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September 9, 2008

Prospectus Today

Rays Relevance

by Joe Sheehan

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Well, it's come to this. After a decade of futility, of never being in contention for .500, much less a division title or playoff spot, the Tampa Bay Rays are now experiencing something heretofore known only to franchises that have had some success: backlash. With their lead in the AL East-just roll that around in your mind for a little bit, here on the afternoon of September 9th-down to a half-game following Monday's loss to the Red Sox, there is a sense of panic among the media covering the team. I wouldn't say it's there among the fans, and I wouldn't put it on the players, but for want of a story, the story is now "the Rays are falling apart."

Let me try and calm the waters a bit. The Rays have dropped six of their seven September games…on the heels of a 21-7 August in which they mostly played without their third baseman and left fielder. Over any period of time that isn't "the last week," the Rays have been one of the best teams in baseball, and that they're in a virtual tie for first place with the best team in their league, one that has twice the run differential and five times the payroll, is something to celebrate, not bitch about. Declaring the Rays to be in some kind of trouble based on the past week flies in the face of everything we know about baseball. As I wrote yesterday, you simply cannot reach conclusions about players or teams based on seven games of play. This game is harder than that.

Unlike the Dodgers and Diamondbacks, though, the Rays have something else going for them that makes the panic even sillier: the Rays are basically in the postseason already, and playing solely for seeding. See, these aren't the standings that matter:

Rays       85  57   .599    -
Red Sox    85  58   .594   .5

These are:


                           Div    WC
Rays       85  57   .599   ---    ---
Red Sox    85  58   .594   ---     .5
White Sox  80  62   .563   ---     5
Twins      78  65   .545   2.5    7.5
Blue Jays  76  66   .535    4      9
Yankees    76  68   .528    5     10

Loosely speaking, the top three teams on that list will make the postseason, with the caveat that either the White Sox or the Twins have to make it even if there are three or four AL East teams in front of them. If the Red Sox catch the Rays-and remember, they have the better team and the more favorable schedule, so they should catch the Rays-that's not a problem. The Rays' lead isn't a half-game over the Red Sox; it's 7½ games over the Twins. A 7½-game lead with 20 to play isn't insurmountable, but it's close enough to be mistaken for it at the corner bar. That's why the chance the Rays don't make the postseason amounts to a rounding error-0.6 percent, or three chances out of 500.

Losing six out of seven games isn't that big a deal. On September 3, the Rays had a 100 percent chance to make the postseason. Now, it's 99.4 percent. Exhale, Rays fans.

Then again, the opinion that your playoff seeding doesn't matter much isn't shared by everyone:

I'll be looking for all the articles like last year telling the top two teams in the AL East that they don't have to bust their butt down the stretch because winning the division doesn't really matter.

That advice was fronted by a number of writers at Baseball Prospectus last year and unfortunately a number of Yankee management staff took it to heart.

So the Red Sox win the division and only beat the Indians because they get the chance to play the Indians after losing three games to them while the Yankees never did get that chance after doing the same.

HOME FIELD and the chance to play a seven-game series instead of five meant everything last year (and likely to mean even more this year given the Red Sox and Rays home records) so I look forward to you passing out the same stupid advice you did last year.
-T.B.

The best evidence I have at my disposal to counter this argument is the actions of the teams in position to determine their fate between a division title and a wild card. In all cases, from the degenerate-the 1996 NL West race-to the subtle-the 2007 Red Sox-teams have behaved as if the difference between being a division titlist and a wild card means very little to them. They have rested players, set up their rotations and prepared for the postseason. Teams have never gone all-out to gain home-field advantage in even one round of the postseason.

MLB can trumpet "This Time it Counts" until they're blue in the face, but home-field advantage in baseball doesn't mean what it does in the NFL (where it usually comes with a week off) or in the NBA, and it is not something to be pursued fervently. Even division titles have been devalued now that so much emphasis is placed on the postseason. Ask Marlins fans if they care that their team has never won home-field advantage; ask A's fans if what they remember about the 2000-03 seasons is winning it three times. The regular season and its rewards have been diminished in value by the post-1993 structure of MLB and the coverage of same; teams have acted accordingly.

So the people around the Rays can calm down. Losing six out of seven games in September is effectively meaningless for a team that is just working towards getting healthy for October. Whether the Rays finish first or second in the AL East will have a tiny impact on their chances of advancing next month. As we say over and over at Baseball Prospectus, when two good teams play a best-of-five or best-of-seven series, the differences between them are largely dwarfed by variance, making the result unpredictable. Whether you get an extra home game or not just doesn't matter very much in that setting.

As far as the Rays go, let's consider the context here. They're taking arguably the toughest road trip in MLB this year, a nine-games-in-10-days jaunt through Toronto, Boston, and the Bronx. The expectations should have been low coming in, and while no one likes to lose four in a row, or be shut out in consecutive games, there's no reason to panic. Good baseball teams beat other good baseball teams all the time, which is what we're seeing here. What's important isn't the last seven games, but the 7½-game lead on the playoff spot, the imminent return of Evan Longoria, and playing the next game as well as they possibly can.

The Rays can't control the coverage of their first relevant September, nor can they do anything about the overly shrill tones that have accompanied a minor dip in performance. All they can do is what they've done all year-keep the ball in the park, play defense, and have good at-bats. We'll still be watching this team a month from now.

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:  Rays

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

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Aaron/YYZ

I would guess that some writers are also sad that they won't get to pen "Worst To First" articles lauding the Rays for "outsmarting" the Red Sox and Yankees...

Sep 09, 2008 10:42 AM
rating: 1
 
jjgreen33

For a man who essentially makes his living repeatedly questioning the judgment of major league general managers and managers (for good reason; those decision makers act irrationally all the time), are you really in a position to assert that the importance of home field advantage in the playoffs must be minimal simply because teams "in position to determine their fate between a division title and a wild card" repeatedly "have behaved as if the difference between being a division titlist and a wild card means very little to them?" To be sure, you underlying premise may be correct. I just think it's silly to suggest that the best evidence of that is the actions of thosee teams. It's tantamount to arguing that bullpen usage dictated by the save statistic is good simply because major league managers almost universally act that way or that Juan Pierre is a great leadoff hitter because his managers repeatedly use in that spot.

Sep 09, 2008 10:46 AM
rating: 9
 
treerat
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The best teams win about two-thirds of their home games, about half of their away games. The best teams win about two-thirds of their home games, about half of their away games. The best teams win about two-thirds of their home games, about half of their away games. Assume the Lotus Position and repeat this until you feel all worldly preoccupations melt away. You are now at one with all that has been and all that will be. AUM!

Sep 09, 2008 11:10 AM
rating: -12
 
Matt

There's an error in your chart. Though you may wish it, the Blue Jays and Yanks are not 4 and 5 games out in the division, they're the full 9 and 10 games out, same as your WC column.

Sep 09, 2008 11:25 AM
rating: 0
 
sbnirish77

The value of winning the East ... Both the Yankees and Red Sox lost three games to Cleveland in the playoffs last year ... The Yankees went home when they did and the Red Sox went on and won the World Series ...

Sep 09, 2008 11:37 AM
rating: -2
 
Nick Wernham

I'm hoping for the Rays to win the remaining games in their series against Boston so that my Jays can, at the very least, have more control over their own destiny. They play seven more games against Boston and no more against Tampa Bay. In order to even have a remote chance at the wild card they need to basically run the table from here on out. They really can't lose more than two games and realistically those two losses can't come against the Red Sox.

I'm not saying that they have a good shot at a playoff spot at this point, but I like their chances more if Boston is in second simply because if they keep winning then hopefully a lot of those wins will be against one of the teams that they need to pass. For starters though they need to sweep this series in Chicago. Whether they make it or not they are playing the best baseball that they have during the J.P. Ricciardi regime at the moment so I'm hoping that they finish strong and win more games than they did in 2006. That would appear to be a reasonable goal for the team at this point.

Sep 09, 2008 11:48 AM
rating: 1
 
jrmayne

The 100% number looks like a mistake; the Rays never really hit 100%.

If you look at the chart for the Rays, they go from 75% to win the division on Sept. 1 to 100% the following two days, then back to right around 75% on Sept. 4. This is not possible; you can't be 100% to win to many significant digits, then lose 25% of that overnight.

During the same time period, they bounce to 0% to win the wild card; same impossibility problem.

Even if you look at the totals, that's impossible - you're not going from 100.00000% to 99.59320% in one day; that's going from less than one in a million (the last digit applies to ties only, I think) to one in 250 in a day. The chances of the worst possible outcome - a Rays loss and everyone else winning - is far more than one in 4,000.

--JRM

Sep 09, 2008 12:02 PM
rating: 2
 
mcadwalader

jrmayne,

I noticed the same thing. Clay posted an Unfiltered entry about some problems he was having (see 9/2); I'd imagine the glitch in the data is due to that.

Sep 09, 2008 13:02 PM
rating: 0
 
Mean Dean

I agree that luck is a big factor in the postseason, and that the "low seed" often wins in baseball. I don't agree that those facts justify writing off seeding considerations. You still want to maximize your chances, as best you can, of making it as far as you can. And I definitely feel that that goal is maximized if you play either the Twins or the Quentin-less White Sox in the first round, rather than the Angels. So, if I were the Rays, I'd care a great deal about whether I end up in front of Boston. Panicking won't help them accomplish that goal, obviously, but that's a different issue.

Sep 09, 2008 13:06 PM
rating: 0
 
zlionsfan

I don't know, I'm not sure it really matters when the Rays play the Angels as much as what happens when they play. DS, LCS, not at all ... it's not like the DS is best-of-3 and the LCS is best-of-29.

There's also the argument that perhaps the Angels might care just as much about playing an AL Central team (if it's possible) rather than the Rays. They certainly might if they were looking at second- and third-order wins ... but even so, it comes back to winning a short series, and to do that, you're almost better off focusing on the first game of the series rather than game 150 or 160 of the regular season.

Sep 09, 2008 13:33 PM
rating: 1
 
fideaux

Yep. Get healthy in September, that's #1 for the Fishies.

Sep 09, 2008 13:18 PM
rating: 0
 
Aaron Whitehead

"So the Red Sox win the division and only beat the Indians because they get the chance to play the Indians after losing three games to them while the Yankees never did get that chance after doing the same."

In 1985, the LCS went to 7 games for the first time. In the ALCS, Toronto went up 3-1 on KC. Under the old system, the Jays would have won the pennant.
There are a million arguments like this, which boil down to "if the circumstances had just been a little different, my team would have won."
Except the circumstances aren't different, and your team lost. Anything else is wishful thinking, especially if you're operating on the assumption that the Indians' downfall would have happened in the ALDS in a 7-game series. Yeah, and maybe if my Braves had won the pennant in '92, Joe Carter wouldn't have homered in Game 6, because he wouldn't have been facing Mitch Williams.
If, if, if . . . whatever helps you sleep at night.

Sep 09, 2008 14:13 PM
rating: -1
 
leez34

Pretty much a good column here, especially with regard to the fact that sportswriters have felt the need to trumpet a mostly meaningless skid over the last few weeks as if they have no knowledge of baseball history. That said, jjgreen's comment is right on and needs to be addressed. The fact that teams don't care about winning the division vs. winning the wild card is evidence of nothing, the same as the fact that Joe Torre leads off Juan Pierre is not evidence that Pierre is good at it. Please, Mr. Sheehan, qualify your statement here.

Sep 09, 2008 14:16 PM
rating: 1
 
ithistle

Not to speak for Joe, but I think he is saying that having your team rested and rotation set up well by easing off a bit in September is more important than riding your rotation and relievers hard in an effort to win home field advantage. The benefit of having rested players in the playoffs far outweighs the benefit of home field advantage, or the difference between facing the Angels and Twins (both very good teams) in the first round, and the fact that intelligently-managed teams like the Red Sox do this is evidence it's a good idea.

Sep 09, 2008 17:33 PM
rating: 2
 
keef66

Joe's column appears the same day that a writer for the St. Pete Times--John Romano--makes exactly the argument that Joe demolishes here. It's a very strange scolding of the home town team. http://www.tampabay.com/sports/baseball/rays/article802364.ece

Sep 09, 2008 18:59 PM
rating: 0
 
Pat Senechal

As far as I can tell, there is an advantage to winning the division instead of the wild card. However, it's small enough that if you have that choice, you're better off trying to rest your team.

Home team advantage is about .540. In a 5-game series of equal teams, the home team should win about 50.8% of the time, as opposed to 49.2% by the wild card. The difference of .016 will affect about every 60th series.

It seems teams think they'd rather have a fresh team, and their optimal rotation than fight to the teeth for that last .008.

Sep 09, 2008 20:56 PM
rating: 3
 
James Martin Cole

There's also the HUGE benefit of the possibility of the team making more money by having extra playoff games at their home stadium.

If last year's Red Sox won the World Series in the same number of games, but not had home field advantage, they would have played two less home games. That's 72,000 tickets sold at god-knows-how-much a pop. What's average face-value on playoff tickets? Over 100, one would assume. So it's 7 million dollars, or the price to pay a Boras-represented first round draft pick. And that's not even counting concession.

I'd imagine home-field advantage gave the Red Sox at least an extra 10 million. Not exactly chump change.

Sep 10, 2008 06:38 AM
rating: 4
 
Mike M

Revenue from post-season ticket sales goes to MLB, not the home team. The only benefit to the home team is concession and souvenir revenues.

Sep 10, 2008 09:31 AM
rating: 0
 
James Martin Cole

Good to know.

Still, one would assume concession and souvenir revenue would be through the roof. Anyone know where to get those numbers?

Sep 10, 2008 10:14 AM
rating: 0
 
David Coonce

One very interesting thing about this article is Joe's assertion that home-field advantage matters more in the NBA and NFL. I don't doubt that he's right about that - I don't have the numbers in front of me and don't care enough about those two sports to look it up - but I do find it interesting that the NBA and NFL have a standardized playing field/court, while Baseball teams' home parks vary greatly in size, playing conditions (altitude), foul lines, etc. It's interesting because on the surface those things would suggest there's more of an advantage for baseball teams at home, since the football fields and basketball courts are always the same configuration.

As far as the playoffs go, baseball should - and I'm serious about this - go to best-of-7 playoff series and return to a best-of-nine World Series. The more games played the more often you can avoid statistical "blips" like St. Louis' 2006 Series Win or Houston's 2005 WS appearance.

Sep 10, 2008 07:26 AM
rating: 3
 
modofacid

I would agree with Joe that homefield advantage matters more in the NBA and NFL as baseball does not require audible communication between teammates. But both basketball and especially football often do. Therefore crowd noise can really have an effect on the game.

Sep 10, 2008 09:03 AM
rating: 0
 
asbasb

Why are the numbers in the playoff odds report quoted to five decimal places, and why is the last digit not zero? If the Monte Carlo calculation involves one million trials, the raw odds (number of successes divided by the number of trials) should have all zeros after the fourth decimal place. In any case, most of the decimal places are not significant. Even if the model were perfect (which it isn't; why else are there three models?), the uncertainty in the results are of the order of the square root of the number of trials, or one part in a thousand (one decimal place).

Sep 10, 2008 11:57 AM
rating: 0
 
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