Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The Illusions of April
By John Williams

The first 25 or so games played by each mlb team are no different from any other 25 game stretch of the year. Except for the fact of course that the games played in April can cause even the most even-keeled baseball analyst to start making some wild assumptions. Some of the teams with hot starts to the year were expected to succeed (namely the White Sox, Mets, Red Sox, and Cardinals) while some teams sitting at the top of divisions right now are a surprise (especially the Reds and Rockies). One of the many funny things about baseball though is that over the course of 162 games, almost every team has a good 25 game stretch at some point. This may be the best 27 game stretch the Reds have all season, but it is memorable for occurring right at the beginning. It doesn’t hurt to start the year off well, however. On this day in 2005, the White Sox, Angels, and Cardinals all were leading their divisions by at least 2.5 games and went on to finish at the top.

Looking at some other teams the story is different. The Orioles were 16-8 at this time last year, leading the AL East by 3 games over the Red Sox, and doing so in impressive fashion, outscoring their opponents 135-111. In the National League, the Marlins (with a 13-9 record) led Atlanta for the division, but went on to finish tied for 3rd in the division, playing only 1 game above .500 ball the rest of the season.

Very often a good indicator of future success of a team is their runs scored versus runs against but at this point the sample size is so small those numbers are even pretty useless for predictions. The Marlins were absolutely destroying their opponents with a 100-63 runs scored/runs against mark on May 2nd last year but ended up being outscored by the time it was all said and done. The Dodgers had the biggest turnaround of anyone last year, sitting at 16-7, 3.5 games ahead of the pack in the NL West at the beginning of May (outscoring opponents 125-97 at the time). The Dodgers finished the year at 20 games below .500.

This year there are a mix of some surprise teams doing legitimately well but there are also some teams with much better records than their run differentials would indicate. One player does not make a baseball team (Barry Bonds the exception), but a few players having ridiculously hot starts can sure buoy a team for a short amount of time. Combining production from unexpected places with a little luck in close games leads to some really gaudy W-L records for teams at this time.

The Reds for instance should be 16-11 (using Bill James’ reliable pythagorean expected W-L) right now as opposed to their 19-8 record. This 16-11 record would include the hot start from Bronson Arroyo, who has helped the Reds win 5 of his 6 starts. Making that 3 wins in the 6 starts, which is probably much more reasonable, would leave the Reds at 14-13 so far this year, a good record, but not a draw-dropping 19-8. That the Reds are playing like an above .500 team speaks to the strength and current health of their lineup, which would be hard pressed to continue at the current torrid pace. But their current record of 19-8 is largely a small sample size illusion. And keeping in mind they only have a 1.5 game lead over the Astros and 2 game lead over the Cardinals from all of this, it’s pretty likely their stay at the top will be very brief.

The Tigers are a good comparison to last year’s Marlins at this time. They both had talented teams, but both started the year on unsustainable tears. The Tigers are 18-9 and are outscoring their opponents by almost a 2-1 ratio (140-86). Were they perhaps underrated entering the season? Perhaps, but almost everyone would still agree they’re not going to continue having a 3.11 team era. They’re also excelling offensively so far, hitting .283 as a team with a .489 slugging percentage, in a pitcher’s park. There certainly is enough talent here on both ends to finish above .500, but when regression can be expected in both the pitching and hitting departments, the W-L record can surely be expected to even out.

The Red Sox meanwhile should be the poster child for how strange early season statistics can look. A team expected to win about 93-95 games is sitting at 15-11, looking as if they are right in line for that number. But wait, the Red Sox have actually been outscored on the year, 124-130. In fact based on expected W-L, the Yankees should have a whopping 6 game lead on their rivals already, and panic should be in the streets. This is a case though of the Yankees winning some huge blowouts and the Red Sox losing some huge ones of their own. If the Yankees did indeed have a 6 game lead right now instead of a 1 game deficit then I would be saying that the Red Sox were underperforming their roster strength (mostly due to some horrible batting stats with runners on) and the Yankees were over-achieving theirs (mostly due to some unexpectedly strong pitching). Instead the W-L looks normal while the other stats don’t, so while the Red Sox can expect to start winning some blow-outs the Yankees can expect to start losing some. Or who knows, maybe this year will be payback for the Red Sox finishing 3 out of the last 4 years with a better expected W-L than the Yankees, and yet never finishing ahead of them.

Raw baseball statistics, unpredictable as they are, almost always regress to a certain mean (at the players' and teams' true ability) after early fluctuations. A team finishing the year with a .650 winning percentage would achieve 105 wins, a number not usually reached by more than a team or two each year. Five teams right now though are playing above a .650 winning percentage. Even those teams playing legitimately well (actually outscoring their opponents specifically) are more than likely to fall back to earth. These are all just characteristics of small sample sizes in baseball statistics. Since “large enough” sample sizes in baseball tend to be around the length of a season however, we’re all going to have to wait around and see what actually happens as we do every year. Until then we say “Go Reds, win that division.”

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5 Comments:

Anonymous Ajay said...

I know that this doesn't fit the requirement of comment on previous post exactly (or at all), but I just found it too hilarious to fail to include, since this particular anomaly of the season has not yet been sufficiently ridiculed, in this blog or on ESPN.com:

Derek Jeter, New York Yankees: Captain Fantastic is the most super-comebacky-leadershipy-guy in recent baseball history. He eases the plight of orphaned children and war widows with his daring on-field heroics. His unrelenting sideburns and mercilessly tailored Ermenegildo Zegna blazers have reduced many a grown adult to a quivering heap of goo. That said, if you believe that he'll maintain his current 135-walk, 1.140 OPS pace over the course of the next five months, you are the worst kind of Yankee apologist -- the kind that sees every calendar year as 1998 and every gauzy Yankeeography as Emmy bait.

4:00 PM  
Anonymous ajay said...

(the comment was written by Larry Dobrow on cbs.sportsline.com)

4:02 PM  
Blogger sabesin2001 said...

Ah yes, the captain of captains is having himself a resurgent year. I think maybe he has turned himself into a better hitter since 2004. I'll still take Jhonny Peralta thank you very much.

5:46 PM  
Anonymous pete said...

In keeping with the tradition of this blog and the general distaste for the mass-media jeter love-fest, I think we ought to point out the absurdity of possibly the worst defensive shortstop in baseball (according to a number of statistical indices) being the two-time reigning gold glove winner. Aaaah, sweet justice.

11:19 AM  
Blogger sabesin2001 said...

Anyone who saw the May 11th Yanks-Red Sox game would be hard-pressed to call Jeter a good defensive infielder.

1:16 AM  

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