Predicting Playoff Success

Considering I spent about 10 hours on my couch watching baseball on Wednesday — admittedly a good portion of it working on a couple different projects — it was an exhausting day. The Brewers couldn’t touch Cole Hamels, who looked better than I’ve ever seen him pitch. The more baseball I watch, the more I’m convinced that a high-quality change-up is the key to pitcher dominance. Pedro Martinez in his prime, Johan Santana, Greg Maddux… C.C. Sabathia the other day… and certainly Hamels are a few examples. Sabathia will have to bring his A-game today if the Brewers are to get back in this series.

Things worked out better in Chicago, where the Dodgers doubled their post-1988 postseason win total by beating the Cubs 7-2 on the strength of a grand slam by James Loney and solo shots by Manny Ramirez and Russell Martin. BP’s Christina Karhl called the series for the Cubs in her preview, but between the conversations I’ve had with her and Joe Sheehan there’s a consensus that this may actually be a stealable series for the Dodgers, who are fielding a much better club now than at any time during the season — they’ve got Rafael Furcal and Takashi Saito back from injuries to go with Manny Ramirez and the absence of Juan Pierre and Andruw Jones. Hopefully they can push the Cubs to the brink with another win tonight.

In handicapping the various playoff series, mainstream pundits and barstool jockeys alike are apt to cite the contrast between teams’ overall won-loss records in picking a favorite. As it turns out, going on overall record alone is a fool’s errand. In the history of postseason baseball dating back to the dawn of divisional play in 1969, the team with the better record has won the series just 44 percent of the time. This alarming finding was something I discovered while doing some research earlier this week, and it forms the starting point of today’s Baseball Prospectus column. As it turns out, projected records based on runs scored and runs allowed do a better job of predicting series winners, but even so are only right about 50 percent of the time. What turns out to be the most reliable indicator is a team’s third-order discrepancy. In plain English, that’s the difference between their projected record after adjusting for run elements, park, league, and quality of competition and their actual record. Teams with the larger discrepancies win postseason series about 53 percent of the time:

 Series       Period      #    W0    W1    D3
All 2-Div 1969-1993 72 .403 .417 .486
All 3-Div 1995-2007 91 .473 .560 .560

All 5-Game 1969-2007 82 .439 .476 .573
All 7-Game 1969-2007 81 .444 .519 .481

All Non-WS 1969-2007 126 .444 .516 .563
All WS 1969-2007 37 .432 .432 .405

All 1969-2007 163 .442 .497 .528

Any resemblance to the NL West standings is entirely coincidental, though it does make for a convenient metaphor. The data underscores the utter futility of using actual records to predict playoff series; that .442 winning percentage is a nearly exact match for the actual record of this year’s Giants (.444). The success rate is considerably higher using first-order records, over .500 in some blocks but not all of them, enough to suggest that even using those is pretty much a crapshoot. It’s at its highest with the third-order discrepancies, a little higher than the actual record this year’s Dodgers on the whole (.519), and at times about as high as those big, bad Phillies (.568).

I don’t want to overstate the claims about what all of this tells us given the sample sizes, but it’s worth laying out the inferences we can draw:

1) Projected records appear to be solid indicators of series success in the Wild Card era, much moreso than in the two-division era.

2) Those projected records appear to do a much better job in the intermediate series than they do in the World Series (the smallest sample here).

3) Third-order discrepancies appear to be the strongest indicators in five-game series, and they match up well across the entire Wild Card era.

The first and third points have the current era in common, and when we consider the difference between this period and the two-division one, one factor that stands out is the evolution of the bullpen’s importance. Recall that Nate Silver found closer quality (as measured by WXRL) to be a significant enough predictor of postseason success that he incorporated into what he termed the “Secret Sauce,” and add to this my own reported finding of a modest correlation (r = .42) between team WXRL totals and third-order discrepancies across the 1954-2007 Retrosheet era, a correlation that edges up to .49 in the Wild Card era. What we appear to have stumbled upon is some further evidence of a link between regular season over- or underachievement, bullpen quality, and postseason success, one that merits further exploration.

W0 is a team’s actual winning percentage, W1 is their first-order winning percentage (a/k/a Pythagorean winning percentage, as projected by runs scored and runs allowed) and D3 is the aforementioned gap between their adjusted projection and their actual performance. Anyway, while hardly definitive, I found it to be interesting stuff worthy of further inquiry.

Around the horn:

• For Wednesday morning’s appearance on Boston’s “The Young Guns” radio show (1510 AM “The Zone” at 8 AM every week), co-host Chris Villani asked me how often the team that wins the opening game of a five-game series prevails in the series. I didn’t have the answer at the time, but during yesterday’s slate of games, the TBS teams showed the data, which carries an alarming split. NL teams that win the opener have gone onto a 23-4 record (.852 winning percentage) in their five-game series. AL teams that have done so have gone 12-14 (.462). There’s no inherent reason for the split, but it’s worth noting that the Yankees bucked the trend in losing the openers in 1996, 2000, 2001, 2003 and 2004 but going on to win, and in winning the 1997, 2002, 2005 and 2006 openers but going on to lose. Only three times during the 12 years of the Joe Torre era did they follow the trend — 1998 and 1999, when they swept the Rangers, and 2007, when they got blown out of the first game and lost the series.

Take that combined 3-9 record of first-game winners in Yankee seriess out and the AL’s record is 11-5 (.688), which is close to the overall combined record of the two leagues, 35-18 (.660). Given the sample sizes, that last is the number I’d cite the next time the question arises.

• Speaking of Manny Ramirez, I stopped reading Bil Simmons at precisely the point where the balance of AL East power tipped from the Yankees to the Red Sox, but I’ve found something to dig into today with his epic piece on Manny Ramirez’s departure from Boston. Annotated with a generous serving of footnotes that might have cheered up the late, great David Foster Wallace, Simmons is with me when it comes to seeing the influence of high-powered Boston media personalities on his eventual departure from Boston:

I thought of that story when Manny began acting up again this summer. Boston’s brain trust had decided to dump him. Again. We were doing this dance for the fourth time in six years. There were two crucial differences this time, the first being Manny had canned his old agents and hired Scott Boras, one of the worst human beings in America who hasn’t actually committed a crime. Manny’s contract was set to expire after the 2008 season, with Boston holding $20 million options for 2009 and 2010. Boras couldn’t earn a commission on the option years because those fees belonged to Manny’s previous agents. He could only get paid when he negotiated Manny’s next contract. And Scott Boras always gets paid.

The second difference? The guys running the Red Sox felt like flexing their muscles this time around. They had renovated Fenway Park, turned the team into a cash cow, captured two titles and become local celebrities on par with Denis Leary and the creepy guys from Aerosmith. They didn’t feel like dealing with Manny anymore. Although it’s usually impossible to jettison a popular star without a backlash from fans, the Red Sox wield unprecedented sway over nearly every relevant media outlet that covers them. One of the team’s minority partners, the New York Times Company, happens to own Boston’s signature newspaper (The Globe). The team owns a cable channel (NESN) that shows every Sox game, pregame show and postgame show. The Sox signed cushy deals with Boston’s signature sports radio station (WEEI) and sister station (WRKO), and since those rights always can be shopped to a competitor down the road, you’ll see CC Sabathia hit an inside-the-park home run before a Red Sox owner gets ripped to shreds on WEEI. They even have good relationships with every relevant national writer, including Peter Gammons, the face of baseball for ESPN, a beloved figure in New England and a longtime friend of general manager Theo Epstein.

Why is this important? As Manny Ramirez’s memorable Red Sox career began to crumble for good, two people were to blame (Manny and Boras), and yet we only heard about one of them. Had the identity of the second villain been revealed, maybe Boston fans wouldn’t have been so eager to downgrade from a first-ballot Hall of Famer to Jason Bay. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We know for sure that, heading into the last year of a $160 million deal that seemed lavish at the time and turned out to be money well spent, Boston’s hierarchy (Epstein and owners John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino) basically told Manny and Boras, “We aren’t giving you an extension after the best offensive stretch in Red Sox history that didn’t involve Ted Williams, and we’re also not deciding on our 2009 and 2010 options yet. Let’s see how you do this season.” In other words, welcome to no-man’s land! By not making a decision, the Red Sox did make a decision: They turned the situation over to Boras and expected his most impressionable client to handle himself with professionalism and class. Like that would happen.

Once Manny shifted into sulk mode, the Red Sox wasted no time painting him as a malcontent. After Manny berated the team’s 64-year-old team employee and shoved the poor guy to the ground, the team did everything but hire actors to re-enact the incident on After Manny skipped a crucial game against the Yankees, claiming he had a sore knee, management made a point of getting MRIs on both knees and telling reporters he was fine. Did the team ever suspend him? Of course not. That would have made too much sense. Once the old school baseball writers started hissing that Manny didn’t respect The Game, for many Boston fans, that was the final straw. And maybe they were right — after all, it’s indefensible to quit on your team just because you don’t like your bosses, especially in November when you’re about to make crucial trades and free-agent signings.

(Whoops, I’m getting my “Guys Who Quit on the Red Sox” confused! I’m thinking of Epstein, who ditched them after the 2005 season because he was tired of dealing with Lucchino. Sorry about that.)

I haven’t read the entire piece, and I don’t buy the article’s conclusion that Manny will wind up wearing Yankee pinstripes once he hits free agency this winter; I’m hearing that the Dodgers will offer him a big package which includes vesting options, and I can see the Mets being a player for him before the Yankees are, particularly given Brian Cashman’s press conference remarks regarding the Yankees’ aging lineup and the Mets’ need to make a splash in the market.

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