Friday’s Child (Penultimate Edition)

As noted last week, I spend a lot of my time at BP exploring the margin between teams’ expected performance (as based upon variants of Bill James’ Pythagorean formula) and their actual performance, looking for reasons why it happens and cues as to what it portends. Having taken on the Pythagorean overachievers in last week’s Prospectus Hit and Run, this week I delved into the underachievers. We’ve got a bumper crop of them at the moment:

Meanwhile, there’s also potential history being made at the other, less happy end of the Pythagorean spectrum. Since 1901, twenty-five teams have finished at least 10 games below their third-order Pythagenpat projection. Only twice have two teams done so within the same year, first time in 1912 (when both the Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Braves achieved ignominy), and then again in 1993 (when the Mets and Padres did it). This year, no less than four teams are threatening to join those ranks, including two from the same division:
Rnk  Year Team         W-L    Pct    R    RA   AEQR  AEQRA   D3
1 1993 Mets 59-103 .364 672 744 672 736 -15.1
2 1935 Braves 38-115 .248 575 852 593 835 -14.6
3 1986 Pirates 64-98 .395 663 700 666 697 -13.6
4 2009 Nationals 51-99 .340 661 825 664 773 -13.2

5 1946 A's 49-105 .318 529 680 529 662 -12.8
6 1905 Browns 54-99 .353 512 608 521 601 -12.7
7 1937 Reds 56-98 .364 612 706 620 700 -12.4
8 1939 Browns 43-111 .279 733 1035 752 1003 -12.2
9 1962 Mets 40-120 .250 617 948 631 924 -12.1
10 1917 Pirates 51-103 .331 464 595 468 579 -11.9
11t 1975 Astros 64-97 .398 664 711 668 711 -11.8
11t 1984 Pirates 75-87 .463 615 567 612 564 -11.8
13 2001 Rockies 73-89 .451 923 906 910 870 -11.5
14 1993 Padres 61-101 .377 679 772 681 764 -11.4
15 2009 Blue Jays 68-83 .450 727 719 745 714 -11.3

16t 1924 Cardinals 65-89 .422 740 750 745 752 -11.1
16t 1961 Phillies 47-107 .305 584 796 599 782 -11.1
18 1907 Reds 66-87 .431 526 519 527 522 -11.0
19 1967 Orioles 76-85 .472 654 592 657 602 -11.0
20 1936 Phillies 54-100 .351 726 874 739 869 -10.9
21 2006 Indians 78-84 .481 870 782 882 800 -10.7
22t 1912 Dodgers 58-95 .379 651 744 665 742 -10.4
22t 1952 Tigers 50-104 .325 557 738 563 716 -10.4
23 2009 D'backs 66-86 .434 678 735 693 690 -10.3

24 1919 Senators 56-84 .400 533 570 533 565 -10.2
25t 1912 Braves 52-101 .340 693 871 705 857 -10.1
25t 1928 Phillies 43-109 .283 660 957 682 936 -10.1
25t 1972 Giants 69-86 .445 662 649 662 648 -10.1
30t 2009 Rays 77-74 .510 748 691 774 662 -9.6

Recall that the overachievers list skews towards recent history, with the Wild Card era producing eight of the 21 teams who have finished at least 10 games above their expected records. This one, on the other hand, tilts heavily towards the pre-World War II era, producing 12 of the 25 who’ve finished at least 10 games below their expected records. Not counting this year’s bountiful class, just two of the top underachievers are from the Wild Card era.

The main reason for that, I suspect, has to do with bullpen usage. As noted last year and again in last week’s piece, a strong bullpen is a consistent means of such overachievement; the historical correlation between a team’s cumulative WXRL and its D3 is .42, whereas it’s just .20 for SNLVAR. It makes some amount of sense that the current era might produce more overachievers and fewer underachievers because of the fact that WXRL rates and Leverage scores have been on the rise historically, as bullpens have assumed a higher percentage of innings and increased specialization has tailored more specific roles than 20 or 30 years ago…

Note that Bruce Sutter’s advent as the modern closer marks something of a turning point [in the graph]. WXRL rates rose above 0.1 per nine innings only four times from 1954 through 1979. By that point, Cubs manager Herman Franks had begun his attempt to limit Sutter’s deployment to close games in which the Cubs had a lead—save situations, in other words. The strategy began to take hold, and the only time WXRL rates have been below 0.1 per nine innings since was in the 1981 strike year. They’re now about 40 percent higher than they were 30 years ago.

If the Rays join the club, they’ll be the first team with a record above .500 to do so. At this writing, they’re now 9.5 games below expectation. The Angels, alas, have fallen back to 8.6 wins above expectation, though they can still make history as the first team to finish above 8.0 three years in a row even if they don’t finish above 10.0 for the second straight year.

Anyway, I’ll be spending a lot more time doing so in the coming weeks, both for the BP site and our forthcoming annual, where I’ll be writing about some of the teams involved in these over/underachievments.

• • •

Meanwhile, this week’s Hit List is the penultimate one of the 2009 season. It finds the Dodgers retaking the lead from the Yankees, and a bit of food for thought regarding the handling of young pitchers:

[#1 Dodgers] R&R: The Dodgers haven’t quite clinched a playoff berth, but they’re an eyelash away. Ronnie Belliard helps push them closer with his grand slam off Brad Penny, his second homer in as many starts. Belliard’s .333/.382/.619 showing since his August 30 acquisition is hot enough that Joe Torre is surprisingly noncommittal about whether slumping Orlando Hudson (.233/.313/.302 in September, and now earning an additional $10,000 for every plate appearance) is still the starting second baseman. Meanwhile, Rafael Furcal may finally be shaking his season-long funk, hitting .471/.538/.824 over the last eight games, compared to .256/.321/.352 prior.

[#2 Yankees] The Yankees clinch a postseason berth while taking a series in Anaheim, their first since 2004. As their focus shifts to October, there’s plenty of concern about their rotation, particularly Joba Chamberlain, whose latest bombing pushes his ERA to 8.25 since the beginning of August and threatens his roster spot. It also leaves Chad Gaudin as the potential number four starter behind CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte. Gaudin’s .496 SNWP and 3.33 ERA in five starts with the Yanks are respectable, but if he’s so great, why waste so much time on Sergio Mitre?

[#3 Red Sox] Young Buchh: Tim Wakefield continues to struggle with his pitching and his health but Clay Buchholz is stepping up just in time. His 6.2 scoreless innings against the Royals marks his ninth quality start out of 10, a span during which he’s posted a 2.37 ERA and allowed just four homers in 64.2 innings. If there’s concern to be had, it’s that Buccholz has now pitched 183 innings between the minors and majors this year, up from 134.2 last year—well beyond the so-called “Rule of 30″ increase, but aesthetically speaking, miles beyond the Joba Rules.

Time will tell, of course, whether Buchholz’s handling and heavy 2009 workload was detrimental to his career, or Chamberlain’s handling was beneficial to his, and it’s fair to note that the Laptop Thief is a year older — and further removed from what we at BP refer to as the injury nexus — than Joba, but right now, the Red Sox look to have a clear leg up on the manner in which they’ve handled things.

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