National League Wild Card Playoff:
St. Louis at Atlanta
On the eve of the beginning of the 2012 playoffs, let’s remind ourselves what it means to win MLB’s version of a post-season tournament. If you were to ascribe ‘superior skill’ as the factor most responsible for the victorious side’s triumph over its opponent, here is a list of activities/games, displayed in order of ‘superior skill’ importance: (By implication, I’m assigning 100% skill-based achievement to the top of the list and 0% skill-based to the bottom.)
(Another way to look at this list is that the games in which the chance that an inferior-skilled opponent could win are listed from least- to most-likely.)
So where does baseball fit into the mix? I’d put winning a division over the course of a 162-game regular season just below that of a Scrabble title in terms of skill-based wins. On the other hand, I believe winning a World Series Championship comes in just above a Monopoly triumph. There are two takeaways from this exercise:
1) The post-season is a small sample exercise, in which random outcomes are much more likely to determine success. Nothing demonstrates that fact more than this: If every post-season series were to go the maximum number of games, there will be 43 games played between tomorrow and November 1 – or 2 less games than are played every single weekend during the regular season.
2) If you’ve ever won a beer pong championship, your accomplishment was probably more skilled-based than that of any recent World Series winner, and that will be even more true this year with an expanded playoff format (especially if Ron Washington leads the Rangers to a title.)
You should also keep ‘small sample size’ in mind before you bestow a label of ‘genius’ or ‘idiot’ on me after reading my forecasts over the next few weeks.
St. Louis Cardinals
Why Cardinals Fans Should Heed my Data-Based Analysis: While many were concerned about the loss of Albert Pujols, my pre-season model foresaw a team that would not only lead the National League in scoring with 777 runs but actually score more runs this year without Pujols than they did in 2011 with him, when they led the National League with 762 runs scored. Here’s what happened: The Cardinals scored 765 runs in 2012, and just missed leading the league, falling 11 runs short of the Milwaukee Brewers’ league-leading pace.
Why Cardinals Fans Should Ignore my Data-Based Analysis: At the end of the third quarter of the season – just 41 games ago – I predicted the Cardinals would lose a Game 163, Wild Card tie-breaker to the Pittsburgh Pirates and miss the playoffs altogether.
St. Louis enters the playoffs with 90-win talent wearing 88-win clothing. (You’ll read this phrasing a lot as I run down all of the teams this post-season. When we get to a team with a big disparity, I’ll dive into the calculation deeper, but in St. Louis’ case it means they performed mildly better, and possess skill sets a bit in excess of their regular season win total.) While that’s encouraging should they advance, for one game, that number gets adjusted to account for the starting pitcher who will face the Braves, Kyle Lohse.
With a spectacular 16-3 record and a rotation-leading and frankly eye-popping ERA of 2.86, it’s easy to label Lohse as the ace of St. Louis’ pitching staff. After all, his ERA was nearly a full point lower than the rest of the staff’s over the entire season. But let’s look at the elements of success that Lohse controls: He strikes out just 16.6% of the batter’s he faces – a lower rate than any other Cardinals starter except Jake Westbrook and way below the National League average of 20.1%. That means more batters are putting the ball into the field of play and while low-strikeout pitchers usually compensate for this pitch-to-contact style by inducing groundballs, Lohse’s groundball rate of 40.5% is well below the league average of 45.2%. (Contrast this with Westbrook, who augments his low-strikeout style with a 58.1% groundball rate.)
So how did Lohse manage to amass such a low ERA as a low-strikeout, flyball pitcher? He had a HR/Flyball ratio of 8.2% (NL avg. 11.3%) and a batting-average-on-balls-in-play (BABIP) of just .262 compared to a league average of .293. Playing behind the exact same defense as the other Cardinals pitchers, in exactly the same ballparks, his BABIP was 60 points better than anyone else in the 5-man rotation (and 3rd best in the NL among qualified starters.) That’s remarkable – and alarmingly for St. Louis fans who may believe Kyle Lohse suddenly developed down-ballot Cy Young Award skills, nearly entirely the result of random variation. Kyle Lohse has thrown nearly 2,000 innings in the majors and he has a lifetime BABIP of .297 – a little bit above the major league average over his time in the majors. At age 33, Lohse didn’t develop new skills, he just had a string of good fortune that stretched out over the entire 2012 season. That doesn’t mean he didn’t earn his wins or that he shouldn’t bask in the handshakes and backslaps that accompanied his sparkling ERA, but it does mean we can’t model that performance going forward, even for one game.
As a result, I see St. Louis going to battle tomorrow with a team that would score 769 runs and allow 724 runs over a 162-game season, good for a .527 winning percentage, or 85 wins. (The implications of that projection are shown below.)
Why Braves Fans Should Ignore my Data-Based Analysis: My preseason forecast had Atlanta finishing with an 80-82 record – good for last place in the NL East.
Why Braves Fans Should Heed my Data-Based Analysis: By the end of the third quarter, I had mended my ways and saw the Braves breezing into the playoffs. Meanwhile my model instructed me to bet on Kris Medlen every time he pitched, picking up on, and believing in his dominant skills before oddsmakers adjusted their thinking.
Atlanta won 94 regular season games and that’s basically the talent level that they bring into the post-season. The problem for Atlanta has been consistency, especially at the plate. The Braves scored 700 runs this year, but are they going to perform like the team that scored 400 runs during the first and third quarters of the season or the one that scored an anemic 300 runs in quarters two and four? The good news for Atlanta is that, thanks to the emergence of Andrelton Simmons at shortstop during the second half of the season, and a still-quite-potent Chipper Jones playing more or less every day, I project a stronger starting line up in the playoffs than the Braves fielded, on average, over the regular season.
In terms of skill sets, Atlanta brings an excellent defense (second only, by a fraction, to Washington) and the best bullpen in the playoffs to the table which, if the offense is going to average 5 runs, is the right combination to play deep into October. In fact, the Braves are my pick to represent the National League in the World Series. Due to the Braves appearance in the one-game Wild Card playoff, on the surface, that looks like a foolish prediction.
Thanks to the presence of Kris Medlen, however, I don’t think the Braves are in a coin-flip situation. Based on a conservative interpretation of his performance this year (even though his skill sets – strike-out rate, walk rate, ground ball rate, and velocity – were performed over enough innings to have stabilized and therefore be predictive of future performance, I still applied a healthy degree of mean reversion to the following projection) playing behind the Braves defense, and backed up by the Braves incredible bullpen, a Medlen-led team would allow 542 runs. I project an offense that would score 734 runs meaning Atlanta is fielding a 103-win team for its one-game playoff.
RS RA Win % Adjustemnt
St. Louis 769 724 .527 34.2%
Atlanta 734 542 .635 65.8% <--- Est. Win Probability
(For those of you inclined to ‘invest’ in baseball games, this projection means I find value in any Braves market priced below -195.)
It should be noted, that this projection is essentially identical to the hurdle the Cardinals faced last year in Games 1, 2 and 5 of the NLCS when they had to go to Philadelphia and face Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Halladay again. St. Louis won two of those three games as its offense gives them a puncher’s chance against any pitcher they face.
By virtue of the one-game Wild Card round none of the division winners have to survive, it’s impossible to say Atlanta is the favorite to win the pennant. Nonetheless that’s my pick. I give Atlanta a two-to-one chance of winning this game, perhaps the most nerve-wracking game Braves fans will have to endure on the way to the World Series.
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to Trading Bases, A Story about Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) March 7, 2013 release. The book is available for pre-order here: http://www.amazon.com/Trading-Bases-Gambling-Baseball-Necessarily/dp/0525953647/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1346604029&sr=1-1&keywords=trading+bases
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