“Never make predictions, especially about the future.”
Casey Stengel

While Punxsutawney Phil has spoken–or rather pointed–to inform us that we have six more weeks of winter, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel: pitchers and catchers report in a just a few more days. Not surprisingly, at this time of year the obsessive baseball fan begins to grow restless, becoming more than a little bored with the endless speculation around the last few free agent signings, trade packages which are typically more fantasy than reality, not to mention just who did or did not inject who (or is it whom?). This week, I offer two topics that occupied a little of my time this week between enjoying the first four games of the 1975 World Series on DVD.

The Toughest Division in Baseball

Amidst the two major deals of this offseason a common theme was repeated ad nauseam. In the trade that sent Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera to Detroit in exchange for Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller (among others), it was often said that the “toughest division in baseball” (meaning the AL Central) just got tougher. And when Johan Santana was dealt from the AL Central Twins to the NL East Mets, pundits from around the world of baseball were opining on how dominant Santana might be now that he’s freed from the “toughest division in baseball” on his way to the much weaker National League. To cite just one example of this latter hype, consider this quote from USA Today reporter Bob Nightengale, who said last week on MLB Radio:

Santana won two Cy Young Awards and he was doing it in the AL Central. I think when he goes to the National League he’s got a chance to put up Bob Gibson type numbers… You’re going from the AL Central, the toughest division in baseball, just to the National League… he has a chance to have an ERA of low twos if not below two.

Fortunately, calmer heads sometimes prevail and our own Nate Silver provided Santana’s PECOTA projections for both teams and reveals that the difference, although noticeable, will not turn Santana into the reincarnation of Bob Gibson circa 1968.

All this talk about the toughest division in baseball got me to wondering just which division, when we look at on-field performance, actually has been the toughest in baseball. To do this, and to crown the toughest division for each of the last eleven years, we’ll look at two simple measures: intradivisional records by league, and interleague records overall.

To begin, let’s take a look at the National League intradivisional records since 1997 in graphic form:

Figure 1. National League Division Strength 1997-2007


Here you can see that the NL West and NL East beat up on the NL Central in 1997, although in 1998 and 1999 the Central held its own against the East, even edging them out slightly in the latter season. From there, the Central became the doormat of the league; collectively, its teams only approached the .500 mark in 2004 and 2007 in this millennium. During that time, the West was dominant from 2001-2003 and again in 2007–led by the Diamondbacks and Rockies–while the East took the title in 2000 and from 2004-2006. If we break the time frame into three periods, we see the East as dominating in the 1997-2000 and 2005-2007 periods, with the West squeaking by in 2001-2004:

Table 1: National League Intradivisional Results
Period      East   West  Central
1997-2000   .518   .494    .489
2001-2004   .506   .518    .478
2005-2007   .522   .496    .484

This probably comes as no great shock, with excellent Braves and Mets teams and the improving Phillies in the East, while there have been some pretty mediocre Astros, Cardinals, and Cubs teams in the Central. Overall the divisions can clearly be ranked East, West, Central.

On the AL side, you may find the results a little more surprising:

Figure 2. American League Division Strength 1997-2007


The AL East and West outpaced the Central in 1997, and after gaining some ground in 1998 the Central sank to rock bottom in 1999, and they would finish last in four of the next five seasons. Again, after a rise in 2005–fueled by the White Sox and the surging Indians–that saw the division best the West and another rise in 2006 due to the Tigers and Twins (with the White Sox also winning 90 games) that took them past the East. Then the East rebounded in 2007 to regain the title. This shows that in the entire eleven-year period the Central has never been the best division in the American League in terms of record in games played against other AL divisions. While that may change in 2007 with an AL Central breakthrough, as the Tigers and Indians are expected to be among the best in the league, it should serve to remind us that what you hear “ain’t necessarily so.”

Contrary to the popular wisdom, and once again breaking things down into three periods, we find that the AL West–led by the A’s and Angels–has been the best division over the last eleven years, and paced the junior circuit from 2001-2004 and by a nose in 2005-2007. Meanwhile, the AL East was better from 1997 through 2001. But more to the point, over the last three years, no division in the AL has dominated:

Table 2: American League Intradivisional Results
Period      East   West  Central
1997-2000   .525   .502    .473
2001-2004   .489   .545    .465
2005-2007   .499   .501    .500

Despite these results, recall that this approach doesn’t consider the relative strengths of the teams within the division. As such it can reasonably be argued that the current AL East is tougher than it appears, because of the presence of two elite teams that severely limits the opportunity for the rest of the division. Likewise, it can also be said that when a division like the AL Central in 2006 contains three teams with 90-plus wins, that division is indeed very competitive.

In the final analysis, perhaps all of this talk related to the AL Central being the “toughest division in baseball” is in large part a product of the fact that since 2005 (when they had the World Series winner) they’ve been much more competitive than at any time since the late 1990s. Sometimes the key to success is low expectations. It’s also probably the case that there is some amount of the “illusion-of-truth” effect in play, where people are more likely to believe a familiar statement, and therefore repeat it, perpetuating its claims, regardless of empirical support.

We’re not done yet. Since we’ve also had interleague play since 1997, we can combine the interleague record with the intradivision records to crown one of the six divisions as the toughest in baseball. To do this, we’ll simply look at the interleague record for each season and make the simplistic assumption that the league with the best record in that season was in fact superior. By extension, the best division in the best league is therefore the mythical “toughest division in baseball.” Below you’ll see a result of interleague play during its history that shows the AL besting the NL in five of eleven seasons, the NL returning the favor five times, and in 2007 we saw the first tie, as each league won 126 times.

Figure 3. Interleague Play Results 1997-2007

interleague play results

Over the course of the history of interleague play, the AL holds the edge 1381-1323, for a winning percentage of .511, but obviously holds a large edge in the last three years due to the large imbalance in 2006. When we combine these two pieces of information, the end result is the following table:

Table 3: The Toughest Division in Baseball?
Year        Division
1997        NL East
1998        AL East
1999        NL Central
2000        AL West
2001        AL West
2002        NL West
2003        NL West
2004        NL East
2005        AL East
2006        AL West
2007        AL East and NL West

Overall, the AL West, AL West, and NL West each take the top spot three times, the NL East claims it twice, the NL Central once, and, as mentioned previously, the AL Central is shut out.

More Projections on the Cheap

Earlier this week Nate Silver released the PECOTAs, which I know has many of you all abuzz as you prepare for seasons both real and fantastic. Inspired by that effort, and in response to the final question in a chat a couple weeks back, I’ve re-worked the cheap projection system described in a column from back in November.

Some readers will recall that the system calculates a projected Normalized OPS value (NOPS/PF, where 100 is the park-adjusted league average offensive output for the year and league in question) based on the weighting of performance over the previous three seasons, regression to the mean, aging, and league difficulty. When looking at nearly 17,000 player seasons from 1903 through 2006, the correlation coefficient calculated for the comparison between the actual NOPS/PF value and the projected value was a healthy 0.64 for players who accumulated 300 or more plate appearances in a season.

The limitation of the algorithm used in that article was its basis on “projecting” seasons that had already been played, since it was developed to look at the concept of “booms and busts” in seasons already played. In other words, I couldn’t use it to project the 2008 season since, somewhat counter-intuitively, it has not yet been played. A few simple adjustments now allow us to do just that, so without further ado I’ve run the system for 2008. Table 4 lists the top 15 offensive players in Projected NOPS/PF for the upcoming season:

Table 4: The Best of 2008? Top 15 Players in Projected NOPS/PF
                                2007 Results    2008 Projection
Name            Team  Lg   NOPS/PF    PA  Age      PA  NOPS/PF
Albert Pujols    SLN  NL       133   679   27     668    138
David Ortiz      BOS  AL       136   667   31     679    133
Alex Rodriguez   NYA  AL       140   708   31     698    132
Miguel Cabrera   FLO  NL       130   680   24     679    131
Ryan Howard      PHI  NL       126   648   27     619    128
Chipper Jones    ATL  NL       138   600   35     536    127
David Wright     NYN  NL       129   711   24     687    126
Matt Holliday    COL  NL       129   713   27     670    125
Mark Teixeira    ATL  NL       137   240   27     645    123
V. Guerrero      LAA  AL       124   660   31     651    123
Mark Teixeira    TEX  AL       121   335   27     645    122
Lance Berkman    HOU  NL       120   668   31     645    122
Magglio Ordonez  DET  AL       134   678   33     616    121
Prince Fielder   MIL  NL       133   681   23     575    120
Barry Bonds      SFN  NL       138   477   42     416    120
Chase Utley      PHI  NL       126   613   28     654    120

There’s probably not too much to be surprised about here: good hitters in 2007 are projected to be good hitters in 2008. However, in looking closer, you’ll note that players in their thirties will generally be predicted to fall off a little with Chipper Jones and Magglio Ordonez (the subject of the question from our chatter) being the most likely candidates. Interestingly, Prince Fielder, despite heading into his age-24 season, also shows a projected decline primarily because of the large number of plate appearances he had at age 22 when his NOPS/PF was just 108, which tends to bring down his weighted NOPS/PF from the previous three seasons. You’ll also notice that there are two projections here for Mark Teixeira because of his splitting 2007 between Texas and Atlanta. Each projection is based solely on his time played at that stop and makes the assumption that he’ll be playing in the same league in 2008. When combined, they come out to a projection of 122 in 645 plate appearances. It should be noted that I’m not applying any aging curve for the plate appearance projections; it is instead simply calculated as the weighted mean of the previous three seasons.

The case of Teixeira leads directly to that of Miguel Cabrera. Here the projection is for the NL, since I don’t have a database of 2008 rosters, but if we tweak the system just for him, we find that his projected NOPS/PF falls by less than a point, using the estimate that the 2008 AL will be 1.5 percent better than the 2007 NL.

Next, let’s take a look at the 15 top and bottom players whose projections differ most from their 2007 performance and who accumulated 100 or more plate appearances in 2007:

Table 5: Largest Projected Differences in Performance from 2007 to 2008
                             2007 Results      2008 Projection
Name            Team  Lg  NOPS/PF   PA  Age      PA  NOPS/PF  Diff
Cody Ross        FLO  NL    143    197   26     201    106     -37
Milton Bradley   SDN  NL    139    169   29     304    108     -31
Daryle Ward      CHN  NL    125    133   32     187    102     -23
Ryan Braun       MIL  NL    132    492   23     264    112     -20
Carlos Pena      TBA  AL    137    612   29     386    117     -20
Ramon Castro     NYN  NL    119    157   31     165    100     -19
David Murphy     TEX  AL    120    110   25      68    101     -19
Barry Bonds      SFN  NL    138    477   42     416    120     -18
Cristian Guzman  WAS  NL    116    192   29     179     99     -17
Josh Hamilton    CIN  NL    120    337   26     181    104     -16
Hank Blalock     TEX  AL    118    232   26     432    102     -16
Jacoby Ellsbury  BOS  AL    116    127   23      68    101     -15
Matt Stairs      TOR  AL    120    405   39     410    105     -15
Jack Cust        OAK  AL    124    507   28     273    109     -15
Mark Teixeira    ATL  NL    137    240   27     645    123     -14
Chris Woodward   ATL  NL     71    151   31     188     92      21
Joe Crede        CHA  AL     75    178   29     348     97      22
Paul Bako        BAL  AL     70    174   35     152     92      22
Jose Molina      LAA  AL     70    131   32     215     94      24
Andy Gonzalez    CHA  AL     69    215   25     115     94      25
Alexi Casilla    MIN  AL     69    204   22     111     94      25
Michael Barrett  SDN  NL     72    136   30     399     97      25
Shane Costa      KCA  AL     72    109   25     149     97      25
Alberto Callaspo ARI  NL     69    156   24      98     95      26
Jason LaRue      KCA  AL     66    195   33     240     92      26
Ramon Martinez   LAN  NL     62    147   34     158     92      30
Josh Paul        TBA  AL     64    115   32     118     94      30
Koyie Hill       CHN  NL     65    105   28      70     96      31
Toby Hall        CHA  AL     60    120   31     226     92      32
Ben Zobrist      TBA  AL     52    105   26     117     94      42

At the top of our list we find Cody Ross, who put up some monster numbers (.335/.411/.653) for the Reds in 2007 despite over 300 very poor plate appearances in his career prior to 2007. His previous record–coupled with his relatively sporadic plate appearances that regress his projection pretty sharply towards the mean–still result in a respectable Projected NOPS/PF of 106. This list includes veterans like Milton Bradley, Daryle Ward, Carlos Pena, Cristian Guzman, and Matt Stairs, all of whom performed well in 2007 but also well-above the weighted performance level of their previous three seasons. That, combined with their advancing age, depresses their projections. We also have younger players like Ryan Braun, Josh Hamilton, and Jacoby Ellsbury, whose fine performances are heavily regressed to the mean because 2007 was their first in the major leagues.

On the flip side, we find a whole collection of players who performed poorly in limited playing time in 2007, but who either have little experience and so their projections are regressed up towards the mean (Alberto Callaspo and Alexi Casilla, for example) or who have some track record that makes it seem likely that they’ll improve on their 2007 results (Joe Crede, Michael Barrett, Jason LaRue, Ramon Martinez).

Finally, in order to give you a feel for what these projections look like over the course of careers, I’ll leave you with a few graphs of some interesting players that show their age, actual, and projected NOPS/PF using this system.

Figure 4. Magglio Ordonez, Actual versus Projected


While the projections followed his peak at age 28 and his subsequent decline, it didn’t expect his monster 2007 campaign.

Figure 5. Alex Rodriguez, Actual versus Projected


A-Rod hit an early peak at 24, but then has upped the ante in two of the last three seasons, causing his projections to wiggle.

Figure 6. Andruw Jones, Actual versus Projected


Jones has been up and down a bit with his age 25 and 28 seasons being his best. He fell off dramatically last year, but the projection expects him to come back a little.

Figure 7. Gary Sheffield, Actual versus Projected


Sheffield certainly showed a meteoric rise from ages 24 through 27 and, after treading water from ages 28 through 30, enjoyed a couple of his finest seasons at ages 31 and 32. Since then his performance has predictably declined, with his projections keeping pace.

Figure 8. Torii Hunter, Actual versus Projected


Sought-after free agent Torii Hunter enjoyed his best season at age 26 although he’s been on the rise since his disappointing age-27 campaign.

Figure 9. Ken Griffey Jr., Actual versus Projected


Ken Griffey Jr. had some of his best seasons before the age of 25 and, despite a steady decline from age 27 through age 32, was able to rebound at ages 33 through 35, though his projections were depressed because of his advancing age.

Let the (Exhibition) Games Begin

Despite regular snowfall in my neck of the woods, I get to take solace in the fact that it really is just a week until pitchers and catchers report, with games starting soon after. That should give me just enough time to finish the 1975 World Series.

Thank you for reading

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Dan Fox


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