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The Oakland Athletics have underachieved all season. Even when they were playing well, the A’s winning percentage lagged their run expectancy by a historic margin. In mid-June, the deficit was the largest in the modern era, suggesting that, even though Oakland had the best record in the major leagues, the best was yet to come.

Oakland Athletics’ Actual vs. Expected Winning Percentage, 2014
As real vs expected

Note: For information on how Pythagorean record are calculated, click here. Data as of September 2, 2014.
Source: Proprietary data base with data from baseball-reference.com

Since mid-June, the gap between the Athletics’ expected and actual winning percentage has been cut in half, but not because the team started to fulfill its potential. Instead of playing up to its run differential, Oakland’s Pythagorean record began to decline, even as Billy Beane spared no effort to improve the team. After playing at .500 for the last 56 games, the Athletics have ceded first place to the Angels and allowed the Tigers and Mariners to creep within three games of their hold on the two wild cards. If the trend continues, Oakland very well could make history, albeit not the kind they were aiming for during the summer.

Even with a prolong stretch of mediocrity, the Athletics still have the best run differential (and Pythagorean record) in baseball. If that remains, and Oakland finds itself out of the playoffs, it will be the first time in the wild care era that a team with the major’s best run differential and expected winning percentage did not make the post season. In the division era, which began in 1969, only three teams share that dubious distinction, and, since 1903 (the advent of the World Series) this unfortunate list only totals eight.

Teams With Best Pythagorean Record/Run Differential but No Postseason
best not in playoffs
*In 1978, the Brewers and Dodgers tied for the best per game run differential in the majors. The Dodgers won the NL pennant.
Note: The highest Pythagorean record doesn’t always correspond to the highest run differential. For information on how Pythagorean record is calculated, click here. Data as of 
September 2, 2014.
Note: Excludes 1904 and 1994, when no postseason was held.
Source: Proprietary data base with data from baseball-reference.com
Continue Reading »

Derek Jeter’s farewell tour has been a victory lap for the Hall of Fame shortstop. In cities throughout baseball, fans have cast aside their loyalties to shower appreciation on the Yankees’ Captain, who spent most of the last 20 years helping the Bronx Bombers repeatedly beat their favorite teams.

Derek Jeter's 20-year reign of "selfishness" is coming to an end.

Derek Jeter’s 20-year reign of “selfishness” is coming to an end.

Although the fan response has been resounding, Jeter’s final go-round hasn’t been without bumps. The 40-year old has suffered through the worst season of his career, and that has provided an opportunity for the short stop’s embittered critics to take one last shot at the legend as he makes his way out the door. While the vast majority of baseball fans have been eager to slap him on the back, this smaller group of Jeterphobes has opted for a push, with a little dirt kicked in his direction for good measure.

The typical contrarian Jeter article usually acknowledges, albeit begrudgingly, the short stop’s historic career, but it is careful to couch that praise in standard criticism of his defense. Conferring infallibility to defensive metrics that are inherently flawed, the critics proclaim that Jeter is the worst defensive short stop of all time, as if being extra emphatic will change the minds of those who have watched him play for 20 years. Putting aside the reliability of these metrics, and the validity of the resultant exaggerated claims, these articles never seem to mention that, despite being heavily penalized for his defense, Jeter still has one of the highest WAR ratings among short stops. If the truth about Jeter’s defense is somewhere in the middle, who knows how high he’d rank? Maybe, he’s actually underrated?

The debate over Jeter’s defense has become so clichéd, the discourse is more about the person taking a position than the merits of their argument (present company included). And, perhaps because this pointed criticism of Jeter has begun to fall on deaf ears, his detractors have latched onto something new. Now, not only has Jeter been an abominable defender all these years, the critics proclaim, but his farewell tour has proven him to be selfish.

Although others have made similar veiled suggestions, Howard Megdal doesn’t mince words. In his latest article at SBNation, Megdal calls into question “the basic truth…that Derek Jeter is a selfless leader who will do whatever it takes to win”. The crux of Megdal’s argument is Jeter should have voluntarily and publically demoted himself in the lineup and/or limited his playing time. His failure to do this, the author states, is evidence of Jeter’s selfishness. Continue Reading »

The Yankees find themselves idle on Labor Day for the first time since 2005 and on only the second scheduled date in franchise history (1994 was victim to the strike, and rain postponed games in 1922, 1933, 1935). Considering how poorly this year’s offense has performed, the day off seems rather appropriate. Because of the team’s slumbering bats, the Yankees enter the home stretch with their worst record on September 1 since 1995. That year, the Bronx Bombers rallied to win the Wild Card. Unless the Yankees’ offense awakens suddenly, a similar turnaround doesn’t seem likely.

The Yankees’ season-long offensive malaise has been a surprise to many. “If only the players would hit to the back of their baseball cards” has become a common refrain from fans and pundits alike. A careful look at the numbers, however, tells a different story. With the exception of Brian McCann, every other Yankee hitter has at least performed close to a reasonable expectation. How did the mighty Bronx Bombers come to such a sorry state? Before answering that larger question, it makes sense to examine each component of the offense on an individual basis.

Yankees 2014 Offensive Performance vs. Career and Recent Rates
BCARDCOMP
Note: Includes hitters with at least 100 plate appearances. Snapshots below are limited to hitters with at least 200 plate appearances.
Source: Baseball-reference.com

Above is a summary and below are a series snapshots for each Yankees’ position player with at least 200 plate appearances this season. For each, 2014 OPS/OPS+ is accompanied by the player’s age as well as career and three-year production levels. This juxtaposition strikes at the heart of the “back of the baseball card” argument, and shifts the blame for the team’s poor offense higher up in the food chain. Continue Reading »

Major league baseball has achieved competitive balance. Whether you choose to call it parity or mediocrity, the difference between the best and worst teams in the league has seldom been so narrow.

Max/Min Winning Percentage Comparison, 2001 to 2014
MAXMINWRATE
Note: 2014 data is as of the August 25, 2014.
Source: Baseball-reference.com (data) and proprietary calculations.

So, how has baseball been able to fulfill Bud Selig’s dream of league-wide balance? The combination of increased revenue sharing and a soft cap created by the luxury tax are two key reasons, but there are several others as well. Clearly, the economic landscape in baseball has shifted, but does that really mean the end to big market teams wielding financial influence in the standings?

Before considering that question, it’s important to point out that payrolls in baseball aren’t really coincident indicators. Because baseball’s collective bargaining agreement denies a player access to the free market for at least the first six major league seasons of his career, it’s often the case that salaries lag performance. As a result, players are often paid as much, or more, for how they’ve produced in the past than what is expected from them in the future. Due to this incongruous relationship, it’s easy to see why payroll wouldn’t necessarily correlate strongly with winning percentage in the current year.

Correlation Between Payroll and Past Success, 2000 to 2014
correlation win salary
Note: Periods are as follows Y2Y (current year to current year), Y2LY (current year to last year), Y2LY2 (current year to two years ago), etc. Average period includes all periods ending from 2000 to 2014. Other period ends displayed are a snapshot. Source: Baseball-reference.com (win-loss data), Cots contracts (opening day payroll data with pro-rated signing bonuses), and proprietary calculations. Continue Reading »

The 2014 Yankees have been one of the weakest teams in franchise history. Through 125 games, the Bronx Bombers have been outscored by 40 runs, the organization’s 11th lowest run differential over that span. Not only have the Yankees achieved mediocrity in terms of their record, but their aggregate performance suggests they have been very lucky to do so. In the past, such a poor showing on the field would have been a call to action (and spending), especially coming on the heels of a similar performance in the season before. These days, however, it’s hard not wonder if the Yankees have exactly the kind of team that suits their new business model.

Yankees Run Differential After 125 Games, 1901-2014
run diff after 125
Note: Excludes strike shortened seasons of 1981 and 1994.
Source: baseball-reference.com

Despite the Yankees’ lackluster play, the team has been box office gold. Attendance is up 5% and ratings have rebounded nicely. Granted, both increases are coming off substantial declines in 2013 and Derek Jeter’s farewell tour has been a buffer, but if similar levels can be sustained, it could represent a happy medium for a team dedicated to maintaining mediocrity. Is that really the Yankees’ new mission statement? Although the organization continues to profess a standard of excellence, recent decisions made in the board room and the resultant play on the field say otherwise.

After yesterday’s victory over the Astros, in which the Yankees scored four runs or fewer for the 10th straight game, Joe Girardi commented on the league-wide parity that has allowed the Yankees to masquerade as a contender. The Bronx Bombers’ manager attributed the even level of play to revenue sharing and TV contracts, but left out the biggest reason for baseball’s new era of mediocrity: the acquiescence of big market teams like the Yankees. After all, if not for the team’s belt tightening, Robinson Cano and his wRC+ of 142 would be in the middle of the Yankees order, not the team three games ahead in the wild card standings.

The Yankees have been in cost cutting mode the last few seasons, with a recent acceleration over the last two. Although fans and media alike reflexively point to the “half billion” dollars spent during the past offseason, the numbers don’t lie. The Bronx Bombers’ revenue has continued to rise, while the team’s payroll as a percentage of that income has taken a nose dive. There’s plenty of room to debate how much the Yankees should be spending on players, but the fact that they are spending relatively less can’t be contested. Continue Reading »

For the second time in three years, the Red Sox have waived the white flag at the trade deadline, which wouldn’t be remarkable if they hadn’t captured a checkered flag in between. In a season already marred by historic failure from a defending champion, by selling off its team, Boston is now all but assured of placing their 2013 World Series championship between book-end seasons at the bottom of the AL East.

First Shall Be Last, Last Shall Be First
firsttoworst
# 1994 season was strike-shortened. *Won World Series. Note: If Blue Jays, who trail A.L. lead by two games, win the division, they will become 12th worst to first team. Red Sox would not be first WS champ to finish last in the following season; 1997 Marlins, who won wild card, finished last in 1998.
Data Source: Baseball-reference.com

Last year, the Red Sox became only the 11th team since 1901 to finish in first place one year after bringing up the rear of their division (and only the second to win the World Series in the process). Now, this season, they are poised to become only the eighth team to go in the opposite direction, as well as the first to sandwich a division title around two stints in the cellar. This roller coaster ride in the standings over the last few years probably has Red Sox Nation feeling a little dizzy, but it doesn’t capture the extent of Boston’s rags to riches Schizophrenia.

World Series Champs with Sub-.500 Records Before and After
SUB500BefAft
Note: Green shading indicates the World Series championship year.
Data Source: Baseball-reference.com

Continue Reading »

Brian Cashman had a pretty good July. Without sacrificing the future, he was able to add four players who, at the very least, should allow the Yankees to remain near the pennant race, if not in it. Of course, considering the season’s late stage, and the consolidation of talent among the American League’s elite, these reinforcements could prove to be “too little, too late”.

Brian Cashman was busy at the deadline, but the moves he made may have Yankees fans feeling a little disappointed. (Photo:  Jim McIsaac/Newsday)

Brian Cashman was busy at the deadline, but the moves he made may have Yankees fans feeling a little disappointed. (Photo: Jim McIsaac/Newsday)

Whether or not the Yankees can salvage a poor season with a strong stretch drive won’t be the final verdict for Cashman’s deadline maneuvering. The day of reckoning might not come until next year. By acquiring the likes of Martin Prado, Stephen Drew and Chase Headley, the Yankees may have done much more than supply their late season deficiencies. On Opening Day next year, all three late season additions could be a part of the Yankees’ starting infield.

Prado is signed through 2016, and his flexibility gives the Yankees plenty of options. However, for Headley and Drew, the next two months could be a quasi-tryout. If either or both can perform well during a playoff push in the New York crucible, and the team’s scouts like what they see, there’s every reason to believe the Yankees would be interested in keeping them.

If the Yankees do enter next year with such an infield, it won’t rival the team’s All Star ensembles from the past decade, but it would represent a significant upgrade over the many combinations used this year. Also, if you add Alex Rodriguez to the mix as a DH, and assume he’ll share a significant portion of that role with Carlos Beltran, the Yankees would only have to add one more bat, particularly capable of playing both RF and 1B, before turning their attention back to the starting rotation. Here is where the team’s commitment to being a bona fide contender will be put to the test. With Jon Lester, Max Scherzer and James Shields all looking for a new home this winter, and as many as four rotation slots open, the Bronx could prove to be a popular destination, assuming, of course, the team is willing to open its deep wallet.

So much can change between now and November, but it’s hard not to look past August and September and see a blue print for next year. Although the Yankees would obviously prefer otherwise, the final two months may not be about getting back into the pennant race, or even snagging one of the wild cards. Instead, the this year’s trade deadline might be the starting line for 2015.

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