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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

34 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Evan
(47)

Jay, is there somewhere on the site where readers can find adjusted standings for previous seasons? I can find them.

Sep 15, 2009 09:46 AM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Alas, they're not up on the site at the moment. I'm going to request that we add them in some place useful.

Sep 15, 2009 15:07 PM
 
sroney

Another thing the Angels bullpen has done at least last year and this, is that they have been very "good" at turning large leads into save situations. Justin Speier's problems last year contributed quite a bit to K-Rod's save totals, routinely turning four-six run leads into three run leads. Some of that has happened this year as well.

Sep 15, 2009 10:26 AM
rating: 0
 
jballen4eva

Jay, do you think there's any significance in the fact that nine of the top twenty-one (and six of the top ten) overachieving teams are from the last decade? And has there been any analysis of underachieving teams? I'm just wondering if something is going on out there in recent years that's flattening the curve a bit.

Sep 15, 2009 11:22 AM
rating: 1
 
R.A.Wagman

If alot of over/under achieving is related to exceptional bullpen performance, the trend to continued specialization in the bullpen may be leading to more teams getting it "more" right - and the reverse may be connected as well.

Sep 15, 2009 11:49 AM
rating: 1
 
Richard Bergstrom

Increased offense in the last decade can also increase the frequency of blowouts, making it appear as if teams are performing worse on the runs allowed side of the ledger.

How well does defense correlate with third order wins and WXRL?

Sep 15, 2009 12:23 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

You may be onto something there. Increasing bullpen usage (fewer IP/GS) and role specialization has WXRL totals on the rise over the past couple of decades - on a per game basis they're 50% higher than they were 25 years ago. That, plus increased scoring levels which thus increase the frequency of blowouts, might be producing an effect that enables these successful teams to milk more wins out of less runs.

Sep 15, 2009 15:29 PM
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Sorry, that was to Wagman's post.

As for the question about defense, last year when I wrote up one of the overachiever/underachiever articles, I think I ran a correlation of DE and/or PADE against D3 and/or WXRL, but I'll be damned if I can find it. Might need to do it again when I get a chance.

Sep 15, 2009 15:35 PM
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Short answer: DE and PADE correlate with various order winning percentages at around .45, but they correlate with third order delta only at about .1.

PADE correlates much better with WXRL than regular DE does, but even that's only about .27.

Sep 15, 2009 16:09 PM
 
Richard Bergstrom

Basically it's an efficiency question.. given these offensive and defensive elements, how well do they convert to actual wins and losses versus the expected result. And what accounts for the variance? Managers? Certain elements worth more in certain circumstances (such as a ninth inning sac bunt instead of a first inning sac bunt) etc.

I also don't like the luck argument... sometimes luck is a factor, but there's a saying I have regarding luck/probability games. Luck is always a factor but good teams/players are better able to capitalize on luck for their favor or for the disadvantage of their opponent.

Sep 15, 2009 16:30 PM
rating: -1
 
One Flap Down

Is there some kind of "diminishing returns" adjustment that can be made to blowouts, given that managers will tend to pull regulars, let field players pitch, leave struggling pitchers in to "take one for the team", and the natural human tendency to let up, especially if one is on the losing end of such a game?

And if by implementing such an adjustment, would it result in actual W-L records correlating more strongly with expected W-L records?

Someone somewhere has to have taken a stab at this.

Sep 15, 2009 13:25 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

There should be some kind of combination that uses Run Expectancy and a WXRL-type stat on the offensive side of the ball, but darned if I know if it exists.

Sep 15, 2009 16:10 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

We have one, actually. It's on display in Chapter 1.2 in Baseball Between the Numbers, in the context of Nate Silver's discusssion of David Ortiz's history as a clutch hitter.

Alas, for reasons unclear, it currently resides in the dusty basement of Baseball Prospectus, right next to the big Xtapolapocetl statue. I'm investigating the possibility of dragging it back upstairs.

Sep 16, 2009 07:36 AM
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Dan Fox also used something similar here. We have the technology, obviously, it's just a matter of making it available to the masses amid our reorganized statistical efforts.

Sep 16, 2009 07:42 AM
 
Richard Bergstrom

Good point, I'd read that chapter (and book) a few times but not recently so I'd forgotten about it.

Sep 16, 2009 08:21 AM
rating: 0
 
sbnirish77
Other readers have rated this comment below the viewing threshold. Click here to view anyway.

"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 ... "

This might be a hallmark article here at BP. I'm just not sure many of your fellow writers are on board.

The main reason to pick the A's for the division this year was the unaviodable regression to the mean by the Angels. Given the Angels ability to repeat their Pythagorean overperformance (and the fact the A's are just terrible)make that prediction look ridiculous.

Most of the sabermetric community have laughed at some of the elements (clutch hitting, importance of closer, small ball, productive outs, managerial input, team chemistry) that have been associated with the Angels teams over the past few years.

The sabermatricians are the ones looking for answers in light of a second year of Pythagorean overperfomance that can't be passsed off as mere randomness.

Kudos to Jay for putting the subject on the table for discussion.

Sep 16, 2009 07:23 AM
rating: -4
 
R.A.Wagman

It may be that the Sabermetric community is still right in regards to the overblown value of the closer - what we may want to focus on in its stead is how we value team bullpen performance (as opposed to individual bullpen pitcher performance).

Sep 16, 2009 09:33 AM
rating: 2
 
Dan W.

I don't think anyone laughs at clutch hitting, just at the notion that it's a repeatable or predictable skill once you decouple it from generally being a good or bad hitter in all situations.

Sep 16, 2009 09:33 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

I appreciate the kind words, but I think you're overstating the case here just a bit. The matter of just why and how the Angels have accomplished what they've accomplished isn't a settled one by any means, and it's not at all clear that smallball or productive outs or team chemistry have anything to do with it. Bullpens certainly do, but it's not like the Angels are the only team who understands that.

Clutch performances exist, and it's certainly not unheard of for individual hitters to string together multiple clutch seasons in a row. But predicting *which* hitters will do so — in other words, identifying it as a persistent skill from year to year — so is another matter entirely. Take these Angels, for example: while they've led the league in hitting with RISP, the correlation between the individual players' OPSes in such situations between this year and last year is just 0.08 (20 PA minimum in both samples) - pretty close to none. Up that to 50 PA and it's actually strongly negative (-0.74). In other words, identifying which Angels own some persistent clutch skill with RISP is pretty much impossible given that dearth of information. Now, there's certainly more to clutch performance than just that one split, but it's just an example. The scope of team-level clutch hitting performance is one that, to my knowledge at least, has yet to be investigated in depth.

The take-home lesson about the Angels in the grand scheme of things is that they've had a tremendous amount of success over the years with an organizational philosophy that places a greater emphasis on things like team speed, baserunning, and contact skills — areas often undervalued in the stathead realm, and less easily quantified than the more basic building blocks of offense — than most teams. If one understands that the true meaning of Moneyball isn't "OBP Uber Alles and Death to Scouting" but that a team should attempt to exploit the inefficiencies in the marketplace, then the Angels are a model team in that respect, and they certainly deserve to be hailed as such.

Sep 16, 2009 09:35 AM
 
Dr. Dave

Jay, this is an important point regarding who is doing better with RISP, and how it changes from year to year. It's not that individual Angels are (predictably) clutch hitters; it's that the guy who is at the plate in clutch situations is doing better than average, on average.

We've known since the peak years of Darryl Strawberry that an unusual mix of situational matchups can look like clutch (or choke) behavior. Is it possible that Mike Scioscia's great anti-sabermetric skill is really the most sabermetric skill of all: Strat-o-matic matchup management? Statheads have been saying since the days of Earl Weaver and Sparky Anderson that good managers put players in situations where they are more likely to succeed, and keep them out of the ones where they are more likely to fail.

I'd be curious to see whether (say) the Angels have faced same-handed pitching (or hitting) less often as a team, over the past few years, than have other teams. Or whether they have smaller platoon splits on average. Etc.

Sep 16, 2009 09:55 AM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

Since manager stats are now being kept by BP, such as pitching changes, blown quality starts, etc... might be interesting to see which of those correlate to actual win-loss record and also to pythagorean record, third order wins, etc.

Sep 16, 2009 10:08 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Good points by both of you. Our managerial stats aren't in a state that allows a lazy bastard like me the luxury of a casual research effort, but to the extent that I can answer any questions using combined 2005-2008 data:

1. There's a negative correlation between relievers used and actual winning percentage (-.39) and a similar one for Pythag (-.36)

2. There's a negative correlation between positional sac hits (-.15) and winning pct or Pythag.

3. There's virtually no correlation between blown quality starts and actual or projected record (.05)

4. There's a surprisingly solid correlation (0.5) between runners moving with the pitch and actual winning percentage. It's slightly less (.43) with projected winning percentage, and at least somewhat visible (.20) between runners moving and pythagorean differential, though the latter nearly disappears if you remove the Angels from the set.

Turning to the 2009 Bill James Handbook, which I have within easy reach, and looking over Scioscia's record, he's never lead the league in lineup platoon advantage, but his teams have tended to be above average in that regard, with 63% having the advantage at the start of the game over the course of his career. His teams have never led the league in sac hits or reliever usage, either.

Where he's consistently led his peers is in two categories that mesh with what I was discussing above: stolen base attempts and runners moving with the pitch. Given that and #4 above, I'd say it's worth earmarking the topic of baserunning success and its link with overperformance for further study.

Sep 16, 2009 11:42 AM
 
Richard Bergstrom

Runners moving with the pitch also dovetails nicely with a contact-oriented team like the Angels. I look forward to seeing more on this.

Sep 16, 2009 12:17 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

How about team EQBRR and actual/pythag/third order?

Sep 16, 2009 13:40 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Definitely something to look into, but worth noting that the 2009 Angels are actually below average in EqBRR. They've been especially strong in the subcategory of Equivalent Hit Advancement Runs this year and over the three-year timespan, however. Which may or may not be something.

Sep 16, 2009 16:27 PM
 
Richard Bergstrom

Hadn't heard of that one...

But it does make sense that in close games, runners are moving more often than in a blowout, for example... and teams that are successful at moving runners over repeatdly, without giving up outs (via a hit), would win more games than expected.

Sep 16, 2009 16:41 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

What I think it might be - and here I'm just spitballing based upon a limited look at the data - is that rather than the so-called "productive outs" (whose data, theoretically, should be captured in Equivalent Ground Advancement Runs, a category in which the Angels are fairly middling), there's a greater impact to be had by getting the runner moving so as to stay out of the double play and to increase the number of first-to-third and second-to-home successes. Which might carry a cost in the stolen bases department when the batter swings and misses on a busted hit and run; the Angels haven't fared terribly well in EqSBR of late.

Sep 16, 2009 21:28 PM
 
Richard Bergstrom

Out of curiosity, how do the Angels compare to other teams with batting average (or OBP) with two outs and runners on?

I realize this has rambled around a bit. Do you think you will end up doing an article that revisits and reorganizes all this, particularly diving more into the "runners moving" angle?

Sep 17, 2009 07:20 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

I don't have 2 out, men on handy but Angels are #1 with two outs and RISP: .294.392/.491, four point OPS lead over Bosox.

I'll almost certainly revisit this at some point in the future. Perhaps not until I've done the 2009 underachievers column but this is clearly an area fertile for further research.

Sep 17, 2009 09:04 AM
 
ScottyB

Thank you. Error variance does NOT mean luck. It just means that there is variance that is unaccounted for by the independent variables in your model. This could be that a few slight and inconsistent effects (like intangibles, clutch, etc.) aren't big enough to be significant in the overall analysis, but can pop up and have effects on some of your cases.

Sep 16, 2009 20:36 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

Error variance may not encompass luck, but luck can still be a component of error variance.

Sep 16, 2009 20:48 PM
rating: 0
 
baserip4

Given the standard deviation of performance around expected winning percentages, is what the Angels are doing something we should expect some team to do about as often as we have seen, or is this type of event happening more frequently than a normal distribution would lead us to believe?

Sep 18, 2009 12:23 PM
rating: 0
 
ScottyB

Yes, but my poiunt is, stats people sometimes dismiss error variance as simply "luck", when, in actuality, a lot more goes into it.

Sep 25, 2009 22:58 PM
rating: 0
 
OnTilt

Has anyone ever studied the correlation in third-order overperformance by the same team in consecutive years? How about first half/second half splits or something similar? Obviously this isn't perfect since player personnel will change, but the coaching staff and most of the roster should stay consistent.

Sep 19, 2009 17:36 PM
rating: 0
 
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