What They Did: 94-68, 1st Place NL West. Lost in NLDS
Actual Runs: Scored 731 runs, Allowed 662.
Expected wins based on RS and RA: 88.3 (5.7 below actual)
Restated: Scored 704 runs, Allowed 678.
Exp. wins based on restated RS and RA: 83.8 (10.2 below actual)
Baseball models have a certain degree of elegance to them owing to the interconnected symmetry of pitching and hitting. Just as debits must always equal credits in the world of accounting, runs scored across MLB must equal runs allowed. That seems obvious, but if Albert Pujols and Cecil Fielder are moving to the AL, if Yoenis Cespedes is adding a 30/30 bat to the league as well, then it stands to reason ERAs must rise in the AL this year. Similarly, cluster luck doesn’t just apply to hitters; if one team scored more runs than its underlying performance suggests, then those “extra” runs must be spread across “unlucky” pitching staffs. All that data translates to wins and, of course, the entire league must sum to .500 baseball. To date, I’ve highlighted two teams, the Boston Red Sox and the Miami Marlins, as having been extremely unlucky in the sense that the final win totals of both didn’t come close to reflecting each team’s collective performance over 162 games. But to date, no team has been targeted as benefiting from residing on the happy side of the 2011 luck ledger.
On this, the 28th team preview to date, we finally find a counterbalance to the Red Sox and Marlins, baseball’s unluckiest teams last season, and it’s the Arizona Diamondbacks. (Note the Phillies and Astros had the best and worst record in baseball by large enough margins that luck didn’t play a role in the final standing of either team.)
“Luckiest/Unluckiest” Wins in Excess/(Below)
Teams in 2011 Production
The Diamondbacks hit the trifecta of fortune in 2011:
- Arizona converted hits into runs at an elite rate of 1.856 hits/run, 3rd best in baseball behind Boston and the Yankees. However, the underlying rankings of each team’s hitting components look nothing alike. The Red Sox were 1st in on-base percentage, slugging percentage and isolated power. The Yankees 2nd, 3rd, and 2nd respectively. Arizona was 13th, 8th and 6th. It’s not that Arizona didn’t have a potent offense with top-quartile power, it’s that it wasn’t top-3 good. Arizona scored 27 more runs than a team that exhibits exactly the same performance over 162 games would expect to score.
- On the pitching side, the Diamondbacks finished 11th in runs allowed and 8th in terms of a hits/runs ratio. However, Arizona 11th, 19th and 23rd in OBP/SLG/ISO. Often that suggests an extraordinary amount of runners were stranded on base, but in Arizona’s case it seems to be a case of giving up loads of home runs with the bases empty. Compare Arizona’s pitching staff with the St. Louis Cardinals’. The Diamondbacks allowed one more runner via walk/hit-by-pitch all season, while the Cardinals gave up three more doubles and triples a piece. That’s about as identical as you can get. Turning to the most important run-allowing statistic of all, home runs, Arizona gave up 23 more home runs than St. Louis. 23 is a lot of home runs, equaling 17% more than the 136 home runs St. Louis allowed. With everything nearly identical except for the home runs, St. Louis must have allowed fewer runs, right? And yet it was the Cardinals who allowed 30 more runs than the Diamondbacks. That’s the power sequencing has in determining cluster luck but it’s something that no team should expect to repeat.
- Finally, ignoring the effects of cluster luck which improved its run differential by forty-three runs (4.5 wins) and focusing just on the actual runs scored and allowed, Arizona won nearly six additional games over expectations.
Put it all together and Arizona was an 84-win team in 94-win clothing but fortunately for its fans, 94-win teams get to keep dressing in October.
Arizona went 28-16 in one-run games last year, the best record of any team in baseball. That’s almost always the catalyst for a team to outperform its Pythagorean win estimate by such a large margin. However, to give you an idea how fickle one-run results are, look at the two best teams in the AL last year (based on wins), the New York Yankees and the Texas Rangers. Both had losing records in one-run games, going 21-24 and 19-24, respectively. The Yankees with Mariano Rivera and David Robertson sporting 1.91 and 1.08 ERAs, respectively, had one of its most dominating bullpen performances of its ’95-11 playoff-era; if there was one team you would have guessed absolutely had a winning record in one-run games in 2011 it would have been the 97-winYankees. One-run games are the equivalent of fumble recoveries in the NFL – the performance of pitchers and hitters who rarely get blown out of games, like forcing fumbles, is skill based, but just like recovering fumbles, in the long-run one-run contests are a coin flip. (You can also think of it from the perspective of basketball strategy. An inferior team always benefits from a low-possession game against a superior team. A team may not have much of a chance of outscoring the Yankees or Rangers over eight innings, but if it can get to the ninth inning tied, the game is much closer to a toss-up.)
Other than starting from a restated base of 84 wins Arizona’s other problem from a 2012 outlook perspective is that it has four players, Justin Upton, Miguel Montero, Ryan Roberts, and Gerardo Parra coming off career years at the plate, no matter whose calculation of WAR one cites. You can quibble about the wisdom of projecting a 2012 regression for a particular player (for me that’s Upton – I haven’t seen anyone swing a bat with that much anger since Gary Sheffield) but it’s highly unlikely that all four repeat last year’s performance. As a result, the projection foresees a drop-off in production in 2012, muted only by the addition of Jason Kubel in left field. Kubel, a free agent signing from Minnesota, is a true fantasy sleeper this year, moving from pitcher-friendly Target Field to the Diamondbacks’ hitter-happy home park, Chase Field.
Regression is expected among the starting pitchers as well but in this case, all of it is offset by the addition of Trevor Cahill to the rotation. Arizona has three solid starters at the top of the rotation, although Ian Kennedy’s sub-3.00 ERA in 2011 will be tough to match this year. The pitchers who will account for the other 40% of starts project to be a far-below-average lot, however. Josh Collmenter emerged unheralded as a key fourth starter in 2011 and proved as adept and as unlikely a run-preventer as his counterpart on the San Francisco Giants, Ryan Vogelsong. Vogelsong’s underlying skill-based peripherals supported his fine work, while Collementer’s did not. Collmenter is an extreme-fly ball, low-strikeout pitcher who does half his work in a home run-happy ballpark, a flammable combination which suggests a rise of at least 1.00 from the 3.38 ERA he posted as a rookie.
After two straight fifth-place finishes, Arizona won the NL West last year by allowing a stunning 174 less runs in 2011 than in 2010. The talent was much better to be sure, but favorable sequencing had a lot to do with the magnitude of the decrease in runs allowed, and given the amount of home runs the staff gives up, that could reverse in a big way in 2012. If the offense gets another set of balanced contributions from across the line up or if Justin Upton builds on his 2011 campaign, an MVP Award is in the offering and Arizona could match its 2011 run production. Put the two together and this is the third straight NL West team that looks to hover around .500 all year.
Oddsmakers’ expectations: Apparently, no one was fooled by the Diamondbacks 94-win season last year. With a healthy Buster Posey, the Giants are expected by oddsmakers to make up last year’s eight game deficit and have been installed as the division favorites. Arizona’s total wins over/under has been set at 86 ½, a game beneath the Giants’ market. Due to the exact same reasoning I used in the Padres and Giants previews – that is I project the leaders of the NL West to remain tethered to the .500 level all season – I like the under here as well. With both the Giants and the Diamondbacks sporting rosters weaker than their counterparts in the NL East and Central, it’s hard to see many scenarios in which under bets on each team would both lose.
80-82 – Third in NL West
701 Runs Scored 709 Runs Allowed
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.) February, 2013 release.
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