Lies, damn lies, and baseball standings
The Houston Astros and the Toronto Blue Jays. One team plays in Canada, the other almost plays in Mexico. One is an expensive veteran-laden last-place team, the other is cheap and young and in first place. One is seen as a wonderful surprise, the other as a big, expensive, veteran-laden disappointment. So would you believe these two teams share at least one fundamental quality?
Hey, I wouldn’t lie to you. They do.
The first-place talk-of-the-town second-best-record-in-the-American-League Astros and the last-place bring-back-the-Expos Blue Jays have exactly the same run differential.
For all we’ve learned over the years, there’s still a natural, instinctive reluctance to believe that a 21-26 team just might be as good as a 29-17 team.
You know what’s changed, though? Twenty years ago, it would have been essentially impossible to make such an argument; you’d have been laughed out of the meeting or the radio booth before really starting. Today, though? In the fashionable salons, at least, you’ll bear the burden of proof if you want to argue that the Blue Jays are not essentially as good as the Astros.
Can you carry that burden with some grace?
The most obvious reason for the discrepancy between the record is simple: The Astros’ 11-5 record in one-run games is the best in the league, and the Blue Jays’ 2-10 record is the second-worst (the woeful A’s are 2-13). If you make both teams just normal in one-run games, the Astros are 26-20, the Jays are 24-22, and we’re not even having this conversation.
Is it really this simple? Can we really attribute nearly ALL of the difference in our perceptions of these teams to their records in close games?
Let’s look at something else: projections.
Team projections, while wildly subject to future influences, do tell us more than eight weeks of games tells us about a team’s true talent. According to Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA projections – again, based on the projections for a team’s players, rather than looking at wins and losses and run differentials – the Astros will go 55-61 the rest of the way, the Blue Jays 58-57.
Now, you can argue with the specifics of those numbers projections if you like, and I suppose you might even argue that the Astros somehow know how to win more than the Blue Jays.
I wouldn’t, though. I would argue that the Astros are (yes) probably a little better than we thought, and that the Blue Jays (yes) are maybe just a tad worse. Which makes them not far apart, and their current records somewhat misleading.
Are there similar misleading things elsewhere?
Not really. For the most part, the standings already line up quite well with run differentials (if not expectations; cf. Twins, Mariners, Indians, Athletics, Padres, Indians). One exception is the Red Sox, who have been outscored by 37 runs and are quite fortunate to be a) ahead of the Blue Jays and b) at this writing, just one great week away from first place.
I suppose we might also mention the Pirates and the Cubs. There’s a certain positive energy around the Cubs, largely because they got off to a good start, then called up a couple of hot rookies. Meanwhile, the Pirates got off to a poor start, and so one might be excused for thinking it’s the Cubs’ time to challenge the Cardinals.
Well, maybe. But while the Pirates are two games behind the Cubs, they’ve also got a substantially better run differential: +28 vs. +3. For all the Cubs’ many virtues – including a manager well-known for getting the most from his squads – their middle infielders haven’t hit much, their bench has been awful, and the bullpen’s been spotty.
I’m not saying the Pirates are better than the Cubs. I’m saying there’s no compelling reason to choose one over the other at this point.