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September 8, 2008

Prospectus Today

Dodger Mo'

by Joe Sheehan

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Dodgers fans, does this feel at all familiar?

Back in 2006, the Dodgers pulled out of the All-Star break on a 1-12 run, then immediately followed that up by winning 11 straight games and 17 of 18. They would go on to tie for the NL West championship that season, and be knocked out of the playoffs in the Division Series by the New York Mets. On the whole, they wound up an 88-74 team that outscored its opponents by 69 runs. They were never as bad nor as good as they looked during either streak. At the time, there was even a convenient explanation for them: the Dodger schedule was very tough for a couple of weeks, than eased up, which helped explain the disparity in performance.

This year’s version is taking its fan base on an even wilder ride. Just 10 days ago, the Dodgers were dead in the water, 4 games back of the Diamondbacks, having lost eight straight games by a combined score of 54-15. They weren’t getting unlucky, they were getting hammered, and by the likes of the Washington Nationals no less. Five of the eight losses were blowouts, and the starting pitcher took the loss in seven of the eight games, including the last five. With a loss to the division rival Diamondbacks on August 29, the Dodgers seemed more likely to be passed by the Rockies than to move into first place.

Just as they did in 2006, the Dodgers began playing better for no apparent reason. On consecutive days they beat Dan Haren and Brandon Webb, kicking off an eight-game winning streak that featured five victories over the D’backs. They outscored their opponents 52-18 in those eight games, just two of them by two runs and none by one run, and starters have seven of the eight wins in the streak. These last eight games are almost an exact mirror image of the eight games that preceded them.

What happened overnight between August 29 and August 30? Well, if you really want a reason, you could point to Jeff Kent shutting it down for the year. Kent batted .156/.206/.156 during the losing streak, and his defense has slipped to well below average. On the other hand, the Dodgers were 53-51 when he started up until that point, no one player is going to be responsible for that kind of turnaround, and replacing him with converted third baseman Blake DeWitt certainly didn’t do that much for the defense. (However, DeWitt has hit well, .286/.364/.536 in the eight games.)

It’s not a change at second base that has meant an eight-game winning streak. No, trying to divine why the August 22-29 Dodgers were 0-8 while basically the same exact collection of players was 8-0 from August 30-September 7—against tougher competition on the whole—is folly. This is what the baseball season is: essentially unpredictable in the short and medium term. Clayton Kershaw started twice in the losing streak: 6 1/3 innings, 11 runs allowed, five walks, seven strikeouts. He also started twice in the winning streak: 11 innings, six runs allowed, four walks, ten strikeouts. Not a lot better, but certainly better, and certainly not for a visible reason.

This is what baseball players and baseball teams do: perform within a range that’s centered on their true talent level. If the extremes aren’t usually quite this obvious, the one truth we can pull from this is that looking at a larger picture will give us a better idea of what the Dodgers are. They’re 8-8 in the their last 16 games. They’re 27-21 since the All-Star break. They’re 73-70 for the season. This is a team that’s a little better than .500—with Manny Ramirez, anyway. That they’ve piled up wins and losses in a newsworthy pattern is interesting and makes for good copy, but it doesn’t tell us anything more about the team than 8-8 does.

There is no such thing as momentum in baseball, and we’ve had any number of examples of this principle in just the last few weeks. The Dodgers are the most obvious one, but take a look at the Mets, who took a devastating loss in Philadelphia on August 26, and were trailing the next night late in the game with their ace having been knocked out. They won that game, and five of the six that followed, all on the road against above-.500 teams. The Phillies, meanwhile, dropped three straight off of that great win. The Dodgers’ performance turned on a dime on the afternoon of August 30. The Yankees had a number of points where it seemed like they would climb into contention, but could never play well over a long enough stretch to contend. The Astros are 29-11 over their last 40 games with essentially the same team that was 47-56 before that. No, wait: they’re doing that while being down their second-best hitter and highest-paid player, Carlos Lee.

You can’t predict the future short-term performance of baseball teams. Moreover, you can’t learn much from the recent short-term performance of baseball teams. There’s no analytic deficiency there; it’s just the nature of baseball, which lends itself to the kinds of things we’ve seen over the past three weeks. Sure, you can figure out, looking back, why the Dodgers have swung from 0-8 to 8-0, but learning that doesn’t help you to divine the next eight outcomes. Blake DeWitt might keep hitting 200 points of OPS over his skill level. Manny Ramirez might keep hitting like Babe Ruth’s big brother. If you have any idea what version of Clayton Kershaw will show up in his next two starts, give Joe Torre—or your bookie—a call. What impact will Takashi Saito have when he comes off of the DL this week?

I’m not even sure that scheduling, which is what I pointed to two years ago to help explain the Dodgers’ roller-coaster month, is useful. After all, four of the Dodgers’ eight losses were to the Nationals, who had the worst record in baseball when LA came to town. Five of the eight wins have come over the Diamondbacks, who were a first-place team when this dance began. If we can’t predict the short-term performance of a contender, why would we think we can predict the short-term performance of a poor team? You have a better idea of the long-term expectation, but the short-term results are subject to the same variance. I can look at a remaining Dodgers schedule in which the best team is currently 67-77 and predict a cakewalk for them, but that would be a mistake. Baseball isn’t predictable enough to make that kind of call with any confidence. Even the Pirates, Rockies, Giants, and Padres—even the September versions of those teams, featuring new and anonymous lineups—are dangerous to a first-place team with .500 talent.

The NFL makes a lot of money off of the "Any Given Sunday" notion, the idea that any team can beat any other on a particular day. MLB is built that way as well, and if an MLB season were 16 games long, the debate over parity would be null and void: MLB would win it going away. MLB’s regular season has the credibilty it does because over 10 times that amount of games, performance gets around to beating variance. The Dodgers’ last eight games are variance, the eight before that were variance. When you string enough eight-game blocks together, you get to 73-70, which is their performance, one that is good enough for first place in a weak division of a weak league with three weeks to play.

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

Related Content:  The Streak,  Dodgers,  The Who,  The Call-up

19 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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Good point about the variability of records of the 16-game NFL vs. the 162-game MLB schedule.

Joe, have you ever studied MLB records at the 16-game mark vs. NFL season records? Which shows more variance? I'd be curious to know.

Sep 08, 2008 10:08 AM
rating: 1

dmoriart's question about variance in MLB at the 16-game mark vs. NFL records for a season is probably not the right question to ask, because you do things differently if you're playing 16 games over 17 (or is it 18?) weeks than if you're playing 16 games in less than 3 weeks. Just think about pitching usage here. How many starting pitchers would you need? Back-up position players only for in-game injuries? The parameters are so different that whatever the answer is, it's nat going to give us much insight into either baseball or football.

Sep 08, 2008 10:35 AM
rating: 4

Great article.
However, I choose to believe it's because Jeff Kent got hurt.

Sep 08, 2008 10:57 AM
rating: 0
James Martin Cole

I'm not sure I can buy into the whole "there is no momentum in baseball" thing. Certainly its overstated most of the time, but I have trouble buying that last years Rockies run, Joe Dimaggio's hit streak, etc., were random variation. The people who play this game are human beings, and it doesn't seem too crazy to say that a game may affect their emotions, and that their emotions may affect their future games.

I mean, sure, winning three in a row doesn't mean you should bet for (or against) the same team the next day, because most of the time it won't mean anything. But let's not go overboard and say momentum doesn't mean anything. You clearly see it in boxing, basketball, soccer, football, etc. Why not baseball?

Sep 08, 2008 10:58 AM
rating: 0

Why not baseball? Well, I don't know if you can actually concoct some kind of narrative proof that shows why momentum doesn't matter, but I would start like this:

If you're doing well, then momentum mattering would mean that you will continue to do well. But I think it's a lot more likely that you will continue to do well because you simply are a good player, and not because you did well yesterday. Similarly for a poorly performing player. You're much more likely to perform at the level of your talent with minor fluctuations based on luck.

While we're at it, what are some circumstances in boxing, basketball, soccer, and football that clearly show that momentum matters?

Sep 08, 2008 11:52 AM
rating: 3
James Martin Cole

I totally agree with your second paragraph. "You are much more likely to perform at the level of your talent with minor fluctuations based on luck." - words to live by.

However, I don't believe all fluctuations are luck. In boxing, if a fighter gets hit hard once, he's much more likely to get hit hard again because the first hit left him dazed. The first event improved the likelyhood of the second event. In football, the longer a defense is on the field for the first three quarters, the more likely they are to make mistakes, play lethargic, etc., during the 4th quarter. In basketball (especially the NBA), home court advantage is massive. All of these don't seem like fluctuations based on luck, at least to me; they seem like people getting wore down or fired up.

It's harder to think of concrete examples in baseball because in baseball events are so seperate from each other, and it's easier to pick up patterns in a flow than in hundreds of isolated points of data, but I've got to suspect that the existence of paterns in the more flow-based sports would suggest similar paterns exist in baseball.

Sep 08, 2008 12:06 PM
rating: 0
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Jeff Kent's doesn't explain it! Record variability has nothing to do with it! Surely momentum enters into the picture. Season is so long that a player shouln't get "too high" ot "too low" or that sense of urgency exists. Maybe the players all started wearing watches like Torre wears! Maybe regular church attendance has played a pivotal role in Dodgers' recent success.

Sep 08, 2008 11:54 AM
rating: -6

I'll buy that "momentum" as a separate being does not exist. I'll counter, however, that streakiness for individual players does exist, and that when enough players go on streaks in one direction or another, that creates "team streaks", which create something that looks like momentum, but is really just a collective group getting hot or cold at the same time. So why have the Dodgers been hot for the last 8 games? There could be a thousand reasons for that ranging from a batting coach figuring out half the lineup at once to the players not being hungover for 8 straight days to just dumb luck. These are humans, not machines that spit out numbers. It's tough to not lose sight of that fact.

Sep 08, 2008 12:15 PM
rating: 0
Tom Stahlecker

I think those "thousand reasons" are the point, except that, there wasn't a thousand reasons, there were none. Stuff happens (and stuff always happens!), and this is why you don't get worked up over a single week. But the guys on Around the Horn need material to fill 23 minutes of shouting everyday, so here we are...

Sep 08, 2008 13:06 PM
rating: 2
Rob Moore

Injuries, trades, lineup changes and minor league call-ups must play some kind of role too. Manny has been better than forecast. Andre Ethier forced his way into the lineup and has been playing extremely well. On the other hand, the loss of Furcal and the worse than expected performance of his replacements was a big blow. With Manny, a healthy Furcal and Saito, and Juan Pierre on the bench, this team is far better than versions we've seen earlier in the summer.

Sep 08, 2008 12:56 PM
rating: 0

"It's harder to think of concrete examples in baseball because in baseball events are so seperate from each other"

I think you pretty much answered why we should assume momentum doesn't exist as the default position. It's all about dependent events versus independent events. In boxing, one hit followed by another is a dependent event...the first hit changes the likelihood of the second event. But in baseball, there's no apparent link between one at-bat and another (except for very small things, like a runner on base pushing the pitcher to the windup). In the absence of that clear dependency between events, shouldn't we assume (as the default, barring actual evidence) that momentum isn't in play?

Also, this is in-game momentum. The article talked about game-to-game momentum. There's no clear evidence (that I can see) that there's game-to-game or match-to-match momentum in football, boxing, soccer or basketball.

Sep 08, 2008 13:12 PM
rating: 3

Sorry, I meant "except for very small things, like a runner on base pushing the pitcher to the stretch," of course.

Sep 08, 2008 13:13 PM
rating: 0

You're exactly right and 16 games is a very small sample upon which to judge a team. Fair? Yes, but not definitive.

If you try to explain this to an unsophisticated NFL fan they will object citing the fact that the season is only 16 games long therefore it must be a definitive sample.

They are confused. Simply because the season is only 16 games long doesn't make a 16 event sample statistically significant.

Its something about the ratio between the variability in day to day scoring and the actual difference in skill level between the teams. 16 games would be definitive in a league with an NFL team, a High School team and Pop Warner team because the differences between the teams is much larger than the day to day variance in scoring.

In baseball the day to day variance in scoring is larger than the differences between teams so you need a lot of games. That ratio is probably smaller in the NFL but its not small enough that 16 games is a definitive sample.

Sep 08, 2008 13:22 PM
rating: 1
Tom Stahlecker

See, I don't know if I buy the NFL comparison. In the NFL, often (not always, but more than 50/50 I'd bet), 16 games is more than enough. How much more data would you need to say, oh I don't know, that the 2007 Patriots were better than the 2007 Dolphins? Or that LT is a better RB than Rudi Johnson? Just because we all learned in high school that anything less than 20 or 30 samples is scary territory, doesn't mean there isn't useful data there.

The difference between the NFL and the MLB is that on a game by game basis, the variance goes way up as pitcher matchups rotate. It would be similar to, if every three weeks every NFL team rotated out eight of its defenders, and brought in a second squad. You can gain more information about a team's true level of skill - as well as individual players - in 16 NFL games than you can in 16 MLB games.

Sep 08, 2008 16:45 PM
rating: 0

I think the point is that 16 games isn't sufficient to weed out the randomness. The Super Bowl last year is a perfect example. Over a 16 game season the Pats were clearly the better team, but on any given Sunday....That said, entering last season, would you have preferred the Pats' or the Giants' roster?

Sep 08, 2008 17:05 PM
rating: 0
Tom Stahlecker

They didn't play 16 super bowls though? If you're going to boil everything down to one game (especially one game between two relatively even opponents - which is kind of the point of the super bowl) the best you can do is say Team A will beat Team B 65% of the time. Can you imagine baseball if its playoffs were all only one game apiece?

Sep 08, 2008 17:22 PM
rating: 0

One of the reasons why momentum may be less strong or even non-existent in baseball is simply the nature of the game itself. Many hot streaks in football or basketball may center on finding the right combination of a small number of players in key positions, and or developing a certain mix of plays that are then run successfully over and over.

In baseball there are no plays and everyone has to hit and everyone has to pitch.

Sep 08, 2008 16:31 PM
rating: -2
Tom Stahlecker

"Many hot streaks in football or basketball may center on finding the right combination of a small number of players in key positions"

Column idea for some of the more enterprising data miners on staff here... I wonder what percentage of long winning streaks (say 10 games or more) involved teams deviating from their established R/G (that is, a significant jump in offense), as well as their RA/G (a significant jump in pitching/defense). I'm sure both obviously are going to get better by definition, but I wonder if one doesn't tilt farther that the other.

Sep 08, 2008 17:30 PM
rating: 0
Jeff Goldsmith

Every study I've seen shows that there is no such thing as momentum in baseball. If there were, teams would win more games following a win than following a loss. This doesn't happen. It seems that for the last three years, the Dodgers have been extremely streaky. They haven't been. The streakiness of each team this year is as follows. Data is wins/losses following wins/losses, wins/losses following losses/wins, and % same result.
Team Sam-Dif, %Sam
KCR: 82- 59, 58.2
WSN: 83- 60, 58.0
CHW: 79- 62, 56.0
MIL: 80- 63, 55.9
COL: 80- 63, 55.9
HOU: 78- 65, 54.5
TOR: 76- 65, 53.9
BAL: 76- 65, 53.9
CHC: 76- 66, 53.5
NYY: 76- 67, 53.1
LAD: 76- 67, 53.1
MIN: 75- 67, 52.8
TBR: 74- 67, 52.5
CLE: 74- 67, 52.5
BOS: 74- 68, 52.1
SEA: 73- 68, 51.8
DET: 74- 69, 51.7
SFG: 73- 69, 51.4
SDP: 73- 70, 51.0
OAK: 72- 70, 50.7
CIN: 72- 71, 50.3
ATL: 71- 72, 49.7
PHI: 70- 73, 49.0
PIT: 69- 73, 48.6
LAA: 69- 73, 48.6
NYM: 68- 74, 47.9
ARI: 67- 75, 47.2
STL: 65- 77, 45.8
TEX: 61- 82, 42.7
FLA: 57- 86, 39.9

Nor where the Dodgers particularly streaky in 2007:
SEA: 93- 68, 57.8
ARI: 92- 69, 57.1
MIN: 89- 72, 55.3
PIT: 88- 73, 54.7
NYY: 87- 74, 54.0
SFG: 86- 75, 53.4
TEX: 85- 76, 52.8
CHW: 85- 76, 52.8
BAL: 85- 76, 52.8
HOU: 84- 77, 52.2
FLA: 83- 78, 51.6
CIN: 83- 78, 51.6
TBD: 82- 79, 50.9
WSN: 81- 80, 50.3
LAD: 81- 80, 50.3
NYM: 80- 81, 49.7
LAA: 80- 81, 49.7
MIL: 79- 82, 49.1
COL: 79- 83, 48.8
KCR: 78- 83, 48.4
CLE: 77- 84, 47.8
SDP: 77- 85, 47.5
STL: 76- 85, 47.2
OAK: 76- 85, 47.2
DET: 76- 85, 47.2
CHC: 75- 86, 46.6
BOS: 75- 86, 46.6
PHI: 74- 87, 46.0
ATL: 74- 87, 46.0
TOR: 70- 91, 43.5

So maybe what we are perceiving isn't just simple one-game momentum. Maybe long winning and losing streaks are what we remember. I created a "streak" statistic which is zero for a win after a loss or a loss after a win. A win after five consecutive wins is worth 5. Yeah, same as the "streak" you see in the papers. Then divide that total by games played and you get streakiness. For 2008:

Team Sam-Dif, %Sam, Stkness
WSN: 83- 60, 58.0, 1.69
KCR: 82- 59, 58.2, 1.48
CLE: 74- 67, 52.5, 1.32
HOU: 78- 65, 54.5, 1.29
COL: 80- 63, 55.9, 1.28
MIL: 80- 63, 55.9, 1.24
CHW: 79- 62, 56.0, 1.24
CHC: 76- 66, 53.5, 1.22
LAD: 76- 67, 53.1, 1.20
TOR: 76- 65, 53.9, 1.18
MIN: 75- 67, 52.8, 1.15
TBR: 74- 67, 52.5, 1.11
BAL: 76- 65, 53.9, 1.10
SEA: 73- 68, 51.8, 1.08
SDP: 73- 70, 51.0, 1.08
OAK: 72- 70, 50.7, 1.08
PIT: 69- 73, 48.6, 1.06
DET: 74- 69, 51.7, 1.06
NYM: 68- 74, 47.9, 1.04
ATL: 71- 72, 49.7, 1.00
BOS: 74- 68, 52.1, 0.99
NYY: 76- 67, 53.1, 0.97
SFG: 73- 69, 51.4, 0.92
CIN: 72- 71, 50.3, 0.90
LAA: 69- 73, 48.6, 0.89
ARI: 67- 75, 47.2, 0.85
PHI: 70- 73, 49.0, 0.83
TEX: 61- 82, 42.7, 0.74
STL: 65- 77, 45.8, 0.73
FLA: 57- 86, 39.9, 0.66

The Dodgers are a little above average. I expected really bad and really good teams to dominate this list; after all, it's easier to get a good losing streak going if you are playing .360 ball, but that didn't particularly happen. The Nationals led, but the Padres have the same record and nowhere near the streakiness. The Nationals have managed a 7-game winning steak (thanks Dodgers!) and two 4-game ones.
When you are not winning many games, that is pretty good.

The Nationals were not particularly streaky last year:
SEA: 93- 68, 57.8, 1.37
ARI: 92- 69, 57.1, 1.26
BAL: 85- 76, 52.8, 1.24
TBD: 82- 79, 50.9, 1.21
NYY: 87- 74, 54.0, 1.19
SFG: 86- 75, 53.4, 1.17
PIT: 88- 73, 54.7, 1.14
COL: 79- 83, 48.8, 1.12
WSN: 81- 80, 50.3, 1.07
HOU: 84- 77, 52.2, 1.07
CHW: 85- 76, 52.8, 1.06
CIN: 83- 78, 51.6, 1.01
MIN: 89- 72, 55.3, 0.99
FLA: 83- 78, 51.6, 0.99
TEX: 85- 76, 52.8, 0.96
OAK: 76- 85, 47.2, 0.96
STL: 76- 85, 47.2, 0.95
DET: 76- 85, 47.2, 0.94
LAD: 81- 80, 50.3, 0.92
CLE: 77- 84, 47.8, 0.92
NYM: 80- 81, 49.7, 0.91
MIL: 79- 82, 49.1, 0.91
KCR: 78- 83, 48.4, 0.90
LAA: 80- 81, 49.7, 0.86
TOR: 70- 91, 43.5, 0.84
CHC: 75- 86, 46.6, 0.83
SDP: 77- 85, 47.5, 0.81
PHI: 74- 87, 46.0, 0.80
BOS: 75- 86, 46.6, 0.78
ATL: 74- 87, 46.0, 0.78

Looks like the Dodgers' apparent streakiness is just selective perception. And that streakiness is pretty much just random variance.

Sep 09, 2008 08:36 AM
rating: 3
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