Do You Believe? On the 2012 Phillies Season and Faith

Believe in my underlying advanced statistical metrics . . . please! Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-US PRESSWIRE

No one will deny it. This season has been frustrating, infuriating, painful, depressing, and soul-crushing. In fact, you name the negative emotion, this season as a Phillies fan has had it.

But there's another thing about this season that is becoming quite apparent - it's a serious test of faith.

Not a test of your faith in the Phillies. After all, we're all just rooting for clothes, and there's no inherent reason why we have to have faith in this collection of laundry sporting a red P on it. It's fun to have faith in the Phillies as a team just because they're our team, but that's just blind allegiance. While blind allegiance may be something that increases your enjoyment of the sport, it's certainly not warranted by anything based in rational thought.

So if this Phillies season isn't a test of your faith in the franchise, then what is it a test of? It's a test of your faith in modern statistics and performance evaluation. It's a test of whether you're better suited for WIP and the comments section of philly.com or whether you're better suited for The Good Phight and Fangraphs. In other words, it's a test of your faith in rational baseball fandom.

Let's do a thought experiment. You have a regular ol' quarter - nothing about it has been altered in any way. You flip it. Of course, there's a 50/50 chance of it turning up heads. Now we flip it again, and again there's a 50/50 chance of heads. After 2 flips, there's a 25% chance that both coin flips will have been heads. After 4 flips, a 6.25% chance of all heads. Let's go further - how about 10 flips? With 10 flips, there's a 0.1% chance of all heads, meaning 1 out of 1000 flips of 10 coins will result in all heads.

This is an extremely low probability event. But, the fact that it's of extremely low probability doesn't change the fact that a) it can happen and b) it's happening has no impact whatsoever on the underlying probability of the event itself. In other words, that you got 10 heads in a row doesn't change that any one flip, including the very next flip, had and has a 50/50 chance of being heads.

Let's take a more relevant comparison. The 1991 Phillies were a bad baseball team. Jose De Jesus was the team's second best pitcher (by ERA+). Danny Cox (ERA+ of 80), Pat Combs (75), Jason Grimsley (75), and Andy Ashby (61) combined for 50 starts. Mickey Morandini (OPS+ of 79), Dickie Thon (79), Charlie Hayes (74), Von Hayes (68), Steve Lake (47), Darrin Fletcher (59), and John Morris (62) combined for over 1/3 of the team's plate appearances. The team scored 629 runs while giving up 680, good for a Pythagorean winning percentage of .461 (or a 75-87 record). It outperformed that prediction by 3 games, winding up with a 78-84 record. Nonetheless, the team was bad.

However, smack dab in the middle of this bad season something bizarrely wonderful happened: the team won 13 games in a row. From July 30 through August 12, the Phillies beat every opponent they faced and brought a little bit of joy to what was otherwise just another losing season. It was a remarkable run that allowed the Phils to gain 8 games in the standing . . . from 20.5 back to 12.5 back. Though, the Phillies gave almost all of that back by the end of the year, finishing 20 games out.

But no one who enjoyed that win streak had any reason at all to believe that winning 13 in a row made the 1991 Phillies a good team. All it was was a statistical fluke. An incredibly enjoyable one, to be sure. (I was at game 13 and the Vet was an awesome place to be that night.) But, a fluke nonetheless.

If we think of the win streak as getting heads 13 times in a row when flipping a coin with a 46% chance of turning up heads (a very inexact comparison, but still a useful one), the chances of a team of that quality having that streak are about .004%, or 1 in 23,500. With those odds, the win streak was a highly improbable event, but it did in fact happen. However, that it happened had nothing to do with how good a team the Phillies were that year.

By almost every measure, the same thing is happening this year with the Phillies. This year of frustration, anger, despair, and depression has been filled with one run losses, bad breaks, injuries, and statistical anomalies.

We've detailed them here repeatedly. The team is first in the majors in xFIP, but 9th in the NL and 14th in the majors in runs allowed per game. The team has a -1 run differential but is 4 games under .500. The team has the fourth best fWAR per game in the NL and sixth best in the majors, but it has the 11th best record in the NL and 20th best in the majors. The team has a historically bad (and presumably completely unsustainable) record with men on third and less than 2 outs. They have a third-order winning percentage 40 points higher than their actual winning percentage. I could go on . . . .

By all of these methods of soundly evaluating baseball, the Phillies, despite their depleted roster, should be doing better, even much better, than they are. But they're not. Why? Because sometimes the improbable happens. Using the basic coin toss methodology, a team that is, for argument's sake (and I'm not saying the Phillies fit this categorization), a .600 team in terms of quality has a 1.3% chance of having 28 wins or less through 62 games. Again, that's a low probability, but it can happen. (After all, the 1991 Phillies won 13 in a row, and that was 325 times less likely to happen.)

And when it happens, what do we do? Do we, like the callers to WIP, throw up our arms and declare all lost? Do we, like the commenters at philly.com, decide that this team is useless? Do we, in essence, decide based solely on past results that the 50/50 coin toss really isn't 50/50?

Or, do we take a different tack? Do we realize that the odds of the coin coming up heads are the same, no matter the results? Do we understand that probability is a funny thing because even low probability events can and do happen? Do we, in other words, keep the faith in what our best measures of baseball quality tell us - that the team is better than this?

Someone who believes in modern baseball analysis has to take this latter approach. No amount of bad luck, horrible outcomes, and frustrating performances should convince you otherwise.

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