We’re a few days shy of the 162-game season’s true midpoint and about ten days away from the All-Star break. But given that I’ll be traveling much of the time between now and the Taco Bell Midsummer Poxcam Classic, this seems like an appropriate time to break from the regular Hit List format to discuss some of this season’s underlying trends.

I know you’re itching for me to berate the Astros for playing Craig Biggio, laud the Dodgers‘ playing of James Loney, celebrate the marches of Ken Griffey Jr. and Frank Thomas up the all-time home run list, shovel more dirt on Miguel Tejada, bemoan Joe Torre‘s bullpen usage, and scramble desperately in search of something interesting to say about the Pirates without invoking tired old Captain McAllister once again. Yeeearrrrrgh, I never have anything inspiring to say about the Pirates, do I?

All that will have to wait. Instead, let’s twist again, just like we did last summer, and look at the Hit List rankings from several different vantage points. For you completists, we’ll start with an unannotated set of this week’s rankings through play on Wednesday:

                 Overall  Week
Rk  Team           W-L    W-L   trend  HLF
1   Red Sox       48-29   2-4    -1   .622
2   Angels        49-30   3-3     0   .589
3   Tigers        45-31   3-2     0   .587
4   Padres        44-33   3-3    -1   .582
5   Mets          43-33   5-1     1   .570
6   Brewers       46-32   5-1     1   .566
7   Dodgers       44-34   3-3     1   .560
8   Indians       45-32   3-3    -1   .557
9   Athletics     40-37   1-5    -1   .553
10  Yankees       36-39   1-4    -1   .544
11  Cubs          38-39   6-0     1   .543
12  Blue Jays     39-38   5-1     1   .526
13  Mariners      42-33   5-1     1   .511
14  Twins         39-37   3-3     1   .507
15  Braves        41-38   3-3     1   .506
16  Phillies      40-37   3-2     1   .502
17  Diamondbacks  45-34   3-3    -1   .502
18  Orioles       34-43   3-2     1   .497
19  Rockies       38-40   0-6    -1   .481
20  Giants        33-44   3-3     0   .477
21  Marlins       36-42   1-4    -1   .460
22  Reds          30-48   2-3     0   .442
23  Rangers       32-45   4-1     1   .442
24  Cardinals     34-41   2-4     0   .430
25  Astros        32-46   1-5    -1   .422
26  Devil Rays    33-43   2-4    -1   .420
27  White Sox     32-42   3-3     1   .413
28  Royals        33-46   4-2     1   .406
29  Pirates       33-44   2-3    -1   .398
30  Nationals     32-46   2-4    -1   .386

The first thing to note is that the top of this year’s rankings aren’t nearly so AL-centric as last year’s. At midsummer, the Junior Circuit had seven of the Hit List’s top eight teams, and nine of its top 11. Even at year’s end, the story was more or less the same: six of the top seven and nine of the top 12. This year, while the AL has the top three teams, it has only six of the top 11, a much less definitive showing.

Furthermore, the average ranking of AL clubs has dropped more than one whole notch since the end of last year, from 12.6 to 13.9. There actually isn’t as much to this as first appears; the two leagues’ composite Hit List Factors (the averages of the actual, first-, second- and third-order winning percentages) are virtually unchanged from the end of last year and have actually been very stable over the life of the Hit List:

AL     Avg RK   HLF

2007    13.9   .513
2006    12.6   .513
2005    13.4   .509

NL     Avg RK   HLF
2007    16.9   .489
2006    18.1   .488
2005    17.3   .492

The main reason for the AL’s decline in average ranking from last year is a more balanced split in interleague play. Last summer, the AL murderized the NL to the tune of 154-98 (.611), as five AL teams went 14-4 or better against NL competition. This year, the AL enjoyed a much slimmer advantage, just 137-115 (.544), with the #2 Angels and #3 Tigers the only teams to win more than 12 games in interleague; both went 14-4.

At the same time, the difference between the two seasons’ interleague results is overstated by simple won-loss record. Turning to their first-order Pythagorean projections, last year the AL outscored the NL by a combined margin of 1,336-1,115 in interleague play, which projects to a .586 winning percentage. This year, the margin was 1,352-1,172, which projects to a .568 winning percentage. So from a 67-point falloff in actual winning percentage, we find just an underlying 18-point drop in first-order projections. By this reckoning, the two leagues are closer in quality than they’re otherwise perceived.

Turning to the division-by-division breakdowns, it’s a very close race for the top of the heap as far as the composite HLF is concerned:

            --------2007-------    --------2006-------    HLF
Division    Avg RK  WPct    HLF    Avg RK  WPct    HLF    +/-
AL West      11.8   .529   .524     12.8   .525   .519   .005
AL East      16.8   .508   .522     14.8   .495   .498   .024
NL West      13.4   .524   .520     15.4   .499   .506   .014
AL Central   16.0   .508   .494     10.2   .520   .523  -.029
NL East      17.4   .495   .485     15.6   .506   .501  -.016
NL Central   19.5   .460   .467     22.3   .459   .462  -.005

By and large, the power now rests in the two West divisions. Helped by the Rockies’ six-game losing streak, the AL West has emerged from a virtual dead heat over the past several days as I’ve been preparing this piece. The success of the Angels is accompanied by surprisingly strong results for the Mariners (who are considerably outstripping their Pythagorean projections) and the strong projections for the A’s (who are considerably lagging behind in actual results). As bad as the Rangers are, they’re the only team in the division ranked below #13.

The AL East remains among the leaders, but much of that is based on the various adjustments along the way from actual winning percentage to third-order winning percentage. This year’s Yankees are on trend with their division in that their .480 winning percentage belies a much better HLF (.544). They’ve got a +57 run differential, so one might reasonably expect their record to improve. Then again, one might reasonably expect Joe Torre to manage his bullpen responsibly enough to tab a rested Mariano Rivera in the bottom of the ninth in a tie road game when said closer has thrown only 1 2/3 innings over the previous nine days. If you need an explanation as to why the Yanks are 4-13 in one-run games, look no further than the trunk of Torre’s car, where you’ll find Pythagoras bound and gagged.

Surprisingly, the AL East is the most improved division since the end of last year from a Hit List Factor standpoint, rising 24 points. The flip side of that coin is that the division as a whole ranks as the biggest underperformer, falling a cumulative 16.5 wins short of their third-order projections because the Orioles (-7.1 wins) are in a class with the Yankees (-6.5). In other words, they should be winning, but they ain’t.

The lowly NL Central remains at the bottom of the pile. In fact, they’re actually worse than last year according to HLF, and they’ve now got four of the bottom nine teams in the rankings. Meanwhile, the AL Central has fallen on hard times after being the majors’ strongest division last year, experiencing the most precipitous drop in HLF of any division. Much of that has to do with the collapse of the White Sox, but the Twins are to blame as well. We’ll return to those two shortly.

Turning to the question of which teams have shown the biggest improvements and declines since the end of last year:

              2007   2006    +/-

Cubs          .543   .429   .114
Red_Sox       .622   .509   .113
Brewers       .566   .454   .112
Orioles       .497   .438   .059
Padres        .582   .539   .043
Angels        .589   .547   .042
Mariners      .511   .482   .029
Indians       .557   .530   .027
Athletics     .553   .527   .026
Devil_Rays    .420   .395   .025
Dodgers       .560   .542   .018
Diamondbacks  .502   .484   .018
Royals        .406   .389   .017
Tigers        .587   .577   .010
Braves        .506   .499   .007
Mets          .570   .567   .003
Giants        .477   .477   .000
Rockies       .481   .487  -.006
Phillies      .502   .514  -.012
Pirates       .398   .419  -.021
Blue Jays     .526   .548  -.022
Marlins       .460   .485  -.025
Reds          .442   .477  -.035
Nationals     .386   .438  -.052
Yankees       .544   .600  -.056
Twins         .507   .573  -.066
Cardinals     .430   .497  -.067
Rangers       .442   .520  -.078
Astros        .422   .507  -.085
White Sox     .413   .548  -.135

Of the three teams atop this list, two of them make quick, intuitive sense. The Red Sox’s improvement isn’t all that surprising when one recalls their dismal decline over the final two months of 2006, and the Brewers’ improvement makes sense in light of their youngsters’ better health and performance. But tell any Cubs fan that their team is one of the game’s most improved and you’re liable to get a Piniellaesque earful. As I keep noting in the Hit List, the Cubs’ run differential is among the game’s best (currently ninth), and while they’re lagging behind their projected record because of the dreaded One-Run Disease (they’re 9-15 in those games), that six-game winning streak looks more like a correction than it does the magical result of shedding Michael Barrett. The Orioles’ improvement over last year, like that of the Cubs, is somewhat disguised by a poor bullpen and correspondingly dismal showing in one-run games (7-15).

Near the middle of the pack, there are a few results that stand out. The Devil Rays and Royals are both showing that they’re headed in the right direction. The Mets, June swoon and all, are right at the level they finished last year, while the Braves have shown a hair more improvement. The AL champion Tigers have actually improved over last year. Scoring seven runs a game for an entire month, as Detroit has done this June, will do that, but let’s not forget that the Tigers’ final numbers for last year incorporate the late-season fade that knocked them down to wild-card winners.

At the other end of the scale, the White Sox have shown a decline that’s head and shoulders above–or perhaps ankles and toes below–the rest of the majors. A bullpen full of arsonists and and an offense that’s as hell-and-gone from the rest of the pack as the Sox are on the list above will do that. Meanwhile, their division-mates the Twins have tumbled nearly as far down the well thanks to a spate of injuries and some poor planning in rotation construction.

The same thing could be said for the defending World Champion Cardinals, and let’s not forget they were actually sub-.500 from the Hit List point of view last year. The state of Texas has fallen on particularly hard times, with teams more notable for the milestone chases they’ve enabled than than for their ability to contend.

Finally, we turn to a comparison between year-to-date results and the PECOTA-derived preseason Hit List:

               HLF  PECOTA  +/-

Dodgers       .560   .494   .066
Tigers        .587   .523   .064
Angels        .589   .529   .060
Athletics     .553   .494   .059
Red Sox       .622   .564   .058
Mariners      .511   .453   .058
Padres        .582   .529   .053
Brewers       .566   .523   .043
Mets          .570   .529   .041
Blue Jays     .526   .494   .032
Orioles       .497   .465   .032
Cubs          .543   .523   .020
Indians       .557   .552   .005
Braves        .506   .506   .000
Reds          .442   .442   .000
Royals        .406   .413  -.007
Rockies       .481   .488  -.007
Giants        .477   .488  -.011
Yankees       .544   .570  -.026
Nationals     .386   .413  -.027
Marlins       .460   .488  -.028
Phillies      .502   .535  -.033
Diamondbacks  .502   .541  -.039
White Sox     .413   .453  -.040
Twins         .507   .558  -.051
Rangers       .442   .494  -.052
Devil Rays    .420   .483  -.063
Cardinals     .430   .500  -.070
Astros        .422   .494  -.072
Pirates       .398   .471  -.073

If you had the Dodgers as the team furthest ahead of this year’s projections, raise your hand. Bueller? Anyone? Not even this Dodger fan–hopeful but faithless, or perhaps the other way around–could have foreseen that, particularly in a season where Nomar Garciaparra and Rafael Furcal have combined for just two home runs (down from last year’s 35), where Juan Pierre has been even more fetid than expected, and where Jason Schmidt made almost no positive contribution before winding up on the operating table. On the other hand, the emergence of Russell Martin as possibly the league’s best catcher, and PECOTA-whooping first halves from Brad Penny, Randy Wolf, Takashi Saito, and Luis Gonzalez have helped make up much of that ground. A 17-8 record founded on the league’s second-best bullpen hasn’t hurt either It will be interesting to see whether the Dodgers can sustain this level of play in the wake of their shifting Garciaparra to third to accommodate Loney, and Chad Billingsley into the rotation to cover for Schmidt.

The Dodgers are hardly the only team that’s surprising by this measure; the Tigers have outpaced PECOTA even with a bullpen that’s crumbling before Jim Leyland’s eyes, and three quarters of the AL West is significantly ahead of their projections. As are the Red Sox, even if they seem to have more disappointments (Julio Lugo, Coco Crisp, J.D. Drew, Manny Ramirez) than surprises (Kevin Youkilis, Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell). Worth noting: Daisuke Matsuzaka is three ERA points off his weighted mean projections. Bow to the deadly accurate PECOTA!

Turning to the middle of the pack, thus far PECOTA’s been virtually on the money regarding the Braves, Reds, Indians, Royals, Rockies, and Giants, an odd assemblage of good, bad and ugly teams. The Yankees are actually closer to the middle than it seems they should be, given the reasons discussed above, but remember, we’re not doing a straight comparison between projected and actual winning percentage, we’re using the Hit List Factor.

At the other end of the spectrum, the three teams which are the furthest off of their PECOTA projections all hail from the Midwest League NL Central, with the Pirates failing to meet even the most modest visions of sub-.500 mediocrity that were laid out for them. Then again, underachieving is what bad teams do, so harping on them or the Marlins or the Rangers for failing to reach points south of .500 point is like shooting so many Devil Rays in a barrel.

And yes, Chicago White Sox, this means you, too. At the outset of the season, there was much complaint regarding our 72-90 projection for the Sox; diminishing post-championship returns haven’t been enough for some readers to let us forget that PECOTA shorted them in 2005. The aforementioned reasons for the unraveling of those darned Sox don’t perfectly match the forecast; the rotation, which PECOTA saw as significantly regressing, has been the only serviceable unit of the ballclub. Meanwhile, the offense has been even more of a travesty than the crystal ball could have foreseen–hell, Edgar Allan Poe and his bottle of absinthe couldn’t have conjured up anything worse.

In any case, it’s too early to start congratulating PECOTA on another job well done. As revealing as this midsummer snapshot is, we’ve still got the longer half of a season ahead of us, plenty of time for the Hit List’s winners and losers to remix the remix. Stay tuned.

Thank you for reading

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