Pythagoras Frowned

Somewhere, about 3.5 clicks under the rainbow, there is a mystical place called Stat Heaven. It is a benevolent paradise ruled by kindly, all-knowing computers, where bloggers find respite from the toil of their mother's basements. It is a place where baseball is color-blind and Barry Bonds hasn't been pushed out of the sport (while Andy Pettitte and other alleged users play on unmolested). From Stat Heaven, the mighty and wise Pythagoras of Samos looks down at the state of the playoff race and frowns.

Division Leaders
Tampa Bay Rays 77-48 (.616 Winning %)
Chicago White Sox 72-53 (.576)
Los Angeles Angels of Marketing Gimmick 76-48 (.613)

Wild Card Leaders
Boston Red Sox 73-53 (.579)
Minnesota Twins 71-54 (.568)
New York Yankees 66-59 (.528)

One way to evaluate team performance is Pythagorean record, which is more accurate in predicting future success than actual record is. Pythagorean record is calculated based on total runs scored and runs allowed. The theory goes that good teams will amass many runs for themselves while keeping opponents' from scoring; bad teams give up more runs than they score. By this standard, the playoff scene would be quite different.

Pythagorean Playoffs

Red Sox 75-51 (.594)
White Sox 73-52 (.581)
Angels 68-56 (.548)

Rays 71-54 (.566)
Twins 68-57 (.545)
NYY 67-58 (.536)

Based on Pythagorean expectation, the Red Sox would have two more wins than they currently do, while the Rays would have six fewer wins, placing the Sox atop the division. LAA and Tampa are both outperforming their Pythagorean expectation - the Angels are a whopping 8 games above it. Chicago would have a more secure hold on their division, gaining a game while the Twins lose three games. The Yankees only gain a game, and would still be playoff long-shots.

Too much of a divergence between Pythagorean and actual record can mean that a team is benefiting unduly from luck, and is due for a fall. An example of this is the 2007 Seattle Mariners. They went 88-74 that year, at one point threatening the NYY in the Wild Card race; however, they were outperforming their Pythagorean expectancy. The team's final Pythagorean record was 79-83, a signs that the team was lucky, as opposed to talented. This year, the Mariners have collapsed, with a 46-79 record (2nd worst in baseball). Pythagorean record can also reveal teams victimized by bad luck. The 2006 Indians had a 78-84 record, 11 games worse than their Pythagorean record (89-93). The next year they went 96-66 and were a win away from making the World Series.

It's possible to outperform Pythagorean expectation, particularly by having a strong bullpen to preserve 1-run leads. The Rays and Angels have good pens, as did the 07 Mariners. By contrast, the 2006 Indians had an abominable bullpen, which accounted for many of their losses, and much of their success the following year came from improved pen performances (namely the Rafaels Betancourt and Perez).

Sadly, we do not live in the Pythagorean world - we live in the one where the Red Sox are in 2nd place in their division, rather than in possession of the best record in the AL. Still, these numbers have some implications for the playoffs and beyond. The Angels and Rays look a lot less intimidating by Pythagorean record, while the Sox look a little better. Heading into next year, we can expect some major regression from the Angels, although probably not enough to keep them from the playoffs in their weak division. The Rays may regress, since much of their success is based on their strong bullpen (Balfour and Howell are having career years), but their core of young talent should keep them a 90+ wins team.

One final observation: as Theo's reconstruction of the team has gone forward, the team has been unlucky. From 2003-2006, the Sox consistently beat their Pythagorean expectation, by as many as 5 games in '05 and '06. The 2007 and 2008 squads, which are largely composed of Theo's desired players, have both played worse than their Pythagorean records (5 games in 07, 2 this year). This is probably nothing more than random variation and luck. Still, it's frustrating to see our increasingly home-grown teams undershoot their projected records.

I'm curious what you guys think of all this. Do numbers lie, or are the Red Sox really the best team in the league? Are the Angels and Rays this good, or are they benefiting from luck or unsustainable performances? Should Theo petition MLB to make Pythagorean record the sole criterion for getting into the playoffs? Would you enjoy Stat Heaven? Answer all of these in the comments below.

* I used an exponent of 1.83 in the equation, which is what Baseball-Reference employs. Numbers were cracked last night, before B-R had updated, so my W-L figures should be the same as their's.

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