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October 7, 2008

Prospectus Hit and Run

Big Gains, Big Losers

by Jay Jaffe

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The season's final Hit List is in the books, much to my relief. But before packing it away for the winter, I'd like to run it through a few paces, starting with one inspired by a reader question pertaining to the final set of rankings: is the Tampa Bay Rays' jump from their 2007 ranking the largest ever?

The Rays advanced to the American League Championship Series with a victory over the White Sox on Monday, and finished third on this year's Hit List, 24 rungs higher than they finished last year. That's the largest year-to-year leap of any team since I began running the Hit List back in 2005. Here are the top and bottom fives in that time span:

Year Team       Rank Prev  Diff
2008 Rays         3   27    +24
2006 Tigers       2   21    +19
2008 White Sox   10   28    +18
2007 Cubs        11   27    +16
2006 Dodgers      8   24    +16
2007 White Sox   28    6    -22
2008 Rockies     22    4    -18
2008 Padres      27   10    -17
2007 Twins       18    3    -15
2006 Cardinals   17    2    -15

Note that one team, the 2007 White Sox, figures on both lists, first as a sudden (but not unforeseen) drop last year, and then this year's surprising recovery. Also among the droppers are the 2006 Cardinals, who managed to win a World Championship despite that fall, and the two teams from last year's Game 163 showdown, the Rockies and Padres, who appear to have both fallen from Pike's Peak into the depths of this year's list.

As interesting as all of the above is, it does only account for four years of Hit List history. Expanding the field to incorporate the retroactively calculated Hit Lists in my historical Adjusted Standings spreadsheet reveals that the Rays don't hold the claim of the biggest year-to-year gain of all time:

Year Team      Rank Prev  Diff
1999 D'backs     1   27    +26
2008 Rays        3   27    +24
1995 Angels      5   28    +23
1991 Braves      4   25    +21
1993 Giants      2   23    +21
2001 Cubs        8   29    +21
2000 White Sox   2   21    +19
2002 Angels      1   20    +19
2006 Tigers      2   21    +19
2008 White Sox  10   28    +18
1978 Brewers     4   22    +18
1991 Twins       2   20    +18
1998 Padres      4   22    +18

The honor for the top year-to-year improvement in Hit List ranking belongs to the 1999 Diamondbacks. After finishing 27th as a 65-win expansion club in 1998, they signed free agents Randy Johnson and Steve Finley, pulled off a historically lopsided deal (Karim Garcia to Detroit for Luis Gonzalez), won 100 games, took the NL West flag, and topped that year's Hit List in just their second year of existence. The list also includes a few other notables, including the two rags-to-riches teams that met in the 1991 World Series, upstart pennant winners such as the 1998 Padres, 2002 Angels, and 2006 Tigers, and one of the great near-miss teams of all time, the 1993 Giants, who finished second in the NL West by a game despite notching 103 wins.

Ranking the teams by the number of notches they moved up in the pecking order isn't ideal, however, in that it tilts the list towards teams in the post-expansion era. It makes more sense to rank by the improvement in Hit List Factor (the average of a team's actual, first-, second-, and third-order winning percentages):

Year Team         HLF   Prev   Diff
1903 Giants      .609   .341   .268
1999 D'backs     .631   .408   .223
1905 Phillies    .563   .356   .207
1909 Athletics   .644   .442   .202
1980 Athletics   .525   .326   .199
1902 Reds        .537   .344   .193
1904 Cardinals   .497   .307   .190
1946 Red Sox     .638   .452   .186
2004 Tigers      .478   .293   .185
1915 White Sox   .632   .447   .185
1989 Orioles     .519   .342   .177
1912 Senators    .584   .410   .174
1909 Yankees     .499   .326   .173
1978 Brewers     .591   .418   .173
1914 Cardinals   .518   .346   .172
1910 Senators    .454   .286   .168
1905 Senators    .446   .278   .168
1993 Giants      .614   .447   .167
1907 Tigers      .613   .450   .163
1933 Red Sox     .454   .291   .163

OK, maybe not. This list is saturated with teams from the Deadball Era, a period not exactly known for its stability or competitive balance, making drastic year-to-year swings much more common. Look no further than the club atop the list for a prime example. The 1903 Giants marked John McGraw's first full season at the helm; he'd come to New York the previous summer under some rather dubious shenanigans involving a feud between McGraw and Ban Johnson, president of the nascent American League, and the purchase of a majority-ownership stake of the Baltimore Orioles by Giants owner Andrew Freedman. The Orioles released McGraw midway through the 1902 season and he was hired to manage the Giants. About a week later, the Orioles released six other players, four of whom, including future Hall of Famers Roger Bresnahan and Joe McGinnity, joined McGraw in New York. They didn't have an immediate effect on the Giants, but the following winter four AL players jumped their contracts and joined McGraw's club. Yeah, that's "when it was a game" wholesomeness.

Speaking of wholesome managerial genius, Billy Martin's 1980 A's are the top modern team on the list after the Diamondbacks. Taking over a club that had gone 54-108 the year before, Martin turned second-year left fielder Rickey Henderson loose on the basepaths and forced his starting pitchers to finish what they'd begun. Henderson swiped 100 bags, the staff completed 94 games, and the Billyball A's won 83 games. Among the other post-World War II clubs here are a Red Sox team that had the benefit of Ted Williams for the first time in four years, a Tigers club that picked up the pieces the year after the team's run at the single-season loss record, and an Orioles squad that helped erase the nightmare of the previous year's 0-21 start.

The Rays, who improved by 157 points, miss the cut, but they place 13th once the Deadball Era teams are pared from the list:

Year Team       HLF   Prev   Diff
1999 D'backs   .631   .408   .223
1980 Athletics .525   .326   .199
1946 Red Sox   .638   .452   .186
2004 Tigers    .478   .293   .185
1989 Orioles   .519   .342   .177
1978 Brewers   .591   .418   .173
1993 Giants    .614   .447   .167
1933 Red Sox   .454   .291   .163
1953 Braves    .597   .416   .161
1997 Tigers    .494   .335   .159
1967 Cubs      .549   .390   .159
1991 Braves    .571   .413   .158
2008 Rays      .587   .430   .157

In a rare bout of restraint, I'll save the flip side of this history lesson-the teams that fell the furthest, as far as the Hit List is concerned-for another day, and turn back to the 2008 data. Here's a look at how things changed from 2007, again using HLF:

Team        2008   2007    Diff
Rays        .587   .430    .157
White Sox   .543   .427    .116
Cubs        .602   .529    .073
Cardinals   .530   .459    .071
Marlins     .509   .452    .057
Astros      .489   .439    .050
Twins       .526   .487    .039
Royals      .459   .426    .033
Brewers     .544   .516    .028
Blue Jays   .556   .528    .028
Dodgers     .541   .522    .019
Rangers     .481   .464    .017
D'backs     .515   .500    .015
Phillies    .555   .544    .011
Angels      .549   .550   -.001
Mets        .550   .551   -.001
Orioles     .440   .453   -.013
Red Sox     .608   .624   -.016
Pirates     .394   .415   -.021
Athletics   .471   .496   -.025
Reds        .432   .459   -.027
Giants      .434   .467   -.033
Yankees     .551   .591   -.040
Indians     .517   .566   -.049
Nationals   .384   .436   -.052
Braves      .478   .536   -.058
Tigers      .477   .548   -.071
Rockies     .467   .556   -.089
Mariners    .397   .498   -.101
Padres      .412   .533   -.121

Given that the two AL Division Series ended on Monday, it's a bit late for this observation, but the contrast between the two matchups was striking, with the two most improved clubs (by both rank and Hit List Factor) squaring off in one and the two "steady Eddie" clubs in the other. The now-eliminated Angels deserve some kind of door prize for consistency; in the four years I've run the Hit List, they've finished fifth, seventh, sixth, and eighth, with HLFs between .547 and .562. Mike Scioscia, expect your official Hit List Toaster Oven to arrive by the time the World Series starts.

Aside from the Rays and White Sox, the rest of this year's most improved clubs now find themselves on the sidelines-the already-eliminated Cubs and Brewers, and the close-but-no-cigar Cardinals, Astros, Marlins, and Twins. While there's nothing inherently preventing such improved clubs from post-season success, it's worth noting that among the 100 biggest annual improvements in HLF, only three teams from the division play era (1969 onward) have managed to win a World Series: the aforementioned 1991 Twins and 2002 Angels, plus last year's Red Sox (who improved by 115 points).

The disappointments down towards the lower third of the above list-Indians and Tigers and Rockies, oh my-bring yet another means of comparison to mind. Here are the teams relative to their PECOTA-driven pre-season rankings in Hit List:

Team        Final   Pre    Diff
Twins       .526   .451    .075
Blue Jays   .556   .481    .075
Marlins     .509   .438    .071
White Sox   .543   .475    .068
Cardinals   .530   .463    .067
Red Sox     .608   .562    .046
Astros      .489   .444    .045
Rays        .587   .543    .044
Cubs        .602   .562    .040
Orioles     .440   .407    .033
Rangers     .481   .451    .030
Phillies    .555   .531    .024
Royals      .459   .444    .015
Angels      .549   .537    .012
Dodgers     .541   .537    .004
Brewers     .544   .543    .001
Giants      .434   .438   -.004
D'backs     .515   .531   -.016
Athletics   .471   .494   -.023
Mets        .550   .580   -.030
Rockies     .467   .506   -.039
Braves      .478   .525   -.047
Yankees     .551   .599   -.048
Indians     .517   .568   -.051
Pirates     .394   .451   -.057
Nationals   .384   .444   -.060
Reds        .432   .494   -.062
Mariners    .397   .463   -.066
Padres      .412   .481   -.069
Tigers      .477   .562   -.085

The Twins and Blue Jays both exceeded their PECOTA-projected winning percentage by 75 points. One could break the tie by noting that the Jays had a higher HLF and a larger jump in the rankings (17 spots, from 21st to 4th, as compared to 12 spots for the Twins, from 25th to 13th). On the other hand, one can argue that the Twins would have claimed the top spot here had they not lost their one-game playoff to the White Sox; they earned the right to that 163rd game, and shouldn't be penalized for doing so. I'll subscribe to that latter notion, while resisting the temptation to flog the dead horse of both teams' early-season personnel mistakes once again; it will suffice to say that those improvements could have been even bigger.

Elsewhere on the list, note that while PECOTA did see the Rays' improvement coming, it still underestimated the degree. Two reasons for that stand out: first, they improved their Defensive Efficiency by a record 64 points, a margin even higher than the 46-point increase that generated skepticism in this space last spring. Second, their bullpen wasn't just competent, it was dominant, leading the majors in WXRL thanks to the stronger-than-expected efforts of J.P. Howell, Grant Balfour, and Dan Wheeler.

Lost in the hubbub is that the the defending World Champion Red Sox actually exceeded their PECOTA projection by a slightly larger margin than the Rays did, thanks in part to breakout seasons by Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuaka, and better-than-expected showings by J.D. Drew and Manny Ramirez even considering their absences. All of that, plus the late-season addition of Jason Bay, offset the decline of David Ortiz and the struggles of Clay Buchholz. Brian Cashman's battle to put the Yankees back atop the AL East will be a rough one given the youth of the two teams ahead of his.

At the bottom of the list, two bus stops beyond the bad teams who couldn't even meet their grim PECOTA forecasts and the good ones that stumbled towards mediocrity, are the Tigers. Aside from Curtis Granderson, Magglio Ordoņez, and the since-traded Ivan Rodriguez, nobody in the lineup exceeded their projections, but that wasn't even half the problem that the rotation was. Even bringing Armando Galarraga and Zach Miner, two of the three Detroit pitchers who finished with double-digit VORPs, into the equation, the top seven Tiger starters were projected to accumulate 122.9 VORP. They actually finished with 28.4, with Jeremy Bonderman getting hurt, Justin Verlander putting together a 25th-percentile season, and Kenny Rogers, Dontrelle Willis, and Nate Robertson all finishing below replacement level.

What a nightmare. Luckily for the baseball-watching public, those Tigers have been enjoined from playing more baseball this year. Instead, we've got one of history's storybook teams on tap for at least another round, in a matchup that doesn't lack for storylines. Not a bad way to go.

Related Content:  The Who,  Hit List

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