How much do hot/cold starts matter?

Recently, Baseball Prospectus reprinted an article by Rany Jazayerli that estimated how teams would perform based on: 1) the previous three years’ results, and 2) their current-year record. His goal was to evaluate whether teams that came out of the gate much better or worse than they had performed in the recent past indicate a new performance level or merely upcoming regression.

My goal is to use Jazayerli’s formula to look at: 1) how teams were expected to do this year based on past results, and 2) how this season’s early returns have impacted teams’ anticipated fortunes. His formula weighs the previous three year’s records (plus a regression-to-.500 factor) as approximately:

0.45*Year N-1  +  0.30*.500  +  0.15*Year N-2  +  0.10*Year N-3

Given these variables, here were the projected 2013 standings before play began.

AL East      W   L
Yankees      91  71
Rays         88  74
Orioles      83  79
Blue Jays    78  84
Red Sox      78  84

AL Central   W   L
Tigers       86  76
White Sox    83  79
Royals       74  88
Indians      74  88
Twins        73  89

AL West      W   L
Rangers      89  73
Athletics    86  76
Angels       85  77
Mariners     74  88
Astros       65  97


NL East      W   L
Braves       89  73
Nationals    87  75
Phillies     85  77
Mets         77  85
Marlins      74  88

NL Central   W   L
Reds         89  73
Cardinals    86  76
Brewers      83  79
Pirates      77  85
Cubs         70  92

NL West      W   L
Giants       89  73
Dodgers      83  79
D'backs      81  81
Padres       78  84
Rockies      72  90

There aren’t too many big surprises in those numbers, though a few things jump out when compared to THT’s preseason predictions.

From a big-picture perspective, it’s odd to see four of the six projected division winners with exactly 89 victories, only one team forecast to win more than 90 games, and a single franchise pegged for a sub-70 victory total. Such is regression to the mean.

In the AL East, we thought Toronto’s influx of talent from Miami—something the formula would know nothing about—would launch the Blue Jays to a division title, while Rany’s rules would leave them in a battle for the cellar. (We’ll talk about the “wisdom” of our prediction a little later.) We also thought Baltimore would flop back to the cellar, while Jazayerli’s formula keeps the Orioles above .500.

In the AL Central, THTers flip-flopped Cleveland and Chicago, but that’s not too much a deviation from history’s forecast.

Both systems projected a three-way battle for the AL West title.

Aside from switching the top two teams in the tight race for the NL East championship, we matched up well.

Similar to it’s AL counterpart, the NL Central had one mid-pack flip-flop vs. Rany’s predictions.

We had the free-spending Los Angeles Dodgers emerging as NL West champs ahead of Jazayerli’s Giants, with the rest of the division the same.

Of course, that’s how we and Rany’s system expected the end-of-season standings to look. What happens between Game 1 and Game 162—the shape of the season on a day-to-day basis—is anybody’s guess. We won’t know how the two predictions methods compare until October, so that’s something worth revisiting at the appropriate time.

—–

For now, we have the opportunity to apply the second part of the Jazayerli methodology to see how teams’ early-season results have impacted their expected overall season records. As we approach the quarter pole, some teams are spot on with where they were expected to be, while others have seen big deviations. Below are the updated projections, division by division, which we’ll follow with a look at some of the more interesting cases.

Standings through May 12. Rounding caused some Change values not to match the cited win/loss adjustments.

AL East      W   L   Change
Yankees      96  66  +5
Orioles      89  73  +6
Rays         86  76  -2
Red Sox      84  78  +7
Blue Jays    71  91  -6

Is there no stopping the Yankees juggernaut? Even with nearly $100 million—about four full Astros rosters—of player salaries on the disabled list, New York is tied for baseball’s best record. This hot start has boosted the Yankees’ major league-leading projection of 91 victories up to a stellar 96. It seems that rumors of the Yankees’ demise have been greatly exaggerated.

The O’s are showing that last season’s awesome record in one-run and extra-inning games may have been prescient in general if not in the same specific manner.

The Rays? Yawn.

Boston is bouncing back well from last year’s cellar-dwelling debacle, though the Red Sox’s red-hot first month has become more of a soft orange glow.

And then we get to Toronto. Rany’s formula didn’t expect great things, but the Blue Jays’ deals with the Marlins and Mets—in which they acquired Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, R.A. Dickey and others—led many, including us, to forecast a strong season up north. However, it seems the only thing Toronto acquired was expensive misery, as thus far the Jays have underperformed even their modest 78-win prediction by several games.

AL Central   W   L   Change
Tigers       89  73  +2
Indians      81  81  +7
Royals       78  84  +4
White Sox    78  84  -6
Twins        76  86  +3

Detroit continues to be the class of the division, ticking its numbers up slightly with a solid start to the season.

Selfishly, the best thing about Cleveland’s nice beginning to the campaign is that the Indians now are projected to finish in second place, where the plurality of THT voters placed them. A .500 record is not what the Tribe is after, so they need to keep their improvements intact to maintain their early-season gains.

Ah, the Royals, steadily drifting along aimlessly, though at least these days they’re mediocre instead of awful.

And the next-best thing about the early-season results is Chicago dropping to a projected fourth-place finish (percentage points behind KC), where we put the Sox before the season began. The Pale Hose need to right the ship or their season will be Dunn in.

Minnesota is moderately relevant at the moment, but that’s unlikely to last.

AL West      W   L   Change
Rangers      96  66  +6
Athletics    83  79  -3
Angels       77  85  -9
Mariners     75  87  +1
Astros       56  106 -9

Texas is acting as if losing Josh Hamilton was no big deal, though it’s the pitching that’s leading the way. Despite playing in one of the game’s better hitters’ parks, the Rangers have allowed the fewest runs in the American League, second in all of baseball.

Oakland will need another late-season charge, something the A’s have excelled at in the last decade, if they’re going to chase down Texas again. Don’t count on it, but don’t be surprised by it, either.

Los Angeles is acting as if signing Josh Hamilton was no big deal. His .203/.253/.331 triple-slash line sure hasn’t helped the Angels’ cause, and neither has Albert Pujols‘ .234/.317/.390 line. Those are mighty sad returns on $50 million-a-year investments. Maybe they should just go out and get more Mike Trouts.

Seattle has Felix Hernandez and … well, that’s about it.

Ugh! Houston was expected to be awful, forecast to lose 97 games. Reality is so much worse. At least they finally reached double-digit wins. However, at their current pace, the ’62 Mets are in their sights.

NL East      W   L   Change
Braves       90  72  +1
Nationals    87  75  +0
Phillies     81  81  -4
Mets         73  89  -4
Marlins      63  99  -11

Atlanta and Washington are right where everyone expected them to be, battling atop the division and ahead of the rest of the pack.

The Phillies are a bit worse than history suggested they would be, but age and injuries are taking their toll rapidly. Unlike the Yankees, the Phillies haven’t been able to take other teams’ offcasts and turn them into stars. Put another way, Delmon Young is no Vernon Wells.

No one expected the NL New York team to do much, and, well, it hasn’t. Maybe the Mets need to find an Iron Man and Thor, and bring back Hulk to go with their Captain America.

Everyone knew Miami was going to stink, but the Marlins’ current 115-loss pace is even more odious than expected. While they’ve already dropped 11 games off their preseason pace, the miniscule bit of good news is that the Marlins currently are projected to lose “only” 99 games. Something tells me that number will hit triple digits by the All-Star break.

NL Central   W   L   Change
Cardinals    93  69  +7
Reds         91  71  +2
Pirates      83  79  +6
Brewers      78  84  -5
Cubs         68  94  -2

St. Louis has gone from being a team expected to battle for a Wild Card to tied for baseball’s best record. The Cardinals may end up duking it out for a playoff spot by the time their year is done, but the seven-game bump they’ve enjoyed since the campaign began certainly positions them much better in their quest for a spot in October.

Cincinnati has edged its projected record up a bit, and the Reds have some key players coming back from injury. They’ll be in the hunt all year long, just as everyone anticipated.

Pittsburgh is going to have a winning record! Book it. It’s done. What’s that? The Pirates have done this before the last couple of years? Oh, yeah. Well, this time it’s for real. Maybe. Maybe … ???

A recent 1-9 stretch has turned things sour for Milwaukee after an earlier nine-game winning streak. The Brew Crew’s yo-yo season could bring them back up into contention again, but the recent news that Corey Hart could be out longer than expected won’t help their cause.

Chicago is about as bad as expected, but at least the Cubs are locking up their young stars for the time when they once again will be relevant.

NL West      W   L   Change
Giants       92  70  +4
D-backs      85  77  +3
Rockies      78  84  +6
Dodgers      77  85  -6
Padres       75  87  -3

Matt Cain has stunk, and Ryan Vogelsong has been much worse than that, yet San Francisco is playing very well. How are the Giants doing it? Madison Bumgarner has been fantastic, Barry Zito is shocking the world with a terrific year, Tim Lincecum has been solid, and the hitters are spreading the wealth. The starting pitchers may shuffle their roles as the year goes on, but this is a pretty good formula for success.

The Diamondbacks were seen as a possible sleeper team, which means some people overestimated them and others underestimated them. They been slightly better than expected, so I guess they fit the mold so far.

Colorado’s hot start has upped its expected record by a half-dozen games, but the Rockies still are forecast to have a losing record. They’d probably be happy just to avoid the cellar.

Especially if it came at the expense of Los Angeles. And speaking of expense, LA’s boosting of its payroll well north of the $200 million mark was supposed to be evidence that the Dodgers were going to be serious contenders this season and a team that makes runs deep into October year after year. Yeah, and they were supposed to have eight starting pitchers, too. It’s funny how these things work out.

San Diego … What is there to say? The Padres were supposed to be bad, and they are. The Padres’ minor league system has lots of depth, but until it starts spitting out some more good players, many fans will be more tempted by the beach than by the local nine.

—–

We’ll come back later in the year to check again on which teams are holding their own compared to their preseason forecasts, which ones are ahead of the curve, and which are lagging behind their expected pace.

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