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September 15, 2009

Prospectus Hit and Run

Overachieving Yet Again

by Jay Jaffe

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In a September that appears slated for a dearth of late-season drama, the American League West contains not only the last vestige of a real post-season race-the only one where the underdog has even a 10 percent shot according to our Playoff Odds-but also a bit of potential history, at least from a sabermetric standpoint. Once again, it's the Angels, those anti-sabermetric darlings, making that history.

According to our Adjusted Standings page, through Sunday the Angels were 11.5 games above their third-order Pythagenpat projection, a fancy way of saying that they've won over 11 games more than the combination of events on the field-their hits, walks, total bases, stolen bases, and outs of all kinds, as well as those of their opponents, all adjusted for park, league, quality of competition and temperature of porridge-would suggest. That's by far the top mark in the majors this year, and while it's not enough to break the single-season record of 16.0, set by last year's Anaheim team, it does crack the all-time top 10, and place them in select company:


Rank Year Team         W-L    Pct    R     RA  AEQR  AEQRA   D3
 1   2008 Angels     100-62  .617   765   697   754   725   16.0
 2   2004 Yankees    101-61  .623   897   808   911   831   12.7
 3   1970 Reds       102-60  .630   775   681   757   676   12.6
 4   2007 D'backs     90-72  .556   712   732   708   739   12.2
 5t  1954 Dodgers     92-62  .597   778   740   782   749   12.1
 5t  2005 White Sox   99-63  .611   741   645   740   684   12.1
 7   1905 Tigers      79-74  .516   512   604   524   601   11.9
 8t  1924 Dodgers     92-62  .597   717   679   717   684   11.7
 8t  2002 Twins       94-67  .584   768   712   759   741   11.7
10   2009 Angels      86-56  .606   786   679   777   739   11.5
11   1954 Indians    111-43  .721   746   504   717   511   11.4
12t  1907 Cubs       108-44  .711   574   390   552   394   11.2
12t  1961 Reds        93-61  .604   710   653   705   658   11.2
14t  1972 Mets        83-73  .532   528   578   533   583   11.0
14t  1931 A's        107-45  .704   858   626   841   639   11.0
16   1984 Mets        90-72  .556   652   676   657   671   10.7
17t  1977 Orioles     97-64  .602   719   653   719   662   10.2
17t  2008 Astros      86-75  .534   712   743   683   727   10.2
17t  2006 A's         93-69  .574   771   727   791   772   10.2
17t  1936 Cardinals   87-67  .565   795   794   808   809   10.2
21t  2007 Mariners    88-74  .543   794   813   792   824   10.0
21t  1997 Giants      90-72  .556   784   793   780   789   10.0

Projected across a 162-game schedule, the Angels' current performance is the equivalent of outdoing their third-order projection by 13.1 games, which would rank second on this list. However, it's a misnomer to say they're actually "on pace" for such a finish, since teams that are outperforming their Pythagorean records by wide margins in either direction tend to regress to the mean. Case in point, they lost on Monday night to reduce their D3 (the difference between their third-order wins and actual wins) to 10.9.

Still, making the list is remarkable enough; from among a field of over 2,200 team-seasons dating back to 1901, just one percent of them have turned in a season at least 10 wins above expectation. What's even more remarkable is that this marks the second year in a row that the Angels have exceeded expectations by at least 10 games, and the third year in a row they've done so by at least eight games, both of which are firsts. Only five teams have even managed the latter feat in back-to-back years:


Year  Team        W-L    Pct    R     RA  AEQR  AEQRA    D3
1908  Pirates    98-56  .636   585   468   583   483    8.5
1909  Pirates   111-42  .725   701   448   695   468    8.7
1930  A's       102-52  .662   951   751   947   772    9.3
1931  A's       107-45  .704   858   626   841   639   11.0
1960  Yankees    97-57  .630   746   627   741   641    9.6
1961  Yankees   109-53  .673   827   612   816   623    8.2
2002  Twins      94-67  .584   768   712   759   741   11.7
2003  Twins      90-72  .556   801   758   783   777    8.5
2007  Angels     94-68  .580   822   731   799   751    8.1
2008  Angels    100-62  .617   765   697   754   725   16.0

And to get ahead of ourselves a year, only two other teams have been as many as six games above projection for three years in a row:


Year  Team        W-L    Pct    R     RA  AEQR  AEQRA    D3
1961  Dodgers    89-65  .578   735   697   737   707    9.0
1962  Dodgers   102-63  .618   842   697   848   715    6.3
1963  Dodgers    99-63  .611   640   550   633   554    8.5
2002  Twins      94-67  .584   768   712   759   741   11.7
2003  Twins      90-72  .556   801   758   783   777    8.5
2004  Twins      92-70  .568   780   715   761   724    7.2

Quite simply, we're in Almost Neverland.

We often talk of teams that over- or underperform their projected records as "lucky" or "unlucky," but it's a misnomer to chalk up the entirety of such discrepancies to luck. They generally stem from an irregular distribution of runs, so "randomness" may be a better term. Overachieving teams tend to win most of the close games but get blown out a few times. The 16 teams who exceeded their third-order projections by 10 wins or more while playing in the Retrosheet era (1954 onward)-call them the "Plus Tens"-went a combined 469-281 (.625) in one-run games and 324-170 (.656) in two-run games, but in games decided by six or more runs, they were just 223-259 (.462), a mark that includes the 1954 Indians' 20-5 record in such blowouts. All told, those teams went 1016-710 (.586), right in line with their overall .589 winning percentage, while outscoring their opponents by 125 runs in such extreme games. That's the equivalent of a 95-67 team outscoring their opponents by just 11 runs over the course of a season, about nine percent of the run differential such teams have historically posted.

These Angels are fairly typical of the trend, as they're a big-league best 26-14 in one-run games, but just 1-5 in games decided by at least 10 runs. Their run differential in those one-run games is +12, while in the blowouts, it's -46. At the two extremes, that flattens to a 27-19 record for a team that's nevertheless been outscored by 34 runs, the kind of thing which can really distort a team's projected record. Similarly, last year's Angels were 31-21 in one-run games and an even more astounding 30-7 in two-run games (whereas this year's Halos are just 6-17 after Monday night's loss to the Yankees); they were also 1-5 in games decided by more than eight runs.

A major factor in outperforming one's projected record is having relatively more success in higher-leverage situations, such as hitting well with runners in scoring position, or being especially stingy in late-game relief. As I noted last year, a strong bullpen is a consistent means of such overachievement; the correlation between a team's cumulative WXRL and its D3 is .42, whereas it's just .20 for SNLVAR. Of the 16 Retrosheet-era teams above, the 1977 Orioles were the only ones who failed to finish in their league's top three in WXRL.

Which brings us to another mark of distinction for the 2009 Angels, as they rank just sixth in the league in WXRL, some 2.3 wins out of the top three. Strong bullpens have been the hallmark of the Halos under Mike Scioscia; they've never finished in the bottom half of the league on his watch, thanks in large part to stalwarts like Francisco Rodriguez and Scot Shields, who were key components of the team's relief corps from 2002 through 2008:


Year   WXRL  AL Rank
2000    9.9    5
2001    7.2    7
2002   12.6    2
2003   10.7    3
2004   13.0    4
2005   13.4    1
2006   14.2    2
2007   10.5    6
2008   13.3    3
2009    8.0    6

This year's bullpen, of course, lacks K-Rod, who departed for the Mets via free agency after breaking the single-season saves record last year. It didn't get much help from Shields (6.62 ERA, -0.6 WXRL) before he underwent season-ending knee surgery in mid-June, nor has it gotten much from Jose Arredondo (5.98 ERA, 0.3 WXRL), who joined Rodriguez and Shields among the league's top 20 in WXRL last year as a rookie. Still, the pen has overcome a gruesome first month to reach the middle of the pack. Since I first peeked into their house of horrors back in May, they've actually put up the league's second-best WXRL (6.6, behind only Cleveland's 7.0) and Reliever Fair Run Average (4.17, trailing only Texas' 4.13).

Which isn't to say it's been all roses. Replacement closer Brian Fuentes actually leads the league in saves with 41, but that ranking belies his 4.10 ERA and his 2.4 WXRL, which ranks only 19th in the league, 10th among the 15 pitchers with at least 10 saves, and second on the staff behind Darren Oliver's 2.6. Fuentes' mediocre performance has even created some controversy in the Happiest Place on Earth lately. On Sunday, Scioscia began a ninth-inning save situation with righty Kevin Jepsen on the mound, playing matchups to account for the fact that his lefty closer has had a difficult time getting righty hitters out now that he's in the AL instead of mile-high in the senior circuit; they're batting .269/.364/.462 against him this year, compared to .212/.300/.335 from 2006-2008.

So no, these aren't the Angels of old, as evidenced by the fact that their 4.57 ERA not only ranks an unappealing 10th in the league, which is the team's highest mark since 2000, and by more than a quarter of a run to boot. The offense has made up for it by scoring 5.5 runs per game, second in the league and a dead heat for the franchise record, while providing a fair bit of clutch hitting. Their .299/.377/.465 performance with runners in scoring position is the league's best by about 25 points of OPS, and they've also got the top marks with men on base, with men on third and two outs, and so on.

So, clutch pitching and clutch hitting have both turned up again for the Angels, and while it hasn't been in their usual proportions, it's still been enough to push them past the Rangers, who actually lead them in the third-order standings by 2.3 games. Barring a late collapse, it will be pushing the Halos into the history books as well.

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:  Blowouts,  10-year Projections,  The Who,  Halos

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