Friday, September 6, 2013

Playoff Odds

One of the most indispensable pages I visit frequently is the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds Report. As the end of the season nears and the playoff picture becomes more certain it has less value, but around June or July it's fascinating to see team expectations and how the odds can change.

The wild finish of 2011 notwithstanding, as any season draws to a close, it's increasingly difficult to make up ground on teams. There are two reasons for this:
1. Fewer games
2. Fewer games against the better teams
I'll use the Nationals as an example--as of today (Thursday, September 5th), they have a 1.7% of making the playoffs. They have 23 games left against these teams:

They're currently 9 games back in the wild card standings, meaning they would have to win 9 more games than the team ahead of them (the Reds) in order to snatch that last wild card spot.

I'll be extremely generous and show my projected wins against these teams:

Any team can get hot, but to count on a team going on a hot streak isn't something that can be predicted. There's nothing stopping the Nationals from winning all 23 of these games (there's never been a 23-game winning streak in baseball history, but leave that aside for the moment), but a rational analysis suggests 14-9 is about the best they can do. This would project to around 99 wins, and the Nationals wouldn't be in the spot they're in now. To suggest they would "only" go 14-9 misses that even that would be a very successful stretch of games--if they didn't need to make up 9 games in the standings.

The Nationals' games against the Braves are effectively meaningless as they don't really have a shot at winning the NL East and they only have 3 games against teams in the wild card race, games in which a victory can mean a 1-game leap in the standings. Other than that, it's out of the Nationals' hands, and this is why they're probably fated  to watch the playoffs from at home.

But that's only half the issue--this is the Reds schedule:

If the Nationals manage that 14-9 record, chances are very good Cincinnati will have a similar record down the stretch. Even if Dusty Baker starts resting his players (he won't--there's too much at stake in winning the division to just accept the wild card lying down) the Reds won't have much worse than a .500 record, and the Nationals need them to go 5-17. That's not likely.

This is what the Baseball Prospectus computers do on a daily basis--take into account remaining schedule, where the games are played and who knows what else in order to make their playoff odds. It's pure speculation in May, gains more credence in June and begins to solidify come July as team's true natures are revealed. 

There are always outliers--at this point in the Wild Card Era, there haven't been many teams who weren't already in position to make the playoffs at the 140-game mark:

This table requires explanation. In 2011, the Rays were 7 games back for the last wild card spot at the 140-game mark and were 10 games behind the Yankees for the division championship. In contrast, the 2009 Twins were going to have to win the AL Central or stay home in October since they were further behind in the wild card race (12 games) that in the division race (5 games). Throw out the oddball 2011 season and add the fact that if 2011 were 2013 both Boston and Atlanta would have made the playoffs and it becomes clear that generally speaking, the playoffs are essentially set by the 140-game mark.

This table shows the rest of the Playoff Era (1969-1993):
Other than the very strange 1973 season when the Mets made the World Series with an 82-79 record, not too many teams were able to make up much ground after reaching the 140-game mark--the difference between 1 game and 5 when only 22 games remain is night and day.

This shows all the teams prior to 1969 that came back from any deficit at the 140-game mark:

There are some famous seasons--the 1964 Phillies collapse that allowed the Cardinals to win the pennant, the 1951 Giants, etc. In addition, it was a 154-game schedule prior to 1961 so teams only had 15 games to make up the difference.

This table ties it all together:

Take a moment to ponder this--370 teams have made the playoffs in the history of baseball (and don't talk to me about those faux championships from 1884-1890). There was no World Series in 1904 and I left out 1981 on purpose, but that's not a lot of playoff teams, and of those 370, 39 (10.5%) made the playoffs when not already poised to make it after 140 games. It rarely happens and the B-P playoff odds suggest it won't happen this year either. But then again, there's a world of difference between "rarely" and "never," demonstrated as recently as 2011. Football may be starting and the playoff races may seem all but over, but it ain't over until it's over--there's a famous picture of Harry Truman that illustrates that fact.

One last unrelated point since I mentioned the 1951 Giants--this picture is of the Polo Grounds, showing that totally enticing right field. I wonder how many hitters were ruined by trying to swing for that short porch? I'm sure it's a camera angle, but doesn't it look like there's more room between  home and 3rd and 3rd and the fence?

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