The playoff racesby John Beamer
September 24, 2007
It's nearly October and we all know what that means. Yes, the division races are coming down to the wire and in stark contrast to where we found ourselves in early September, there are four possible nailbiters to contend with for the next week or so.
The AL Central and West are done deals with the Indians and Angels guaranteed October ball, respectively. In the NL East the Mets have conspired to put together a losing streak, which has allowed the Phillies to close the gap to a couple of games. In the AL East, well, Boston has let a 14.5 game lead over the Yankees slip—the gap stands at 1.5 games and is shrinking fast. The NL West has probably been the most closely fought division over the past couple of years and the 2007 incarnation is no exception, with the Friars and Snakes dueling for first. Finally, the NL Central is more about who loses than who wins. As Lou Piniella quipped in one of his more waggish moments, "The only way to pull out a lead in this division is by a rain delay ...". As Kurt Vonnegut would say, so it goes.
Those of you who follow my writing here at the Hardball Times will know that I am slightly obsessed with realtime win expectancy derived from prediction markets. Throughout the course of 2007 I have written a slew of columns on the matter. Here is a primer on prediction markets and here is a link to my most recent division review (NL West) from which you can link to reviews of all the other divisions. Today I want to take a quick look at the four division races that remain close and see what the market thinks will happen. We'll use Tradesports data for this. I'll wrap up with a quick look at the PROTRADE fantasy market, which is another useful indicator of win expectancy.
On a final note all data in the charts is before Sunday games.
Reading the charts
As we step through the charts for each of the four divisions I'm not going to present too much commentary—I prefer the data to speak for itself. However, before we launch into the graphs let's take a look at some of the factors that will affect win expectancy:
- Talent: As we get closer to the denouement on the season talent matters less and less. Why is that? In statistical speak, as N declines random variance overwhelms true skill. In English, think about a one-off game, say between the Devil Rays and Yankees. Although the Yankees are favorites, you wouldn't be betting the farm on them (even in the current climate of sub-prime meltdown). However, talent still does matter—teams that are perceived by the market as better will likely have a higher win expectancy.
- Momentum: Teams that have gone on an incredible run (I'm looking at the Yankees and Phillies) will be perceived by the market to have playoff momentum which should add to their win expectancy. Consider a losing team, like the Mets, stuttering and stumbling all over the place, blowing seemingly sure fire wins; project that mess forward a week and the Mets will be taking an early vacation. However, saying all that, Tom Tango author of The Book showed that the hot hand is a falsehood. Although the market will give less weight to momentum than other factors I'm guess there are still arbitrage opportunities out there.
- Lead: This is an easy and obvious one. Teams that are ahead in the standings will have a higher win expectancy because of that advantage. I'll bet that for all the graphs we'll look at the team in the lead will have better odds of winning. Don't forget that this is not independent of talent. Teams with a better record are more likely to have a higher talent level.
- Schedule: The schedule is pretty important over the final days. Gotta go and win a three game set at Fenway with the Red Sox trying to secure the AL East? Good luck. On the other hand if you're trundling over to the Sunflower State to try your hand against Kansas then you'll probably fancy your chances. Also home field advantage is a benefit.
Let's take a look at the races.
The tale of the AL East has the potential to be the most calamitous collapse ever. On May 28 the Sox had a 14.5 game advantage over a struggling Yankees team. Since then the Yankees have played like champs while the Sox, although not chumps, have not lived up to their early season billing. Red Sox fans are a prescient bunch and articles were coming out in droves reassuring Beantown that the division was safe. However, here we are with barely a week to go and while not quite anyone's call (the Sox should win) you wouldn't bet against the Bombers. Take a look at what the market thinks will happen:
Barely a month back the market thought that the Sox had the division in the bag—the Yankees were out of it. In states where gambling is legal, bookies were paying out! I'm relatively neutral on the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry, although I would like to see the Yankees' division streak snapped. And if the Yankees could pull this off Red Sox Nation would probably commit collective suicide. In fact some New Englanders (a small, sadistic minority) I know want it to happen—a Sox team that wins isn't normal is it?
As we move from the Bronx to Queens we see another New York team contending for its division. The difference here is that while the Yankees are doing the hunting, the Mets are the ones being hunted. In recent weeks the Mets have shown a tremendous capacity for blowing leads and the Phillies have but together a bit of a winning streak, closing the gap to 2.5 games. Will the Phillies triumph? History says no (have they ever triumphed?) but with the way the Mets are playing anything is possible. Here is the market's take:
This carries a similar hallmark to the AL East. The Mets seemingly had the division in the bag, but as can be seen on the graph have contrived to cede it. The Phillies struggled out of the blocks with a horrendous 3-10 start ,but have gallantly fought their way back. Amazingly some fickle fans even started looking to 2008—let it be a lesson to analysts and commentators that conclusions cannot be drawn on such a small sample. As a Braves fan I was hoping they would be in the mix at this stage but have been let down badly by their rotation.
Ah ... the fabled NL Central—the division that no one wants to win. This was a three horse race a few weeks ago, but as the Cardinals have slipped, only the Cubs and Brewers remain at the table. Whatever happens, the winners of the NL West will be licking their lips as they'll have first rights against this garbage in the NLDS. Saying that, St Louis won it last year from a position of extreme weakness in this very division.
I don't think any more need be said about this sorry state of affairs.
The NL West has been an intriguing little race this year. At one point there were four contenders D-backs, Padres, Dodgers and Rockies—although Colorado was only flirting on the fringes—but that has now been whittled down to just two: Arizona and San Diego.
The most extraordinary thing about the West has been Arizona's ability to outperform its Pythagorean record (chronicled here) and put together gargantuan winning streaks, so affirming THT's call of preseason division favorites. The Padres are a good team, a very good team, and were always likely to be in the mix as the season finishes. Given Arizona's ability to successively blow hot and cold I reckon San Diego has a bigger chance than is indicated by the market—although three consecutive loses could put paid to that theory. The consolation is that whatever the outcome the second place team is in pole position to secure a postseason berth through the magic of the wild card.
Tradesports has also been running a market for the wild card for about a month now. I'm not going to dwell on the individual charts as interpreting movement is more complex than it is for the division charts. For instance, if the market believes that the Yankees will win the division then the odds of their winning the wild card decrease.
Below are the favorites for the AL (Yankees) and NL (Padres) respectively.
The Yankees are a lock for the AL Wild Card unless it wins the East—the second team in the wild card probability rankings is Boston. In the NL the race is a little closer with the Rockies and Phillies both contending. However, a 40% win expectancy is pretty high in the wild card race—consider how many teams were in the mix this time last year. The next highest is around 30%, which is for the Phillies, who are half a game back. The bottom line is that the wild card is the least exciting it has been for many a year.
Finally I want to take a quick look at who PROTRADE thinks will make the playoffs. For those of you who don't remember the scoring system here is a short recap:
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 $30 for winning the World Series
The advantage of PROTRADE is that it covers the Wild Card as well as the division champs. Here is the top ten:
Team Price ($) Red Sox 150 Mets 136 Yankees 136 Angels 130 Indians 127 Padres 113 Diamondbacks 113 Cubs 112 Phillies 104 Brewers 103
If you take the division winners as seen by Tradesports, then the second place team in the NL West and AL East are favorites for the Wild Card, confirming what the Tradesports data tell us. One other thing to note is that PROTRADE sees an AL team as the most probable World Series winner (although this is also because the NL races are close so the market is discounting some of their potential postseason points). Oh, and how can the Mets be the best team in the NL? Surely that is fan favoritism at work, especially considering the Phillies crack the top 10.
The final furlong
I wouldn't call 2007 the most exciting baseball season of all time but the division races are much closer than they promised to be even a couple of weeks back, when it looked as though only the NL Central would provide entertainment—although more in line with tragedy than sport. I guess one issue is that the wild card has negated two of the division races (AL East and NL West), and for all the merits of the wild card that is a shame.
Red Sox, Angels, Yankees, Indians, Mets, Diamondbacks, Cubs and Padres (or Phillies) ... see you in October. Everyone else ... say goodbye to 2007 and await 2008.
References and Resources
Tradesports and PROTRADE, as always, were invaluable.
John is an unashamed glory supporter having followed the Atlanta Braves since 1991. He blogs the Braves at Chop-n-Change. He welcomes comments, criticisms and suggestions via e-mail