Life in the AL West

Welcome back to the continuing series looking at how each of the baseball division tallies with what the THT projections, Tradesports prediction market and PROTRADE said at the start of the season.

Today we round off the junior circuit by manoeuvring our lens over the AL West. For those new to this series you can read my other American League reviews of the East and Central. The next installment, in a couple of weeks, will start to cast an inquisitive eye on the National League.

You know the drill so let’s begin the proceedings.

What was Said in March

Like the other AL divisions, the West was considered relatively strong. The Angels and Athletics were the two natural picks for the crown, mainly because they’ve traded top spot for four of the last five years and, more to the point, are perceived to have deeper talent.

The preseason expectations for the Mariners and Rangers were mixed, although you wouldn’t have been garroted if you had predicted that both were capable of playing .500 ball. And many thought the Mariners had a ton of upside if their young phenom, King Felix, pitched anywhere near his potential.

Perhaps surprisingly we, the THT staff, almost unanimously chose the Angels as likely champs despite having a handful of A’s nuts among us (Sal and Bryan, I’m looking at you). However, there is a clear dichotomy in expected outcome between the Californian teams and the rest.

Who cares what we think. Let’s take a look at what some of the more well-known pundits and their fancy projection systems spat out:

              CHONE           Diamond Mind    PECOTA          ZiPS
              W       L       W       L       W       L       W       L
Los Angeles   88      74      87      75      86      76      83      79
Oakland       81      81      84      78      80      82      87      75
Seattle       77      85      78      84      73      89      77      85
Texas         79      83      77      85      81      81      78      84

There is nothing to get too excited about here as the pros largely agree with conventional wisdom—though with four teams the AL West has always been a smidge easier to call than other divisions.

The gulf between the top and bottom two remains blatantly apparent. No one had Texas and Seattle at over .500 and, with the exception of PECOTA (whose numbers look a little off for all teams in the division), both Oakland and Los Angeles were pegged as certs to end the year in the black.

Current State of the West

Here are the AL standings as of Sunday, June 24 (before Sunday’s games):

American League West        Pwins  Diff        
LAA     48  27 .640    0.0   45     3
SEA     38  33 .535    8.0   35     3 
OAK     39  34 .534    8.0   41    -2
TEX     30  44 .405   17.5   33    -3

And here is the story pictorially, courtesy of the legendary THT division race graph:

image

Neither the standings nor the chart is a complete surprise. Would anyone have raised an eyebrow if the Angels were 8 games clear at this point? No, probably not; we know that the A’s normally get red-hot in July and August. Also, had the two teams been playing to their Pythag record then the division would be much closer than it currently is.

What about the Mariners being over .500? Surprised? Shocked? If we had looked at this a few weeks ago with the M’s 10 games over then, yes, we may have wondered what was up but a run of losses has dragged them more in-line of what their talent suggests.

Perhaps the only slight surprise is that the Power Rangers are pushing for the ignominious sobriquet of the worst team in baseball. Their pitching is a complete failure, the bats haven’t compensated and they have also been a touch unlucky—they are currently three games under their Pythag. The only thing that Rangers’ fans have to cheer is that one of their sluggers, Sammy Sosa, has recently joined the exclusive 600 club wearing cowboy boots and spurs.

The THT Projections

Let’s see what the THT statistical model spits out when asked who will triumph in West given each team’s start.

To recap the methodology, what we do is use THT projections to calculate a team’s expected wins above replacement. This is based on player depth charts that I pulled together for each ball club. The division win probability is calculated from win distribution curves that work out the odds of each team finishing on top given their talent—for the technically minded, I use recursive probability functions. Here are the results (assuming that current standings reflect true talent):

30th March 2007                          24th June 2007
         W       L       Playoff%        W       L       Playoff%
LA       88      74      43%             96      66      67%
Oakland  85      77      29%             85      77      15%
Seattle  82      80      18%             85      77      15%
Texas    78      84      10%             75      87      2%

Look at that, we would be right on the money if the division were to finish today. That no team had odds of less than 10% at the start of play shows the equality of the West. Now, the Angels will probably win more than 88 games but you’ve got to remember that the THT projections are based on team talent only. Given that the standard error is around 5 games, which is a wide margin, it is little surprise to see a lot of variance—look, we need an excuse to fall back on when we get it wrong.

The odds of winning have changed a bit since the start of the season as games under the belt obviously count for a lot more than our expectations of what will happen in games to come. As a result the Angels have pushed their win expectancy to 67% although the models suggests that the A’s and M’s, both at 15%, still have a shot.

One thing is beyond doubt and that is Texas’ remarkable collapse means they have no chance of winning. In fact they’d have to go 51-37 to get back to .500 —and the odds of their achieving that is less than 5%, assuming their preseason true talent.

The Wisdom (Stupidity) of the Crowd

As regular readers know, Tradesports runs a series of prediction markets to assess the likely outcome of each division. The market matches buyers and sellers at an agreed price that equates to the probability of each team coming top.

As I said to open this column there wasn’t huge disagreement among anyone as to the general direction of the AL West. Tradesports differed slightly from my THT model in that the Rangers and Mariners swapped position. Yeah—we showed them.

Team          Win % March 30   Win % June 24
Los Angeles   43%              79%
Oakland       29%              13%
Seattle       18%              8%
Texas         10%              0%

One thing that always surprises me about the market is how bullish it is on the team currently in front compared to the THT model. This was the same with the Indians in the Central and the Red Sox in the East. Here we are see a 10% difference in win expectancy.

Based on relative pythags, and the talent depth of the Athletics, I’d give them more than a 13% team chance of winning the West—although that’s why it’s called “wisdom of the crowd” and not “wisdom of the individual.”

Let’s step through each team’s win expectancy graph as the season has unfolded. First the two favorites, the Angels and Athletics, together:

image

Remarkably the Angels’ price has rarely slipped below $50 and apart from a brief hiccup in mid-to-late April where they were swept by both the Red Sox and Athletics to cap a five game losing streak—their biggest of the season—they have maintained an upward trend. Incredibly since that point, April 20, the Angels have a 42-18 record and suffered only three series losses, against the Tigers, White Sox and, ahem, the Royals.

In contrast the A’s win expectancy graph looks more like a mountain stage in the Tour de France, with peaks and troughs through April and early May as the team showed inconsistency. The April peak partly corresponds to the Angels’ losing streak as the market bet on the division being a two horse race.

The problem is that Oakland have never managed to put a bunch of wins together. Before a five game win streak in June they only won four games on the bounce once, in April, and followed that by five defeats in the next seven. If they want to contend then another hot run after the break is required.

Now we’ll look at the Mariners and Rangers:

image

Despite being 10 games over .500 at one point the Mariners’ win expectancy barely shifted. At its pinnacle it edged 13% but no more. Contrast that with the Athletics, who in mid-June had an inferior record. One problem was that that the M’s were very streaky. They had a tough start to the season with a series snow-out in Cleveland in early April and then proceeded to lose six on the spin.

May was a mixed month with a 16-14 record but it was winning 10 of 12 in early June that propelled them past the A’s. The market thought it a fluke as evidenced by the 12% win expectancy ceiling. It was proved right as Seattle subsequently tanked against the weakest division in baseball, losing six consecutive to Chicago, Houston and Pittsburgh!

Even the most dyed in the wool Texan would admit that the Rangers have been a disaster this year. If any picture is worth a thousand words it is the Texas win expectancy chart. There were two big sell-offs. The first was in early April as the Rangers lost their first three and the market quickly adjusted its baseline. The second was in early May as they lost five in a row for a 2-8 stretch.

The decline continued to zero by mid June as the Rangers firmly embraced the losing habit with eight series defeats since mid-May. Not even a mini-revival, winning seven of the last nine, has breathed life into the dying corpse. Ugh.

PROTRADE

PROTRADE is a sports stock market where you can buy or sell players and teams depending on whether you think they are over- or under-valued based on a fantasy scoring system.

As I discussed in a previous column this is less useful for players because arbitrary statistics are used, but for teams the scoring system is more sensible so we can build a picture as to how well people think each will do.

Here is a reminder of the points scoring system:

Price	Criteria
$1 	for each regular season win
$10	for qualifying for the playoffs
$4 	for each playoff win
$10 	for winning the league division series
$20 	for winning the pennant
$30 	for winning the World Series

Have a look at how the price of the AL West contenders has fluctuated since mid-April (when PROTRADE first launched this feature).

Team           Price (April 21)Price (June 10)  Earnings (June 10)  P/E
Los Angeles    $101.80         $118.28          $48.00              2.5
Oakland        $105.13         $110.17          $39.00              2.8
Seattle        $76.29          $81.54           $38.00              2.1
Texas          $84.82          $83.16           $30.00              2.8

PROTRADE is a useful adjunct to the THT model and Tradesports as it takes into account success in the playoffs as well as what happens in the division.

This makes interesting reading. In mid-April when PROTRADE started this exercise the market had Oakland as marginal favorites for an ALDS slot with the Angels as outsiders. Now positions have reversed and the Angels have their nose ahead but PROTRADE is far less dismissive of the Athletics’ chances than Tradesports is—perhaps putting more weight on pythag records and the pending hot-hand of July!

In sum, PROTRADE thinks that both Californian teams have a fair shot at making the playoffs. That the AL Wild Card race is a close call (what with a strong Central and a resurgent Yankees) probably prevents the Angels, in particular, fetching a higher price—after all they have the second best record in the bigs.

The P/E ratio largely confirms what the pythag tells us. Oakland and Texas are underachieving, while Seattle and Los Angeles are playing marginally above station.

Final Thoughts

Like other junior circuit division the West is a close call, albeit a probably two horse race. Despite the Angles possessing the second best record in baseball I still have a sneaky feeling that the Athletics will put together another magical late summer run together. If I was a betting man I’d short the Angels right now. High risk, high reward.

References & Resources
Although the eulogies are probably overwhelming, a sharp nod to Tradesports and PROTRADE as per usual.

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