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November 7, 2008

Prospectus Hit and Run

Divisionology

by Jay Jaffe

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The World Series is over, and the Rays lost, but from an analytical standpoint, they're a gift that keeps on giving. One much-discussed topic during their post-season run was the strength of the American League East, particularly during the AL Championship Series, where the Rays met and defeated their division foes, the Red Sox. It's no secret that this year's AL East was a particularly deep division in today's smaller-division setup, as its top four teams-the Rays, Red Sox, Yankees, and Blue Jays-finished above .500 and ranked among the top six teams on the year-end Hit List. The question is: Where does this division fit in historically?

It's among the top divisions in history, as it turns out. Confining the field to the Wild Card Era (I may address the two-division era in a future article):


Year   Division    W-L     WPCT
2002   AL West   367-281   .566
2001   AL West   366-282   .565
1998   AL East   436-374   .538
2008   AL East   435-374   .538
2003   NL East   427-382   .528
1997   AL East   427-383   .527
1997   NL East   427-383   .527
2000   NL West   426-384   .526
2006   AL West   340-308   .525
2005   NL East   425-385   .525

In terms of actual winning percentage, the 2008 AL East is a bare half-game out of a tie for third place in the Wild Card Era. There are in fact three similarly tight clusters among this top 10, with the first- and second-ranked AL West divisions separated by one game and five of the other six teams separated by two and a half games; the 2006 AL West, with just four teams, obviously played far fewer games.

We get a bit more separation, but similar conclusions, using each division's Hit List Factor-the average of the actual, first-, second-, and third-order winning percentages from our Adjusted Standings page-instead of its raw won-loss record:


Year   Division    HLF
2002   AL West    .569
2001   AL West    .567
2008   AL East    .549
1998   AL East    .543
2000   NL West    .532
1997   AL East    .532
2003   NL East    .526
2001   NL West    .526
2007   AL East    .525
2003   AL West    .525

This time around the 2008 AL East ranks third, though still well behind the 2001 and 2002 AL Wests. The 2001 AL West was won by the Mariners team which set a modern record by winning 116 games and put up a .687 HLF, the best mark post-World War II. It also featured an A's team that won 102 games while putting up a .642 HLF, the best of any second-place team in the Wild Card Era. The Angels and Rangers were no great shakes that year, winning 75 and 73 games, respectively, and finishing 41 and 43 games out of first, but they fell far short of the 100-loss milestones you might expect given their division-mates' success. The 2002 AL West, which takes home the prize, was more balanced, featuring three teams with at least 90 wins. The A's won 103 games, a 99-win Angels team had the higher HLF (.628 to .604) and won and not only the Wild Card but also the World Championship, and the Mariners "slumped" to just 93 wins and a .574 HLF. In another extremely tough AL West the following year, the 10th-best division of the era, Seattle's hard luck continued. They won 93 games and finished with a .592 HLF, best in the division and third in the majors, but trailed the 96-win A's (.584 HLF) in the West and the 95-win Red Sox in the wild-card race.

As for this year's AL East, it edges out the 1998 model, which was led by the 114-win Yankees (.682 HLF); the 92-win Red Sox (.581 HLF) took the wild card, though they finished 22 games out of first place. The 88-win Blue Jays were the division's only other team with a raw won-loss record above .500, though the Orioles finished with a .511 Hit List Factor, having gone 79-83 despite outscoring their opponents by 32 runs. The 1997 and 2007 AL Easts make the list as well, and in fact nine out of the 10 divisions listed above are part of multi-year strings of division dominance. The 1997 AL East featured just two teams with HLFs above .500, the 98-win Orioles (their last winning season to date) and the 96-win Yankees, but they were the third- and second-ranked teams on that year's (retroactively compiled) Hit List, with HLFs of .587 and .617, respectively. The 2007 division saw the Red Sox end the Yankees' run of eight straight division titles while winning 99 games and topping the year-end Hit List with a .624 HLF. The Yanks won 94 games and finished second on the Hit List with a .591 HLF, the Blue Jays won 83 games and posted a .528 HLF, and both the Orioles and Devil Rays, despite losing 93 and 96 games, respectively, finished with HLFs about 30 points higher than their actual winning percentages.

Evidence for the NL's relative inferiority during this era-more on that topic in a moment-comes via the presence of just three divisions here. The 2000 NL West featured four teams with winning records, topped by the Giants, who won 97 games via a .601 HLF. The Dodgers, Diamondbacks, and Rockies were all quite respectable, though none were powerhouses, tallying between 82 and 86 wins with HLFs between .530 and .540. Powerhouses were even less evident the following year in a tighter division race. The eventual World Champion Diamondbacks took the flag with 92 wins and a .584 HLF, the Giants finished second with 90 wins and a .540 HLF, the Dodgers won 86 games with a .517 HLF, and the Padres and Rockies both finished with HLFs of at least .492.

The only division among these historically strong ones which wasn't part of a multi-year string is the 2003 NL East, which featured four teams with at least 83 wins and HLFs above .500. The Braves took the division with 101 wins and finished with the majors' top HLF at .603. The Marlins finished second with 91 wins, but the 86-win Phillies had the higher HLF, .553 to .545, and the since-relocated Expos came in fourth with 83 wins and a .504 HLF.

Speaking of NL Easts, dropping off the top ten list in the transition from actual winning percentage to HLF is the 2005 NL East, which holds the distinction of being the tightest top-to-bottom race in the history of the Wild Card era. Just nine games separated the first-place Braves (90 wins, .544 HLF) from the last-place Nationals (81 wins, .474 HLF) in the former's final division win of their (strike-excepted) streak of 14 straight NL East titles and the latter's first year in Washington, DC. The 88-win Phillies, who finished second, actually had the division's strongest HLF at .552. The Marlins and Mets tied for third with 83 wins, though the latter had a considerable edge in HLF, .539 to .501.

Before skipping to the flip side of this list, there's one more 2008 AL East note that's worthy of mention. In this year's final edition of Hit List, I called the Blue Jays "perhaps the strongest fourth-place team of the Wild Card Era," a comment that both Joe Sheehan and Steven Goldman later addressed. As Joe noted in his chat, the "perhaps" is unnecessary, and indeed the data bears this out:


Year  Pl   Team         W-L     HLF
2008   4   Blue Jays   86-76   .556
2005   4   Mets        83-79   .539
2000   4   Rockies     82-80   .530
2006   4   Indians     78-84   .530
2008   4   Cardinals   86-76   .530
2007   4   Dodgers     82-80   .522
1998   4   Orioles     79-83   .511
1999   4   Orioles     78-84   .510
2005   4   Cubs        79-83   .510
2003   4   Expos       83-79   .504

Those 10 teams represent the only ones out of 84 fourth-place teams in the Wild Card Era to finish with HLFs of .500 or above, and just six of them actually managed at least 81 wins. This year's Blue Jays and Cardinals tied for the most wins of any fourth-place team, but the blue birdies have the clear edge over the red birdies once the adjustments for run elements, park factors, and strength of opposition are included. Representatives of the aforementioned 2003 NL East, 2000 NL West, and 1998 AL East strongholds crack the list, and it's worth noting that the 2006 Indians and 2005 Mets hail from the divisions that ranked 11th and 12th in HLF at .523 and .522.

Now for the B-side, the weakest divisions of the Wild Card Era:


Year   Division     HLF
2005   NL West     .443
2002   AL Central  .446
1998   AL Central  .456
2003   AL Central  .457
1999   AL Central  .460
2006   NL Central  .464
2007   NL Central  .469
1997   AL Central  .471
2001   AL East     .472
2002   NL Central  .473
2008   NL West     .474
2008   AL West     .475

Talk about a Central tendency! The two leagues' middle divisions account for the bulk of this list, with the AL Central making five appearances in the seven-year span from 1997 through 2003, and the NL making three appearances, including consecutive down years in 2006 and 2007. The 2005 NL West takes home the booby prize; that year saw the Padres claim the division title with just 82 wins and a .483 HLF, the lowest of any first-place team of the era (the 2006 Cardinals, at .497, were the next lowest). The other four teams in the division finished with 77 or fewer wins, and all five teams finished under .500 in Hit List Factor. Their only real challenge in being a divisional Vortex of Suck comes from the 2002 AL Central. That year, the 94-win Twins outdistanced the 81-win White Sox by 13 games, but the gap in HLF was just 21 points, .541 to .520; the Twins outdid their third-order record by 11.7 wins, a total that ties for the eighth-best all-time mark, while the White Sox underachieved by 1.9 games. The division is the only one of the era to feature two 100-loss teams, the 62-100 Royals (.401 HLF) and the 55-106 Tigers (.326 HLF).

The Tigers would be even worse the following year (43-119, .292 HLF), helping the AL Central to another not-so-impressive placement, but we'll cut short this excavation through the trash bin to note that the reason I expanded this list to 12 was to include two entries from this year, both leagues' West divisions. The 100-win Angels, of course, set a record by outdoing their third-order projection by 16 wins, but their .549 HLF is 19 points lower than any other 100-win club in history (the 2004 Yankees were the next-lowest) and was good for just eighth on the final Hit List. No other team in the division finished with a winning record or an HLF above .481. As for the NL West, the Dodgers finished with just 84 wins but a .541 HLF that was closer to their "Los Angeles" counterparts than to the 82-win, .515-HLF Diamondbacks, and the division's other three teams finished with 74 or fewer wins.

Completing the picture of how the 2008 season shook down in terms of overall division strength:


Year   Division       W-L     WPCT    HLF
2008   AL East      435-374   .538   .549
2008   AL Central   407-405   .501   .505
2008   NL Central   500-470   .515   .498
2008   NL East      396-412   .490   .495
2008   AL West      315-332   .487   .475
2008   NL West      375-435   .463   .474

For some context, here's the previous year:


Year   Division       W-L     WPCT    HLF
2007   AL East      408-402   .504   .525
2007   NL West      422-390   .520   .516
2007   NL East      405-405   .500   .504
2007   AL West      333-315   .514   .502
2007   AL Central   404-406   .499   .490
2007   NL Central   459-513   .472   .469

With the two lists adjacent to each other we can see that while the AL East claimed the top spot in both years, the rest of the slate pretty much did a headstand. The NL Central, last year's doormat, was the biggest gainer via 29 points of HLF, though it still wound up below .500. The NL West fell particularly hard, shedding 42 points of HLF, while the AL West lost 27 points.

Finally, we close with a snapshot of the balance of power between the two leagues according to HLF:


Year  AL HLF  NL HLF   Diff
2008   .512    .490    .022
2007   .506    .495    .012
2006   .513    .488    .025
2005   .509    .492    .017
2004   .501    .499    .002
2003   .498    .502   -.004
2002   .501    .499    .002
2001   .501    .499    .001
2000   .503    .497    .005
1999   .493    .506   -.013
1998   .500    .500    .000
1997   .498    .502   -.004

The Diff column is the HLF difference between the two leagues, expressed as the advantage held by the AL. Note that the two leagues' annual HLFs aren't necessarily complementary due to the differing league sizes, and that we can only take this list as far back as 1997, the dawn of interleague play (all leagues before that center at .500 as far as HLF is concerned). For the fifth year in a row and eighth out of the last nine, the AL holds up as the stronger league, and the gap between the two is just a few points off its historical high, set in 2006. This year's AL went 149-103 in interleague play, five wins shy of the AL's record-setting 2006 advantage (154-98), but tops in terms of run differential with a 235-run advantage to the 2006 slate's 221.

This is no fleeting thing, either; over the last four years, the AL has averaged a .510 HLF to the NL's .491, with a 36-win and 202-run advantage in interleague play. The NL may be host to this year's World Champion Phillies and four of the last eight World Series winners, but the balance of power clearly remains in the Junior Circuit's favor.

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

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