As of July 13, the Nationals sit atop the NL East, while the Phillies occupy 4th place. But are their respective records and standing reflective of the actual outlook of the teams? For example, is Washington for real? Do the Phillies have a chance to win the division title? Let?s take a look behind the W-L records at some adjusted standings, courtesy of Baseball Prospectus:
Column 1 is self-explanatory. Column 2 lists the Pythagorean records of each NL East team. Bill James came up with this metric a few years back as a way of predicting teams? performances (through the use of total runs scored and allowed), and it?s usually pretty accurate across years. The Pythagorean record can then be compared to the actual W-L record to get a feel for whether the team is over- or underperforming.
Column 3 lists the Third Order standings. These standings are derived from a modification of the Pythagorean formula, by using Adjusted Equivalent Runs (AEQR) in place of the simple runs scored and allowed. AEQR takes into account the quality of the opposing pitchers and defenses each team faced.
So what does this tell us? Well, for each team save the Nationals, when factoring in the quality of opponents, the Third Order record is almost parallel to their actual record. Thus, it?s safe to say that the Braves, Phillies, Mets, and Marlins have played up to their capabilities in the first-half of the season, i.e. they?re right where they should be. The Nationals appear to be playing above their heads, but keep in mind that anything can happen during the course of one season, so it wouldn?t be unthinkable to see the Nats continue their winning ways; it would be unlikely, but not impossible.
What does this mean for the second half of the season? The NL East, at this point, is a crapshoot. All of the teams are still in the race, and a hot or cold spell from any of them could be the difference between making the playoffs or starting the offseason early. Since the adjusted standings only tell us about performance in the past, it doesn?t really help us look toward the second half. If we want to answer the question ?Are any of the teams more likely to have a slump or surge in the second half??, we?ll need to delve further into the stats.
By totaling the VORP amounts of every player who has seen action this year for each team, you can get a pretty accurate representation of the quality of each teams? hitters and pitchers, and it makes for a nice and easy comparison across teams. Following are the VORP totals, broken down into hitting and pitching, for each NL East team:
Before we discuss the results, two notes: 1) I removed all pitchers? stats from VORP(h) (the only team this really affected was the Braves, who lost 8 points of VORP) and 2) VORP(h) stands for hitters, (p) for pitchers, and (t) for hitting and pitching combined. Okay, now that that?s out of the way, let?s see what he have here. We see that the Phillies have the best offense in the division (even with Thome?s nightmare season and, to borrow from the SportsGuy, the giant forks sticking out of the backs of Bell and Lieberthal), that the Braves have the best pitching (the Leo Mazzone Effect), and are the most balanced team overall. Washington and the Phils bring up the rear in hitting and pitching, respectively, by a substantial margin. As of right now, by examining both the adjusted standings and the team VORP totals, it appears that the Braves are the odds-on favorites to fourteen-peat in the division.
There is one other avenue to try in order to get a better handle on predicting the second half: gauging whether individual players have under- or over-performed. This provides a more specific look at the details for each team, and we can then approximate the second-half chances to a higher degree. So how can we do this? Well, Baseball Prospectus has a handy forecasting system, named PECOTA, that is compiled before the season starts. It seems to me that if we compare players? actual first-half stats to the baseline projections of those players from that forecasting system, we should be able to ascertain which players are most likely to regress to the mean (both upwards and downwards), and then use that to predict which teams should have a positive or negative trend in the second half.
Here?s what I did: I estimated who the starters would be in the second half at each position for each NL East team. (If I'm way off base, let me know and I'll revise the tables.) I then took each player?s first-half VORP--VORP(fh)--and projected a year-end VORP based on likely playing time in the second half. I then compared that projected VORP and other ancillary stats (e.g. OPS for hitters, WHIP for pitchers, etc.) to the best-fit percentile in the PECOTA system. The 50th percentile is each player?s baseline VORP projection; I considered any performance that fell in the 75-90 percentile range to be above average, and any performance that fell in the 10-25 percentile range to be below average. (As an example of PECOTA percentiles, look at Manny Ramirez? projection for this season.)
Thus, in the PECOTA column, you?ll see either an ?OVER?, ?UNDER?, or ?BASE?, each representing the level of performance to date. To compare with the PECOTA column, the TREND column indicates the most likely path (?UP?, ?DOWN?, or ?SAME?) for that player to take in the second half of the season. Finally, the last column: Rank simply indicates the rank order of that player?s VORP(fh) compared to the other 4 NL East starters at that position. I tried to be as comprehensive as possible, and I hope this paragraph is coherent enough for everyone to follow what I?ve done.
Before we get into it, I need to express one caveat: the following work is my best estimate as to roster construction and playing time. Obviously, the rosters listed will most likely not be as static as I?ve presented them, especially so with the Mets? first- and second-base upheavals. So my predictions will not be foolproof; no one?s can be. This seems to be the biggest misconception about the field of sabermetrics: that ?stat guys? believe we can predict what?s going to happen. That is totally untrue; I?m just making an educated guess based on the information available to me. There may be injuries that players are hiding (see Bell, David, circa 2003), unknown factors behind a person?s development (e.g. Brian Roberts? 50 doubles last year were a good indication some of those would turn into HR?s this year, increasing his SLG), etc.
So without further ado, here are the lists broken down by each team, with a short summary blurb following each table:
Chipper Jones was hurt, so I expect a nice rebound from him, hence his Up trend. I?ve assumed that Betemit sticks at 3rd and Larry moves to LF; even if Larry returns at 3rd, Kelly Johnson in LF is about equal to Betemit in terms of this study. I also think Andruw Jones comes back to Earth a bit, but I could be wrong on that. Overall, looking at the Rank column, the average for the Braves? hitters was 2.6, which was first in the division. Removing Mondesi and Jordan really helped this offense.
Smoltz is simply performing way above anyone?s expectations, and I realistically don?t see how he can keep it up, especially as the innings pile up in late August/early September; the same goes for Hampton. Other than that, Mazzone looks like he?s turned around another pitching staff. The big hurdle for Atlanta is the bullpen; if Smoltz stays the course, and Hampton and Thomson come back and recapture their performance from earlier in the season, the currently flaky bullpen will become pretty deep as Sosa, Colon, and possibly Davies take up shop there. The average of the SP?s in the Rank column: 2.4, tied for second.
Well, I sure did type in a bunch of ?Downs?. The offense seems to have overperformed thus far. Encarnacion is hitting a lot better than projected, as are Castillo and Cabrera. But while Cabrera appears to have made the leap, I?m dubious as to whether Castillo and Encarnacion can keep up their current pace. On the flip side, Lowell has nowhere to go but up after actually performing worse than the Phils? own David Bell. The average hitters? rank: 2.9, third in the division.
As for the pitchers, the triumvirate of Jones, Willis, and Moehler appear to have no shot to keep up their ridiculous paces. Willis is way past his 90th PECOTA percentile, and Moehler wasn?t even on a big-league pitching staff last year. Todd Jones and the Mets? Roberto Hernandez appear to have taken a drink from the same fountain of youth. (Apparently, the 2004 Phillies missed out on this new-age trend; it must have been Bowa?s fault somehow.) Jettisoning Leiter in lieu of Olsen was a smart move. Average rank of Marlins? starters: 1.6, first by a significant margin.
The season pretty much depends upon Thome?s health. If he comes back to prior years? form, he should elevate the offense pretty highly. I expect Utley, Burrell, and his Awesomeness to continue their paces, and the CF platoon to drop off a bit. And yes, you read that correctly: Bell did receive an ?Up? in the Trend column. What?s sad is that PECOTA pretty much predicted Bell to be as awful as he?s been, and since he was just barely below the 40th percentile, I figured he has to improve against righties. Overall, the average rank for Phillies hitters was 2.75, just behind the Braves for second place.
Myers may be real; his last handful of starts, though, makes me think he?ll drop from his torrid first-half pace. Lidle is notorious for being a better second-half pitcher, so if that is the case, then Ed Wade finally made an in-season move that paid off. Tejeda continues to amaze, as does Lieber (although for the opposite reason). Both Lieber and Padilla have to improve (it?s highly unlikely that they can get any worse), and the bullpen looks able to stay the course. Urbina has a ridiculous K/9 rate (good) and HR/9 rate (bad). I expect the latter to drop, which should increase Triple U?s overall performance. SP average rank: 4.8, a woeful, hideous showing, and the main reason, even more than Thome?s injury, why the Phils aren?t closer to the division lead.
Piazza is still the best catcher in the division. The Mets could use both a first- and second-baseman, although moving Diaz to first remains a possibility, as reports indicate that he was recently assigned to AAA to reassimilate to the position. And Marlon Anderson and Miguel Cairo look like the potential platoon at second now that the lesser Matsui has been booted. So that?s certainly better than Mientkxwzckzk and Matsui. All three outfielders are surprising: Floyd and Cameron on the good side, Beltran on the bad side. If Floyd stays healthy, he could very well maintain his current pace; Cameron probably can?t. And Beltran?s hammy should eventually clear up, which should allow him to get back to his usual level of production. Average rank: 3.1, ahead of only Washington.
Pedro remains Pedro. The other Zambrano should fall back to the pack, unless Rick Peterson finally made up for the Kazmir trade by figuring something out. I didn?t include Heilman among the pitchers because I was looking for relievers in a set role; I would imagine that it?s very possible he takes over for Ishii sometime soon. Average rank: 3.8, not great, but unfortunately for the Phils, more than enough for fourth place.
The trade for Preston Wilson gives the Nats some depth. With Nick Johnson potentially missing more time than first anticipated, Wilkerson can move to first and a Church/Byrd platoon can take over in left field. However, I assumed that Johnson would come back relatively soon, and that?s what I based my projections on. Vidro should drastically increase his numbers now that?s he injury-free, and Guillen should experience a slight drop-off. Castilla has reverted to form after his blazing start, and will probably keep dropping in performance, while Guzman is so far below PECOTA?s 10% projection that it?s hard to see him improve enough to get past the 25% projection (so for the purposes of this study, he?d still be performing under his base projection.) As expected, Washington brought up the rear in average hitters? ranks with a 3.6.
The pitching staff as a whole has performed well thus far and doesn?t appear set up to experience much of a decrease. Hernandez? rubber arm is still holding up, Patterson seems to be living up to his expectations, and Loaiza thinks it?s the year 2003 again. Cordero is way above his 90% projection, so that?s why he got a ?Down? trend rating. I included Majewski instead of Carrasco for two reasons: Carrasco has been a journeyman up until this year and Majewski appears to be used more often than Carrasco. Washington?s average SP rank: 2.4, tied with the Braves for second in the division.
Now that we?ve examined the adjusted standings, the team VORP totals, and the individual player projections of each team, I think we have enough data to make some strong predictions about the second half.
- The Braves have some key players returning from injury that will give them a boost during the second half of the season. Cox, Schuerholz, and Mazzone continue to prove that they are the cream of the crop by jettisoning veteran deadweight and entrusting key roles to minor-leaguers.
- Washington is unlikely to keep up their first-half pace, especially since four hitters should trend downwards and only Vidro is likely to improve.
- Florida appears to have had a bunch of overperformances thus far, and most likely will see a decrease in performance on both sides of the field (pitching and hitting).
- The Mets seem to be about where they should be, and don?t appear ready to jump into the division title fray.
That leaves us with the Phillies.
The Phils? offense is likely to improve in the second half, which is a good sign since they already lead the division in total VORP(h). Three players will most likely trend upwards, while only the CF platoon should experience a downward trend. The return to health of Jim Thome is an important factor in the team?s ability to improve in the second half. Even if that doesn?t come to pass, though, Ryan Howard will most likely double the first-half output from the first base position. As to the team?s pitchers, they really can?t get any worse than they were in the first half. Tejeda?s and Myers? performances should drop off a bit in the second half, but Padilla and Lieber both need to improve significantly for the team to make any kind of a surge; if their prior performances are any indication, the Phillies should see a big second-half turnaround from both pitchers (unless they?re injured, in which case all bets are off). If Worrell returns to pre-2005 form and Urbina improves (a likely scenario), then the bullpen should be able to cover for the rotation, allowing more wiggle room for the staff as a whole.
Crunching the numbers, so to speak, has given us some valuable insight into how the second-half of the season is most likely to play out. Based on what I?ve discovered, here are my predictions for the end-of-year standings:
Whether the Phillies have enough of a spurt in them to capture the wild card is anyone?s guess, but unfortunately, it doesn?t appear very likely at all that they?ll be able to catch the Braves. But since we phans haven?t tasted the postseason buffet in over ten years, a wild card berth would be fine with me.
Now we just need to break down the wild card contenders in a similar fashion, but I?ll leave that for another day.