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July 15, 2009

Prospectus Hit and Run

Changing the Odds

by Jay Jaffe

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The three-day All-Star break is a convenient time to begin the grieving process, and so yesterday made for a timely opportunity to shovel dirt on three teams whom PECOTA tabbed as potentially playoff-bound back in April. The Diamondbacks, A's, and Indians may not be mathematically eliminated from post-season contention yet, but with their odds of joining the dance falling below 0.5 percent, a burial seemed in order.

As the BP staff has taken the past several days to examine how our preseason PECOTA forecasts have fared with regards to teams, hitters, starters and relievers, it's worth remembering that such projections don't equal destiny. They're simply shorthand for a wider range of probabilities centered around the weighted mean forecasts we publicize, and all kinds of real-world factors-injuries, bad luck, mismanagement, imperfect information, and so on-can affect their accuracy.

Bearing that in mind, today we'll examine which teams have helped or harmed their post-season chances the most relative to our initial forecasts using our plain vanilla version of the Playoff Odds Report, thus isolating the effect of our projections from our expectations for these teams going forward. In that report, each team's current record and third-order Pythagorean record-their record after adjusting for scoring environment, run elements, and quality of opposition-are factored into a Monte Carlo simulation of the rest of the season, with their records regressing not to .500 but to their third-order winning percentages. Run differentials play a big part here; a team that's above .500 but being outscored won't see favorable odds.

Surprisingly enough, none of the freshly-buried teams rates as the biggest disappointment from this perspective:


Team        Win%   3Ord%   Div     WC  Total   Proj.   +/-
Cubs        .500   .486   13.0    3.2   16.2   62.6   -46.4
D'backs     .427   .475    0.0    0.2    0.2   45.0   -44.8
Athletics   .430   .475    0.4    0.0    0.4   41.7   -41.3
Indians     .393   .471    0.2    0.0    0.2   38.4   -38.2
Mets        .483   .502   11.5    2.2   13.8   48.4   -34.6
Braves      .489   .501   12.4    2.6   14.9   33.1   -18.1
Reds        .483   .442    2.8    0.7    3.5   19.7   -16.3
Royals      .420   .466    0.4    0.0    0.4   13.8   -13.4
Nationals   .299   .451    0.0    0.0    0.0   10.9   -10.9
Brewers     .511   .477   16.5    3.0   19.5   28.5    -9.1

The columns above represent each team's actual winning percentage (Win%), third-order winning percentage (3Ord%), estimated chances of winning their division (Div), their league's Wild Card (WC), total chance of reaching the postseason, their pre-season odds of reaching the postseason (Proj.), and the change in those cumulative odds over the course of the first half (+/-).

From this vantage, it's the Cubs who have disappointed the most, though at least they maintain about a one-in-six shot at October. Expected to pace the circuit with 95 wins and an MLB-high 11-game cushion, they're instead tied for third in the NL Central, 3˝ games back. Injuries to Milton Bradley and Aramis Ramirez, disappointment from Alfonso Soriano, and a hole in the lineup where Mark DeRosa used to be (their second basemen have hit a combined .224/.280/.294) have limited the Cubs to just 4.1 runs per game and the league's third-lowest team EqA.

The Diamondbacks' offense ranks directly above them, a problem compounded by the loss of Brandon Webb, who hasn't pitched since Opening Day, and a wretched bullpen. The A's main problem has been a lack of offense, some of which is attributable to bad luck on balls in play>. The Indians merely have a staff that's been the league's worst in terms of run prevention because they don't miss enough bats; they're 12th in strikeout rate and 13th in Defensive Efficiency. The Mets have been without offensive stalwarts Jose Reyes, Carlos Delgado and Carlos Beltran for weeks now, and their pitching depth has been compromised by injuries as well; their playoff hopes aren't dead yet, but please excuse their weak pulse, clammy skin, and stiffening limbs.

At the other extreme are the teams who've done the most to increase their playoff chances:


Team        Win%   3Ord%   Div     WC  Total   Proj.   +/-
Cardinals   .538   .521   62.4    3.3   65.7   23.3    42.4
Dodgers     .636   .589   94.8    4.5   99.3   57.2    42.1
Rockies     .534   .532    3.4   45.5   48.9    7.1    41.8
Red Sox     .614   .571   51.9   29.7   81.6   49.7    31.9
Phillies    .558   .508   60.4    3.9   64.3   36.5    27.8
Angels      .570   .528   56.7    2.8   59.5   32.2    27.2
Twins       .506   .529   39.5    0.7   40.2   14.4    25.8
Rangers     .552   .511   25.2    2.9   28.1   10.7    17.4
Giants      .557   .490    1.8   27.1   28.9   12.2    16.8
Marlins     .511   .485   15.7    3.0   18.7    4.3    14.4

Three teams are in a dead heat in terms of improving their odds the most over the first half. Despite an offense that's at times resembled Albert Pujols and the Seven Dwarves, the Cardinals have filled the vacuum created by the Cubs' struggles to take control of the NL Central. Four teams are within five games of them, but none has a run differential better than the Cubs' +2, hence the sanguine outlook. The Dodgers have gone from heavy pre-season favorites to near-certainties despite Manny Ramirez's 50-game suspension; having the league's highest OBP and second-best ERA will do that. The Rockies, 29-13 under interim manager Jim Tracy, have emerged as the NL Wild Card favorites, if not its actual leaders. Cutting through the fog of park distortions and varying schedule strength, Colorado's combination of adequate offense and pitching trumps the actual Wild Card-leading Giants' pairing of outstanding pitching and inept hitting, despite the latter's slight advantage in run differential (+44 to +37).

Elsewhere, the Red Sox have taken the initiative in the three-team AL East race via the league's best run differential (+85). The Phillies, despite their rotation woes, are outscoring opponents by a healthy enough margin to control the NL East. The Angels' slight edge over the Rangers in the standings is magnified by the quality of competition, namely the difference between six-game sets with the Dodgers and Astros.

Finally, to those whose playoff odds have seen the least movement:


Team        Win%   3Ord%   Div     WC  Total   Proj.   +/-
White Sox   .511   .503   20.1    0.5   20.6   12.6     8.0
Tigers      .552   .489   39.8    0.7   40.4   34.5     6.0
Astros      .500   .449    4.5    0.7    5.2    3.3     1.9
Pirates     .432   .453    0.7    0.1    0.8    1.6    -0.8
Mariners    .523   .516   17.7    2.4   20.1   21.8    -1.7
Blue Jays   .489   .524    0.4    1.7    2.1    5.0    -2.9
Rays        .539   .596   21.5   26.2   47.7   51.9    -4.2
Padres      .409   .429    0.0    0.0    0.0    6.3    -6.3
Orioles     .455   .459    0.0    0.0    0.0    6.7    -6.7
Yankees     .580   .569   26.2   32.5   58.7   66.6    -7.9

These teams fit into three categories: heavyweights jockeying for position (Yankees and Rays), slightly overachieving bystanders in divisions with no overwhelming preseason favorite (the Mariners, Tigers, and White Sox), and clubs who lacked more than an ice cube's chance in hell to begin with (the Astros, Pirates, Padres, and Orioles). The Blue Jays rightfully belong in that latter category; since soaring a 27-14 start that pushed their odds above 79 percent, they've gone 5-17 against AL East opponents, and their myriad pitching injuries have caught up to them.

As the Jays' plight shows, these odds aren't immutable. A bad stretch can cause even the highest-flying team's chances to plummet, but the takehome lesson is that until the odds reach zero or 100 percent, it's not too late for a turnaround.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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:  The Who,  Playoff Probabilities

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