Nationals Baseball: Formulating an agrument

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Formulating an agrument

I could talk about the pitching but hey why not try to enjoy myself during this terrible downswing and go with something I know Ill love : picking on Boz.

Yesterday in his chat (still optimistic, the team hasn't quite beaten it out of him) he included this weird factoid.
Since 1983, 14 teams have won their division by 15 games or more. Five — more than a third — failed to repeat, including teams that had demolished their divisions by 21 1/2 and 20 games.
The idea he was trying to get across was pretty straightforward. Even teams that seemingly are head and shoulders above their divisional competition can find themselves in 2nd place just a year later. But how he formulates the argument makes me question the whole point.

First off he uses two arbitrary endpoints in the argument. The first, "15 games or more", makes some sense. He wants to include the 2014 Nats, who won their division by 17 games, and dropping it down to 15 allows for more teams to be included (more data points) and gives some needed flexibility to the definition of dominant division winners. It's a perfectly reasonable choice. The second though, "since 1983", I can't figure out why he chose. You read enough about baseball and you get familiar with the years usually used as endpoints used for factoids. Unless you want to use 100+ years of questionable comparison, you pick division expansion (1969, 1994), years of team expansion (1969, 1977, 1993, 1998), other notable years (1946 post-war, strikes in 1981, 1994,  DH in 1973) to subset your analysis. But 1983? What is that measuring? Last time the Orioles were in the World Series? Only All-Star game grand slam?

Either you pick 1983 because it serves your point or you pick it because the data tells you to. Already the latter is questionable because since you are dealing with a division question you should probably only go as far back as these divisions existed. But if there were a big gap prior to 1983 of 15+ game leads but constant type leads since you could reasonably use 1983 as a stopping point. Well what does the data tell us? What years do we find these 15+ game leads? We'll use since 1969 since that is when divisions similar to 1983 started.

1969, 1970, 1971, 1975, 1983, 1984, 1986, 1988, 1995 (2), 1998 (2), 1999, 2002, 2003, 2008, 2011, 2014

Hmmm. The biggest gap is between 1975 and 1983, but the gap between 1988 and 1995 is almost as large. I just don't see the reasoning of looking before 1994**

OK for our sake let's restrict analysis from 1994 on since that makes sense. How many out of 9 (can't count Nats yet) division winners ended up losing their division the next year? 2. The 1999 Indians and the 2003 Giants.

Now here's another thing. There are multiple ways to be 15 games better than the team behind you. You can be great and they can be mediocre, or you can be very good with some luck and they can be good but with bad luck. Either can work. The Nats were great (Pythag 97 wins) and the competition was mediocre (Mets 2nd best with 82 pythag wins). That's the scenario we want to see. The 2003 Giants don't really fit that bill. They were more very good and very lucky turning a 93 win pythag team into a 100 win team. Talent wise they were more 10 games better than the Dodgers, which is a lot, but not enough for our purposes here. So we're left with the 1999 Indians. Over 15 games better in pythag than the next best team in the division. What happened to them in 2000?

It IS Boz's argument come to life. The Indians, a couple games lucky the previous year, got a couple games unlucky the year after. A division rival, in this case the White Sox had one of those years. Nearly everything went right. Only one hitter dropped while several got better, trades worked out, the entire pitching staff took a step forward. It's quite amazing to see. In the end they were just good enough, with everything going their way, to pass the Indians. It only lasted for a year, only happened to one team truly 15 games better than their opponents in 21 years, but this type of magical season does happen. This is what Boz was worried about at seasons start. It's what we worried about (albiet more with injuries costing the Nats a few games than getting unlucky)

Too bad that isn't what's happening here.

The Nats aren't facing a Mets team who is having everything go right. The Mets are playing like an 86-87 win team. A natural progression from the .500ish win team they were last year. They didn't catch the Nats with magic. The Nats have utterly collapsed. They are under .500 for god's sake. Has that happened before to anyone?

Well we see it didn't happen since 1994, so let's go back through those 8 times from 69 to 93. The last four times it happened the teams did in fact fail to win the division the following year. Were any of these complete collapses?

The 1983 White Sox. Totally. They were a good team in 1982 who made it all work in 83 only to come crashing down in 84. The starting pitching saw three guys pretty much turn bad at the same time, while the hitting kind of took a combined step back along with their DH, Greg Luzinski, hitting the wall.They weren't quite the Nats talent level though, imo.

The 1984 Tigers? I don't know if I'd call it a collapse. They continued to play well in 1985. There were also not 15 games better than anyone by Pythag, the AL East being very competitive in the mid 80s. The 1984 team was more of an aberration to me. One of two standout years in a sea of decency that lasted from 1978-1988, powered by 2 things that are ultimately very variable - a great bench and a great pen.

The Mets in 1986 and 88 present the last two examples and are probably fueling Boz's comments. In both 1987 and 1989 they were still good but just passed. In 1987 Ron Darling became the average arm he'd be for the rest of his career, while Ojeda got injured and the bullpen stepped back. As you could guess that wasn't enough to make them bad but the Cardinals watched Jack Clark have a monster year and Coleman and Pendleton go from bad to good. In 89 they got a bit unlucky. Carter and Gooden got hurt. Cone wasn't awesome. Meanwhile the Cubs saw Grace develop and Sandberg bounce back, got a career year from a rookie named Dwight Smith, got Mike Bilecki's only quality year as a starter and Rick Sutcliffe's last good season...

Where does this leave us? Well Boz's initial statement, that 15+ winners can easily lose their lead the next year is probably a bit overblown. While it happened 4 out of 8 times from 69-94 it's only happened 2 out of 9 since then with the divisions set up as they currently are. Plus when you try to factor luck out of the records it even gets less likely in the initial pass of the data* because a couple of those teams drop "true 15 games better" status.

However unlikely doesn't mean impossible as we see. Boz (and really all of us - we did say it was possible) is right in a more macro sense, despite the terrible way he formulates the argument and his wrong facts and off conclusions. It's hard to play high 90s good and when you drop back into the low 90s, a little bit of bad luck for you, a little bit of good luck for them, and you can totally be passed.  In the biggest lesson to the current Nats, the late 80s Mets only won two divisions when they really could have won six divisions in a row. They were that talented, but luck/timing/heart/etc wasn't on their side.

To me looking at that team - the late 80s Mets is most informative. We've thought that "being good for a while, win your division a few times, make playoffs. then hope" was the best strategy you could put together for championships. But unless you can put together a worthy high 90s win team (which we did think the Nats could have been this year, to be fair) over and over again the playoffs aren't guaranteed. Not even close. So many little things can happen that can keep you out that playing for it all when you have the chance... it just makes more and more sense to me.

The other thing I take away is that what the Nats are doing right now, this total collapse into mediocrity? It's crazy. While not unprecedented it really only happened once before with that 1984 White Sox team and it's tough to argue they had the Nats talent. Still the Nats have some time to get back and either win the division or find themselves a more normal path to missing the playoffs, being a good team that's just not good enough by a game or two. Otherwise this Nats team will go down as something historic. An incredibly talented squad with limited competition who completely imploded and lost the division in a single season.

*to be complete we need to go back through the years to see who might have been 15 games better by pythag but won their division by fewer than that and see how they did the following year.

**At that point we have more divisions with fewer teams in them. We should see more 15+ game leads during this time. Is that the case? Well if we see 8 such times in 25 years from 1969 to 1993 with 2 divisions per league we should see 12 in the next 25 just by division increases alone... but it hasn't been 25 years yet (21) so scale that back to 10... and we see 10!  That's actually interesting because I would expect the decrease in number of teams in the divisions to lead to more instances. It's probably something that can't be seen with this analysis - probably just shows up as greater average divisional leads.


SM said...

It would have been interesting if Boz--or you as well, Harper--had parsed the study another way (though I'm not sure how you could come up with a clear definition).

Namely, whether a winning veteran team vs. a winning young team vs. a winning team with a mix of both in any way affects outcomes.

Maybe its madness even to try to calculate what a veteran team is. (Young veterans, old veterans, some veteran presence, etc.) But still . . .

SM said...

Let me add that the Seitz/Messersmith decision that ultimately permitted free agency must have
have played some role in Boz's so-called historical survey. No?

Harper said...

SM - you could probably (and it's probably been done) see if there is any correlation between average age when winning division and results the following year. You'd expect some drop at the end with age affecting performance but is say, there an effect to being too young. I've gotta feel this has been done with wins, but maybe not titles.

No, I doubt that. Honestly I think Boz kind of had the Mets in the back of his head when thinking about that and started looking from around there. Probably checked out a few years earlier than 1983 but seeing nothing stopped looking.

blovy8 said...

I don't think you have to limit this to division winners, you can extend it to strong contenders as well and there might be a few more cases. The Orioles went from a 98-win Pythagorean pace (winning 100) in 1980 to being outscored in 1981 (you can argue the strike messed them up with regard to schedule strength I suppose) with essentially the same players. Something like a 173 run differential drop. I suppose Weaver was a good enough manager to get the team to be respectable at 59-46, so it doesn't show up in their record - but they had two shots at the playoffs and NY and Milwaukee won the split seasons.

The Nats have gone from 131 runs up to 8 runs up so far.

Alan G. Ampolsk said...

Interesting... I'm an ex-New Yorker and rooted for the Mets from childhood 'til I left at the end of the '07 season (good year to leave). Re: the late 80's Mets teams, and re: their lack of heart - what's been on my mind watching the Nats over the past couple of years is... Kevin McReynolds. As in, Frank Cashen's unhealthy fascination with smooth, undisruptive clubhouse personalities. Granted, Kevin Mitchell was a bit of a hard case, but he played like on, in the positive sense. McReynolds, who was supposed to provide quiet, disciplined production, came to NY, hated it (homesick for Arkansas) and basically imploded, sucking energy out of the clubhouse in the process. McReynolds looks to me like the kind of player Rizzo likes. I'm a Rizzo fan and have admired most of his moves, but I think he's got a blind spot when it comes to chemistry. I keep thinking about how much of a factor Morse was on the '12 Nats team. His production took a nosedive over the next years, and I'm not saying holding onto him was the answer, but look at the Nats clubhouse today and you've got a lot of McReynolds clones. Where's the Hunter Pence equivalent, the guy who lights a spark? Obvious this isn't a numbers-based argument, and I don't want to overstate it - it's just one factor. But there's a deadness to the club that I think hurts them, and the last time I saw it was with the late-80's Mets teams that you've called out as a good analogy. So... maybe more bad stuff to explore...

Chaz R said...

You know, I get all that Harper. You make good sense in picking apart Boz (as usual). The reality remains, the Nats imploded. Boz says it's not that uncommon, you say it's very uncommon. I simply say- fine. I can see they have imploded. How the heck did it happen??? I suppose it's the Disappointed Me that wasn't to fix blame in some way. I also would like to hear something from MW and the Nats organization besides; Oh everything is fine, it will all work out.

I agree with your rationale yesterday about the offense. We were concerned about how good the offense would be at the beginning of the season. We thought at its worst, it would be ok, but could be very good. My biggest issue is with the pitching. This was suppose to be the strength that would carry us through all the ups and downs of a potentially mediocre offense and a mediocre bullpen. What happened to that strength?

Natsochist said...

Harper, what about teams that just miss that 15-game cutoff? I'm specifically thinking about the 07 Mets and the 2012 Phillies, who just about everyone expected to repeat after winning >100 games the previous year.

The Mets won the previous season by 12 games; the Phillies, by 13.

Harper said...

blovy8 - I wouldn't touch strike year split-season. Too different.

Obviously losing the division the year after winning it has happened.
Also being a great team and collapsing surely has happened.
And losing the division as the clear best team in talent based on previous year to mediocre competition surely has happened

But the combination of three... It's not even like "oh this shows the Nats are the worst!" just that this combination of things hasn't really happened. You get overtaken by good teams. Or you aren't that good. or you collapse but not after being so dominant in division.

Alan G - At the very least it can't hurt to have such a guy to avoid these criticisms. Scherzer seemed pretty close to it though the first half of the year, no?

Anonymous said...

I thought it was common knowledge that the resson those immensely talented '80s Mets teams underachieved so much is because they were a bunch of drugged-up alcoholic wild men.

I still think Dwight Gooden might be the most naturally talented pitching talent I ever saw. The way he destroyed his own life and wasted so much of it is pretty sad.

Rob Evans said...

Damn...and I thought I couldn't get any more depressed. Thanks Harp.

Kenny B. said...

@Alan G.: Why does Bryce Harper not fit the bill as an energetic spark-type?

Anonymous said...

I'm in full agrüment with this!

W. Patterson said...

@Kenny B - Bryce Harper may be energetic but I don't think of him as being the spark. He can perform but evidence shows that it evidently takes more than one youngster to spark the rest of the team. Otherwise, we'd have a whole new conversation going.

Werth might be the person to spark the team. Not with his performance (no comment) but he IS the veteran who should be able to talk some sense into these guys.

They need a leader and I don't know who it should be.

Max David said...

Even if the Mets get swept in the 2 game series at Baltimore, they'll only have 3 games left the entire season against teams over .500 and those 3 are at home. Since that's the week before the final Nats series of the year the pitchers that pitch the final 2 games of that Yankees series are lined up to pitch the first 2 games of the Nats series, so they (Collins & Alderson) can line up their rotation in September to have all 3 (Harvey, deGrom, Syndergaard) or even 4 with Matz for the Nats series and then 2 of the 3 or 4 for the Yankees series. Since I don't think we'll sweep them or even win the series I think we'll have to be no worse than 2 games up when we go into Queens for that series. With the schedule the Mets have (after this week) do you really think they can lose 6.5 games in the standings between now and October 1?? I don't.

Matt said...

The Mets play the Yankees two weeks before the Nats series. The Mets/Nats series in Queens is the last 3 games of the regular season.

Anonymous said...

@Max David

I do.

I also think the Nats will win both H2H series so they don't need to gain 6.5 games entering the last H2H series, although they can do that, too. The Mets just got swept at home by the Pirates' worst starters because the Mets bats went to sleep again, wasted good starting pitching, and exposed the soft underbelly of their bullpen.

The Mets are a deeply flawed team with one overriding strength that may be on the verge of wearing down. Syndergaard especially has been slipping since he beat the Nats. I just don't see the Mets pulling away. Meanwhile, the Nats have a soft schedule.

I think the Mets had their chance to build a 7-8 game cushion and they blew it. At minimum, the Mets and Nats will play for 1st place in the season-ending series, but if one team is eliminated before then, it'll be the Mets.

Alan G. Ampolsk said...

@Harper - Agree that Scherzer played the spark plug role early on. But it's hard for a pitcher to do, since he has to spend so much time off on his own between-games routine, and since a poor run can pull the rug out from under him, as is happening to Scherzer now a bit.

@KennyB - I think Harper will play that role someday but he's still a bit young to be that kind of vocal leader. Needs to continue developing his on-field (at-bat) self control, though that'll happen - he's a pretty quick study.

We're talking about a couple of different things - the leader (might be Werth, though it's hard to lead when you're an introvert, he's definitely not a Pence) and the guy who keeps things loose (Morse in '12, maybe Scherzer this year, at least early on).

Overall - seems like a tight clubhouse when looseness would help.

Not a major point, just something else to factor in.

JE34 said...

Werth leading off. Going out of his way to give him more ABs. Deep sigh.

Anonymous said...

found the issue, we're just fat, that's why we can't win

Mattyice said...

Why on earth did Williams let Zimmermann lead of the sixth...didn't we add papelvon to strengthen our bullpen??

Anonymous said...

Is this MW admitting Werth has zero power, that anyone except him can hit homers in Denver, therefore putting him where he won't do nothing with men on base? Otherwise I have no idea.

Chaos said...

Colorado. Good for what ails ya.

Now if we could just get the O's to pull their weight......


Donald said...

Maybe we have a faulty assumption going in -- that the Nats are loaded with talent. Clearly, the starting rotation was highly talented, maybe even historically so. But for the rest of the team, we've discussed before how Harper is the only superstar. Even when they were running away with the division in 2012 and 2014, it was hard to find players that really deserved to be on the all-star team. The Nat's roster seems to contain mainly solid players but who do you fear at the plate if you're the opposing pitcher besides Bryce? Even last year, who did you fear?

Anonymous said...

Since I just noticed, I have to ask what an "argrument" is? Is that an American League term?