First Quarter Report
Warm Up Tosses:
Now that I’m a “horse guy” . . .
I challenge anyone to find a more entertaining recap of the Kentucky Derby than this one (For those of you reading at work that needed a hilarious diversion . . . you’re welcome):
AL East First Quarter Report
As soon as the New Year’s holiday ends and the American economy begins another calendar year, stock market observers can count on being assaulted by headline writers and business commentators using the phrase “As January goes, so goes the year.” The problem with that belief is that the data is often misused. To learn that the market stands a strong chance of being up at the end of the year after January has been up doesn’t mean much because, of course, the market already has a head start. It turns out that when you exclude January’s results, the predictive effect of the next eleven months weakens considerably, and there is a debate as to whether there is any predictive power to the first month of trading.
That line of thinking is relevant for baseball fans and analysts who want to know whether a team’s hot (or cold) start to a season is indicative of future performance. The lesson of the 162-event coin flipper is worth repeating: If a coin flipper has gotten heads on her first ten flips, she is most likely to get 86 heads on the year, or 53.1%. But, of course, she is still only likely to be a 50% heads flipper over the remainder of the season. The hot start is not predictive of future results.
Unlike the stock market and a coin tossing tournament, there is a point during the season at which a team’s record in its previous games becomes predictive of future performance. I'll leave the statistical jargon to a minimum, but after about 40 games r2 >.50 suggesting that more than 50% of a given team’s season-ending winning percentage is explained by its winning percentage after 40 games. Conveniently, that’s the end of the first quarter of the baseball season so I’ll take a quick look at each division over the rest of the week starting with the AL East today, and compare each team’s results to date with my projection and whether or not it changes my initial outlook.
Original Projection: 71 – 91, Current Pace: 105 – 57
After forty games, I firmly believe it’s not enough to simply say, “There’s no way _____ is for real.” Some evidence of unsustainability must be put forth. As such, let’s take a look at the Orioles bullpen. Through 40 games, Baltimore’s relievers had a best-in-baseball ERA of 2.07. (MLB average is 3.68.) What’s even more remarkable about that performance is that the Orioles pen has thrown more innings than any other team except the Kansas City Royals. Teams with above .500 records don’t often have starting rotations that rank near the bottom of innings pitched. Baltimore went 26-14 in its first forty games by winning a bunch of close games, as the O’s only outscored its opponents by 19 runs. (Texas, with a similar record of 25-15 outscored its opponents by 80 runs.) Those close victories, therefore, were entirely due to the performance of the bullpen. Stick a pin in that for a second.
While the league-wide batting average of balls hit into the field of play is always around .300, it’s not true that every team’s defense has to revert to that figure. Better defensive talent, park effects, etc. can lead certain teams to have better or worse fielding results without luck entering into the equation. However, on the same team, defensive talent, quality of opposition, and park effects are neutralized so that fluctuations between pitchers on the same staff are entirely random. (Best example: Sport starter Kyle Kendrick, inferior in every way to his fellow rotation mates on last year’s Phillies team had a lower batting average on balls in play (BABIP) than Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, etc.)
Through 40 games, the Orioles defense turned batted balls into outs at a rate of .704, good for 12th in baseball. (This means opponents hit .296 on balls in play, a little below the league average of .304.) That’s above-average defense, almost exactly in line with expectations. However, when relievers are in the game – the highest leverage situations in determining the winner of a game – the Orioles are holding teams to an incredible .241 BABIP. Not only is it impossible for any defense to be that good (Tampa’s .276 BABIP last year represented, by far, the best defensive performance in the major league in years) but Baltimore is putting up that performance at the most critical points of the game. In other words, for the first forty games, when Baltimore’s relievers were in the game – relievers that strike batters out a below-average rate and therefore rely on fielding more than most bullpens – its opponents happen to hit the ball right at people. In those crucial innings, I estimate Baltimore’s defense has saved at least 10 runs compared to an average defense. However an average defense is about what the Orioles are during the majority of the game. This small-sample size, high-leverage performance explains why the Orioles were 26-14 instead of 20-20 after forty games.
It’s easy to understand why the fan base and some Baseball Tonight commentators are seduced by Baltimore’s early season performance. What they can see – a team that is mashing the ball and leads the majors in home runs at the 40-game mark – is skill-based and possibly sustainable. (I’m not an expert on prospect history, but I think it’s fair to say that Adam Jones and Matt Wieters were at one time just as highly thought of as Matt Kemp and Buster Posey, National League superstars at the same positions and similar age respectively.) However, what these supporters can’t “see” is the good fortune, in the form of unsustainable defensive support, the bullpen is getting. The Orioles resurgence is a nice story and I love the helmets sporting the throwback bird, but even though Baltimore has 12 games above .500 in the bank at the quarter-pole (horse term!) of the season, I still don’t think this team finishes above .500.
Toronto Blue Jays
Original Projection: 80 – 82, Current Pace: 89 – 73
Unsustainable defensive performance is also at the heart of why Toronto is going to have a hard time maintaining a pace that will challenge for the division lead as September approaches. Not only is Toronto’s defense converting batted balls into outs at a record pace, its effective defensive efficiency is truly off the charts because they’ve already turned 54 double plays. 12% of all batters Toronto has allowed to reach base (excludes home runs) have been erased via double play. That’s an absurdly high figure and when it surely dips significantly, it’s going to be a problem for Toronto because the pitching staff has visible deficiencies. They strikeout batters at a below-average rate and walk them at an above-average rate. Eventually, those baserunners are going to score in bunches when the double plays and fielding excellence abates somewhat. Additionally, the Blue Jays have by far (to the tune of greater than 20 runs) benefitted more from “cluster luck” on offense than any other American League team. (I spoke of cluster luck frequently during the pre-season essays. New readers can check the Boston Red Sox preview in the archives for an in-depth description of the concept.)
Like the Orioles, the underlying skills suggest Toronto is a .500 team at best, even with the head start to 90 wins.
Tampa Bay Rays
Original Projection: 81 – 81, Current Pace: 97 – 65
I’ve had the chance to watch a good deal of Rays’ games this year and I firmly believe they are the best managed team in baseball. The defensive shifts are revolutionary, the bullpen usage is exemplary – in short, Joe Madden excels in exploiting situations which shift tiny amounts of win probability to Tampa’s side of the ledger. I’m convinced Tampa’s results will always exceed the sum-of-the-parts analysis I perform. There is nothing to suggest Tampa can’t maintain a 90+ win pace for the rest of the season, especially when Evan Longoria returns to the lineup. With the AL West and Central offering little in the way of Wild Card hopefuls, Tampa’s playoff potential looks bright.
New York Yankees
Original Projection: 90 – 72, Current Pace: 85 – 77
Since the Yankees original projection included a couple wins of production (in terms of WAR) from Michael Pineda over 16 starts, it’s fair to wonder whether a sub-90 win season is in the offering. There are a number of under-the-surface factors that support that conclusion. The Yankees are turning fly balls into home runs at a pace (16.4%) that is high, even for a team with its historical slugging prowess. (The Yankees average about 13% HR/FB since the opening of new Yankee Stadium three seasons ago.) Those home runs are masking an offense that is walking less and striking out more than any recent edition. There are little elements of luck benefitting the Yankees in nearly every category right now and if they all regress at once, it could be a very disturbing summer for fans of the Bronx Bombers. Unlike the Rays and Red Sox, key Yankee players on the DL won’t be returning this season. Due to age and non-DL injuries the Yankees starting lineup appears to be much less stable on a day-to-day basis than in prior years. That lack of continuity is taking its toll on the defense. The Yankees rank in the bottom quarter of baseball in converting batted balls into outs. Previously a consistent strength for New York that started to show decline last year, team defensive efficiency may be succumbing to the age of the players just as the Yankees are scoring fewer runs.
Boston Red Sox
Original Projection: 92 – 70, Current Pace: 77 – 85
I’m not wavering from my projection yet: The Red Sox are going to win this division. Despite the incredible amount of time starters have lost to the DL, which has caused the front office to work the waiver wire like the Tampa Rays, the Red Sox have the second highest scoring team in baseball and a run differential better than all but two teams in the American League. Without question the rotation is a problem, to the point that it’s fair to label it a weakness. But it will not finish with a collective ERA above 5.00 which is where it sits now. While the underlying metrics suggest there isn’t an elite starter left on the squad, those same metrics suggest the bullpen is fine and the early season concern was simply due to small-sample variance.
The AL East is more wide open than it’s been in years – maybe since the mid-90s – and the result is going to be a summer of roller coaster-like momentum shifts. Fans of all these teams would be wise to remember that their favorite team isn’t as good as it looks during a hot streak and likewise, better than it looks during a losing streak.
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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