thus far, while the Rays have merely managed to improve on a turnaround that already promised to be more radical than their name change. Running a surprising second are the Orioles, who ranked dead last on our pre-season Hit List, but have instead managed to maintain the bland mediocrity that's characterized the organization's recent patches of... wait, what's the opposite of shame? The Twins have obviously surpassed expectations considerably, and they might remain a threat in the AL Central if they ever get around to recalling Francisco Liriano, ditching Livan Hernandez, and adding a bat or two. Rod Carew and Harmon Killebrew should do nicely.
We've already kicked a few of the teams at the other end of the spectrum—no need to tell Hank Steinbrenner that the pre-season list-topping Yankees are among the biggest disappointments around—but we haven't noted the way the Nationals have fallen so far short or what was a pretty meager projection to begin with. Injuries—Nick Johnson, Ryan Zimmerman, Shawn Hill, Chad Cordero, Elijah Dukes, Austin Kearns, Wily Mo Peņa—have weakened an already-weak roster, and to add insult, their new ballpark hasn't been particularly well-received, though at least attendance is up about 24 percent.
Closer to the center, there's nothing all that remarkable about the three bullseyes; there were two at this time last year, and six teams within ten points of their projections. What's more striking is just below center, where the Pirates, Reds and Mariners have significantly underachieved their rather mediocre projections. The Reds, with their coterie of top-flight youngsters such as Edinson Volquez, Jay Bruce, Joey Votto, and Johnny Cueto, have nonetheless offered some hope for the future. The Bucs, with their hyperproductive outfield and dreadful rotation, not so much.
Of course, we can still expect a fair amount of movement in this list. Last year's Remix came closer to the mid-season point, but 40-point swings in HLF by the end of the year weren't uncommon. The Angels lost 39 points and still won their division, the Brewers lost 50 and fell short of the postseason. The Yankees stormed back by gaining 47 points and the Rockies rushed to the playoffs with a 75-point gain. Which teams will turn it around this year, for better or worse? Stay tuned.