The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

 

Halo Effect?

I spend a lot of my time at Baseball Prospectus exploring the margin between teams' expected performance as based upon variants of Bill James' Pythagorean formula and their actual performance, looking for reasons why it happens and cues as to what it portends. In Tuesday's edition of Hit and Run, I explore the Angels' penchant for beating expectations:
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 Angels, it does crack the all-time top 10, and place them in select company:
Rnk  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

...
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
From there, the discussion turns to some of the generalities of overperforming one's projected record:
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.

...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.
This year's Angels are set to buck that trend given a bullpen that currently ranks sixth in WXRL, though that's the product of a wretched first month, after which they've been the second best bullpen in the league by that measure. Of course, it also helps that the team is second in the league in scoring, and first in OPS with runners in scoring position. They've been clutch on both sides of the ball to the extent that you don't often see. How well that holds up remains to be seen.

• • •

Due to travel — I was halfway around the globe in Buenos Aires and Montevideo last week — I never got a chance to post a link to the September 4 Hit List.

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