The best rivalries of 2013by Chris Jaffe
October 21, 2013
The 2013 season is in the books. Well, that’s true of the regular season, anyway.
With the regular season in the rearview mirror, let’s do some analysis of the season that was. In particular, I have a question. What were the best rivalries of the season?
By this I mean, which pair of teams had the most exciting and memorable games against each other?
THT’s very own Shane Tourtellotte has developed his own system, based on WPA: Win Percentage Added, for determining the best games of the season. As most out there in reader-land know, WPA is a“story" stat that rates the chances that a team has of winning the game and how their fortunes rise and fall with each play.
Shane has a nice and somewhat advanced system based upon adding up all WPA swings in the course of a game and mixing in a few wrinkles, such as the top three plays of a game, and whether it’s walk-off. It’s a nice system, but my math skills are a bit more basic. I’m going to just use the core of the system; I’ll just add up all in-game WPA swings.
Thus, the approach is pretty simple. Add up all WPA swings in all games two teams play against each other and find out what teams had the most exciting rivalries of the season.
Obviously, divisional rival have the edge, as they are the ones who see each other the most, typically 19 times a year. There are 10 rivalries per division and six divisions in all, or 60 divisional rivalries. So let’s look up the most exciting ones on the year.
Most exciting divisional rivalry: Mets-Marlins, 67.940 WPA shift points
You might have missed this rivalry. After all, it included the worst team in the NL with another also-ran. But while their games lacked any pennant-race drama, the games themselves were continually hard-fought.
An average baseball game in 2013 had exactly 2.677 win percentage points added. Thus, over the course of 19 games, a typical divisional rivalry should have 50.863 WPA. The Mets-Marlins shatter that, finishing over 30 percent higher. They averaged 3.756 WPA per contest. Typically, only one in six games reaches 3.000 WPA.
In fact, they win this one in an utter rout. Second place is way back at 60.680 WPA (Rangers-Angels).
How’d they do it? Well, for starters the Mets and Marlins played in two of the top 10 games of the year by this system.
On June 8, they tangled in the longest game of the year, a 20-inning marathon the Marlins won, 2-1. That was a nightmare loss for the Mets, as they had the winning run in scoring position nine times from the ninth inning onward and never could drive the man home. They batted 0-for-19 with runners in scoring position. Total WPA score: 8.618.
The Mets also had a nightmare loss to the Marlins on April 29. New York coughed up a 4-3 lead in the bottom to send the game into extra innings. New York’s suffering wasn’t over yet, though. The Mets took a 5-4 lead in the top of the 15th, only to surrender two runs in the bottom of the frame for the loss. WPA score: 7.857.
Folks, extra-inning games do really well in WPA. The nature of WPA means you can get the biggest swings in chances of winning late in a game, so a game with extra, late drama will do really well. (In fact, across all of baseball, 49 of the 50 highest-ranked games went into overtime. The one that didn’t ranks 49th.) So it shouldn’t be too surprising to note that the Mets and Marlins had five extra-inning encounters.
Not only did these two squads have two really high peaks in WPA, but they also had a lot of depth. In conjunction with those five extra-inning contests, there were nine one-run decisions and a trio of two-run differences.
It’s thus fitting that their season series was close, with the Marlins winning in slightly over half of the games, 11 out of 19.
If you want to go division by division, here are the best rivalries of the season:
AL West: Rangers-Angels. As noted above, their 60.680 WPA was second only to the Mets-Marlins.
NL West: Diamondbacks-Dodgers, 58.909 WPA.
AL East: Orioles-Blue Jays, 57.894 WPA.
NL Central: Cubs-Reds, 56.117 WPA.
AL Central: White Sox-Royals, 55.509 WPA.
Well, if those are the best divisional rivalries, that just leads to an obvious follow question: what are the worst ones?
Worst divisional rivalry: Mets-Phillies, 39.229 WPA shift points.
Well, whadaya know, one team took part in the best and worst rivalries of the year. This is the sort of rivalry that deserves to be on bottom, two clubs both churning their way through dismal seasons. It sure would suck if the two teams playing really boring games were in a pennant race with each other.
None of their games went into extra innings. Yeah, that sounds right. In fact, one of their games didn’t even go nine frames. Their Sept. 21 contest ended after seven frames due to rain.
The Mets and Phillies did have a few nice contests, but they mostly had blowouts. Eight of their games were decided by five runs or more, and some of them were even more lopsided than the scores indicated. For example, on July 19, the Mets lost by “only” five runs, 13-8, but the game was over by the middle of the second when Philadelphia held an 11-0 lead.
That July 19 game was one of two Mets-Phillies contests to score fewer than 1.000 WPA. Typically, only one in 37 games score that low. The other came two days later, when the Mets won 5-0 in a game with not much drama. Even with a somewhat decent game played in between, that Mets-Phillies series scored 4.438 WPA, maybe the lowest mark by any three-game series all season.
Oh, here’s a random fact. Not only were the Mets in the best and worst divisional rivalries of the year, but they were also in the third-worst. The Mets-Nationals games score at 41.606 WPA.
Here are the worst rivalries for all divisions:
AL West: Mariners-Astros, 40.206 WPA. I’m sure it’s just a bit of random happenstance, but seven of the eight worst rivalries were all in the NL. This is the only AL one.
NL Central: Cubs-Cardinals, 42.517 WPA.
NL West: Diamondbacks-Rockies, 43.327 WPA
AL Central: Royals-Twins, 45.006 WPA
AL East: Yankees-Rays, 47.659 WPA.
Ranking all divisions
Okay, so what happens if you add up all the rivalry games inside a division? Which division had the most exciting games when its teams faced each other? Here is how they all shake out:
Division WPA AL East 529.488 NL West 519.741 AL Central 516.762 AL West 503.533 NL East 492.852 NL Central 490.262
It’s not too surprising that the AL East comes on top. No, the issue here isn’t all the attention they get from ESPN. That doesn’t affect their scores. What is notable is that if you look above, you’ll see the worst rivalry inside that division scored at 47.569 WPA, which is better than 15 different rivalries around the rest of baseball.
Random comment: the most average divisional rivalry on the year was the White Sox and Tigers at 50.701 WPA.
Best non-division rivalry
Okay, so all that just looks at the best rivalries among the teams that faced each other 19 times, but what above the others?
Actually, there are two different categories for this: 1) games between teams that faced each other six or seven times in the year, and 2) teams that played against each other three or four times. The first bunch is games between two teams from the same league (just different divisions), and the latter are interleague rivalries.
You have to look at these separately. If you look at it by total WPA swings, the six-seven gamers naturally dominate. But if you look at WPA swings per game, the three-four games all dominate.
At any rate, the best in-league, non-division rivalry this year was the Diamondbacks and … the Mets! Again, the Mets! Man, what is with these Mets? They stocked up all their good games for some teams and their bad games for other teams. Bizarre.
They played seven times and had 28.836 WPA point swings.
Pushing this series into rarified air was an amazing Independence Day showdown. It started off simply, with the two teams notched up 2-2 after five innings. But it was still 2-2 after regulation, and extra innings beckoned.
The fun really began in the 13th when Arizona broke the deadlock. In the top half of the inning, they loaded the bases with no outs and took a 3-2 lead on the humiliating bases-loaded walk.
It looked like Arizona would have a golden chance to blow the game wide open, but the Mets kept them from inflicting any more damage with a pair of impressive plays. First the Mets pulled off the 1-2-3 double play to kill the lead runner. The next batter singled a line shot into short right, only to see the lead runner thrown out at the plate. It’s not too often you see two runners out at the plate in one inning, let alone have it happen in the 13th.
The Mets immediately made Arizona pay for this when New York catcher Anthony Recker homered to tie it up, 3-3.
However disappointed the Diamondbacks must have felt, they showed resiliency. They manufactured a run in the top of the 14th to take a new 4-3 lead and keep the pressure on the Mets. Again, New York was up to the challenge with a second straight game-tying home run.
In the 15th, Arizona’s bats yet again proved to be too much for the New York bullpen, as three straight singles gave them a 5-4 lead. But could they hold? Early in the bottom of the 15th, it looked like we were headed for an incredible third straight extra-inning comeback, as two of the first three Mets batters walked. But New York couldn’t do any more than that, and Arizona won, 5-4. That rated as the fifth-best game of the entire year by WPA swings: 8.418.
If you’re wondering, the worst in-league non-division rivalry was the Indians and Rays at 9.795 WPA swing points in six games.
Best inter-league rivalry
Well, for once the leader doesn’t involve the Mets. It does involve the team the Mets played on July 4: Arizona.
They played Baltimore in mid-August for a three-game set, and each game was decided by one run. Each ended on a walk-off hit for Arizona (two homers and a single). Two went into extra innings. Total WPA swings value: 15.651.
The last game scores highest: 6.899 WPA swings for a 14-inning win in which Arizona had to rally to tie it in the bottom of the ninth. But the first game, the only nine-inning game, looks like it was the most fun. In every half-inning after the seventh-inning stretch, the team at the plate scored to either take the lead or tie. It was one of the wildest series of the season.
The worst interleague series of the season nearly became our World Series: in late August, the Dodgers and Red Sox squared off for a forgettable three-game stand featuring no lead changes or even serious threats to change the lead. Those games combined for a pitiful 4.506 points in WPA swings.
References and Resources
All WPA info comes from Baseball-Reference.com.
I first got the idea of tracking this from Baseball Think Factory poster Eric Johnson.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.