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Post-Catharsis Dominance

5 October 2008 20,335 views One Comment

It’s been a busy year and I haven’t been able to catch as many Red Sox games as I would have liked. Granted, the urgency has been diminished by two championships in the last four years after a near century of long-suffering from close calls and dramatic second-place denouements. The championship in 2004, which broke the slump, was highly cathartic and wonderfully expressed by this surprisingly sympathetic and understanding Nike (NKE) commercial. I cry every time I watch it. Since that 2004 campaign, I’ve watched the franchise grow in sophistication. The team’s use of sabermetrics and shrewd market operations has made it the closest thing to a dynasty in Major League Baseball.

Jon Lester Beats AngelsThis year, my precious Boston Red Sox are once again in the playoffs and are on the verge of eliminating the Los Angeles Angels from the first round. Jon Lester, the young pitcher and cancer survivor, spun a marvelous Game 1 against the Angels and looks like he will become another ace for my boys from Beantown. His pursuit of excellence in the face of great challenge serves as motive inspiration. J.D. Drew, the marvelously talented but oft-injured outfielder, hit a late tie-breaking home run in Game 2 for the victory. Odds are, the Red Sox will win this series as few have ever come back from a two game deficit in a five game set.

The Red Sox enter the playoffs as this year’s Wild Card in the American League and many unsophisticated “gurus” or analysts would have you believe they are no longer the best team in baseball. Disney’s (DIS) ESPN staff of “experts” has put together a Power Rankings list that has the Red Sox ranked as the fourth-best team. They couldn’t be more wrong. I’m going to argue that the Red Sox are indeed the best team in baseball.

Moneyball Book CoverSure, they did not finish with the best record, but wins and losses are only one way to look at dominance. I’m looking for an approach that reveals more truth by looking at the numbers behind the numbers. Much like the superiority of On Base Percentage + Slugging Percentage (OPS) as a tool for analysis over the simplistic Batting Average, which was nicely documented by the oft-cited Moneyball by Michael Lewis. Winning Percentage, and more accurately, winning percentage in the playoffs, is the only thing that counts in the end, but I think we can gain a deeper appreciation for a team’s record by looking at more nuanced numbers. At the same time, I’ll try to keep in mind jazz musician and civil rights activist Charles Mingus’ timeless insight; “Anyone can make the simple complicated. Creativity is making the complicated simple.”

Another way to look at dominance is to examine the Run Differential each team achieves. Run Differential is simply the total offense (runs scored) minus the total defense (runs allowed) over the course of a 162 game season. It stands to reason that a team that score more runs than it allows to opponents, over the course of a whole season, is a winning team. The degree to which it can score runs and limit opponents’ run-scoring should determine its level of success. The greater the Run Differential, the better the team and the more dominant its victories. A seasonal Run Differential is a measurement of a team’s sustained ability to win or dominate. The table below shows the records of the eight playoff teams.

Team

Wins

Losses

Win Pct.

Runs Scored

Runs Allowed

Run Differential

LA Angels

100

62

.617

765

697

+68

Tampa Bay

97

65

.599

774

671

+103

Boston

95

67

.586

845

694

+151

Chicago Sox

89

74

.546

811

729

+82

Chicago Cubs

97

64

.602

855

671

+184

Philadelphia

92

70

.568

799

680

+119

Milwaukee

90

72

.556

750

689

+61

LA Dodgers

84

78

.519

700

648

+52

 

By Run Differential then, the Red Sox should only be the second best team in baseball. ESPN has a standings report that shows the Chicago Cubs finishing the regular season with the best run differential. The lovable losers from the Windy City scored 184 runs more than they surrendered. The Red Sox only managed to score 151 more runs than their opponents. The Philadelphia Phillies rank third with a run differential of 119 runs. The emerging Tampa Bay Rays have 103 runs more than their foes. Interestingly, the team with the best record in the regular season, the Angels, only managed to score 68 runs more than they gave up.

J.D. Drew Homers Against Angels

We can’t stop at Run Differential. What if the American League is the league with better teams and thus tougher competition? What if the National League contains better talent? We need to look at what I am inclined to call Relative Dominance, Adjusted Run Differential, or something to similar effect. With the unbalanced schedule, teams play opponents from their own division more frequently. So an examination of the competition within each division could give us clues as to who is relatively more dominant. For example, the Red Sox and Rays both play in the same division and face each other more frequently. They had to assemble good records while engaged in this battle of behemoths. Perhaps the Angels achieved their best record by playing against relatively weak division rivals out West.

The idea is to award teams that assembled winning records against tough divisional competition and to penalize teams that achieved winning records against futile divisional competition. What if we simply tallied up a division’s cumulative Run Differential and added it to the playoff team’s Run Differential. In the American League East for example, we take all the teams in the division and add up their cumulative Run Differentials and get a +333 value. Then we add in the Tampa Bay Rays’ Run Differential of +103 to get a +436 value. When we do the same process for the Los Angeles Dodgers, we end up with a -203 value! The Dodgers beat up on a bunch of sissies. Below is a table of this analysis.

Team

Wins

Losses

Win Pct.

Run Differential

Divisional Run Differential

Relative Dominance

LA Angels

100

62

.617

+68

-182

-114

Tampa Bay

97

65

.599

+103

+333

+436

Boston

95

67

.586

+151

+333

+484

Chicago Sox

89

74

.546

+82

+84

+166

Chicago Cubs

97

64

.602

+184

+23

+207

Philadelphia

92

70

.568

+119

-3

+116

Milwaukee

90

72

.556

+61

+23

+84

LA Dodgers

84

78

.519

+52

-255

-203

 

It is interesting to see that the team with the best record entering the playoffs, the Los Angeles Angels, and the team with the weakest record to make the playoffs, the Los Angeles Dodgers, both have a negative value for Relative Dominance. They both beat up on hapless division rivals. But Relative Dominance tells us, surprisingly, that the Angels are a lot weaker than their record suggests, given they achieved the best Winning Percentage in the American League.

The Red Sox, despite entering the playoffs as the Wild Card, is the strongest team when measured by Relative Dominance. They scored the biggest Run Differential in the toughest division, a division that included the wildly successful Tampa Bay Rays, the hated New York Yankees, and the tough luck Toronto Blue Jays. Only the Baltimore Orioles had a losing record and negative Run Differential.

I acknowledge that this is only one way to look at a team’s record.  I’m sure there are more robust methods out there like Bill James’ Pythagorean Theorem.  Are there other methods that could better describe a team’s winning record?

Of course, we still have to play the games on the field. Many say that baseball is unpredictable. I say baseball is mostly predictable but there are occasional surprises. The Chicago Cubs, the team with the strongest Run Differential during the regular season, were just eliminated by the Los Angeles Dodgers. This was a huge surprise and an Herculean feat pulled off by the Dodgers.

Boston Red Sox Win World Series

The Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays are on the verge of advancing to the next round. Their matchup in the American League Championship Series will be the real World Series as they are the two strongest teams on paper. As a member of Red Sox Nation, I’m most nervous going into this next round with the Rays. The Rays are younger and hungrier – you can never discount that in life. Whoever wins the American League pennant will be the favorite to beat the National League champion. We shall see.

If the Red Sox win it all again for the third time this century, general manager Theo Epstein and owner John Henry will truly have built a dynasty. This post-catharsis dominance has been an enjoyable departure from a long bout of depressing close calls.

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