July 6, 2009
Get into the prognostication racket, and with every season comes cause for regret and satisfaction alike. As we move into midseason, a number of teams are doing far better than we initially projected, some are exactly where we'd expect, and a signal few are doing much, much worse. Using the PECOTA-generated numbers behind Jay Jaffe's season-opening edition of the Prospectus Hit List and our pre-season depth charts, we pegged all 30 teams' winning percentage. How do those projections look now?
Third-Order Team PECOTA Actual +/- Win % Yankees .611 .593 -.018 .593 Cubs .586 .506 -.080 .481 Red Sox .586 .605 +.019 .591 Rays .580 .530 -.050 .630 Dodgers .574 .634 +.060 .593 Mets .568 .481 -.087 .516 D'backs .543 .402 -.141 .466 Braves .537 .481 -.087 .501 Phillies .537 .532 -.005 .487 Indians .531 .398 -.133 .475 A's .519 .425 -.094 .445 Brewers .512 .524 +.012 .478 Cardinals .506 .536 +.030 .525 Angels .500 .563 +.063 .528 Tigers .488 .543 +.055 .483 Reds .488 .500 +.012 .456 Mariners .475 .519 +.044 .506 Nationals .475 .304 -.171 .432 Twins .475 .518 +.043 .542 Giants .469 .543 +.074 .478 Blue Jays .469 .506 +.037 .542 White Sox .469 .512 +.043 .513 Royals .463 .432 -.031 .470 Orioles .463 .439 -.024 .443 Padres .438 .432 -.006 .411 Marlins .438 .518 +.080 .477 Rockies .438 .519 +.081 .526 Astros .432 .488 +.056 .430 Rangers .432 .563 +.131 .514 Pirates .395 .451 +.056 .457
The additional feature I've tacked on at the end is each team's Third-Order Winning Percentage from the Adjusted Standings report that BP analyst Clay Davenport generates. It's derived from the components of what teams have done in scoring and preventing runs, adjusted for the strength of their opponents. In short, it tells us something about how much a team is over- or underperforming. Take the Rays, for example-we projected them to win at a .580 clip, they're winning at a .530 clip, but what they're doing should be winning them ballgames at a .630 pace. How's that happen, when that's one of the biggest discrepancies between where they ought to be and where they are? You might think that it's playing in the toughest division in baseball that's a big problem, and the Rays are just 15-13 in divisional play. The bigger surprise is that they're worse against the AL Central and West (16-21 combined). If not for their 13-5 run against interleague opponents, we might be wondering about the wipeout of last year's pennant winners, instead of a team with every chance to win the AL Wild Card.
Let's start off with the ones we've pegged so far. The Phillies and Padres are our closest matches, with the Brewers, Reds, Yankees, and Red Sox the next-closest. That's an interesting group as is-the two timeless titans of the AL East, the defending world champion Phillies, two clubs in the NL Central's annual scrum, and the predictably bad Pads. While the Phillies have been a bit of a disappointment in some circles, and had early-season problems with their rotation while still wondering when the real Jimmy Rollins will show up, they've also gotten the benefit of Raul Ibanez's huge first half, Chase Utley being Chase Utley, and a J.A Happ-reinforced rotation rounding into shape as season's hummed along. We can talk about regression for players like Ibanez, but we can just as easily anticipate Rollins finally getting going. The problem is that their underlying performance as a team isn't really as strong as their record, which means that if they don't see the starting pitching come around and get Rollins back, this might be the year the Phillies get caught from behind instead of the other way around.
Among the massively over-performing teams, nobody's doing better than expected better than the Rangers. The most fundamental basis for this improvement has been the defensive side of the equation, as Texas is allowing a full run less per game than we projected. Credit Nolan Ryan's tough-love program or better conditioning among the pitchers, a significantly improved defense, or some combination of the two, but the big difference-maker has been their move up on that side of the slate. If there's a hidden source of strength, their bullpen isn't getting a ton of credit, but it ranks sixth overall in the majors in Fair Runs Average. Add that to a rotation that ranks 14th overall in Support-Neutral Winning Percentage, and they have the elements to sustain their bid for the AL West.
Beyond the Rangers, several notches below them in terms of overperforming, we have the Rockies, Marlins, Giants, and Angels. A look at their third-order winning percentages suggests that the Giants and Marlins are over their heads and likely to come back closer to where we initially had them pegged, with the Angels also likely to backslide, although in the AL West they're still the favorites now as they were on Opening Day. Among these teams, the surprise with the best shot at sticking seems to be the Rockies, doing so with the benefit of an underrated offense that ranks sixth in the NL in Equivalent Average, and a rotation that's among the five best in baseball. How well the starting pitching can keep it up with a home-heavy second-half schedule figures to determine the outcome of their season.
As for the season's massive disappointments, the Nationals and Diamondbacks are the two teams deepest in the crater, but not too far behind you'll find two of PECOTA's pre-season favorites to win their respective divisions. The collapses of the Nats and the Snakes are for opposite reasons, as Washington's pitching staff imploded from stem to stern, while Arizona's offense went on summer vacation after they lost Conor Jackson early. While both teams ought to be better than they've played according to their third-order performance, they'd still be bad clubs if they played up to that level.
The A's and Indians are worth essays unto themselves, but here again, you'll find the root causes in opposite spots. While their young rotation has fulfilled their half of the proposition that the A's might contend, the A's offense is scoring six-tenths of a run per game less than PECOTA expected, and is the major leagues' worst with a .239 team EqA. The Indians' problems with the bullpen have become a virtual Spanish ulcer, a dilemma that try as they might seems as if it can't be fixed; they're last in the AL in WXRL and 12th in Fair Runs Average. Less expected were the problems they'd have in the rotation beyond Cliff Lee. Here again, while third-order performance suggests these teams should be doing better, they shouldn't be doing so much better that they might make viable that pre-season optimism from PECOTA.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .