Baseball by the Numbers

One of the fun elements of baseball (more than probably any other sport) is that it has a statistical richness through which one can completely divorce oneself from subjectivity.

Take, for example, my beloved Boston Red Sox, who through May, June, and July were accused regularly of being playoff pretenders, to the point of being more than 10½ games behind the God-Damned, Mother-Fucking New York Yankees on August 16.

Things have changed a lot in the two weeks since then, with Boston winning 13 of 14 games and climbing to within 3½ games of the God-Damned, Mother-Fucking Yankees at August’s end. The month was punctuated by the worst loss in the history of the God-Damned, Mother-Fucking Yankees, who got drubbed 22-0 by the Cleveland Native Americans.

Anyway, I’ve wondered periodically this season whether the Red Sox were under-performing or the God-Damned, Mother-Fucking Yankees were over-performing. Through most of the 2004 campaign, the Red Sox had scored more runs than the God-Damned, Mother-Fucking Yankees and had given up fewer runs. A logical person would conclude that the Red Sox should therefore have a better record. Unfortunately, that has not been the case for several months.

What gives?

There are people who study baseball mathematically; some have probably never actually seen a baseball game. These stat geeks are called sabermetricians, after the acronym SABR, which stands for the Society for American Baseball Research.

The God of sabermetricians is Bill James. He developed something called the Pythagorean Theorem of baseball, in which anybody (even me) can predict with startling accuracy a team’s winning percentage using only their total runs scored and runs allowed. (If you care: Winning percentage equals the square of runs scored divided by the sum of the square of runs scored and the square of runs allowed. James has since revised the formula, claiming that raising these numbers to the power of 1.82 rather than squaring them produces more accurate results.) Pete Palmer is another sabermetrics deity. His formula is more complicated but uses runs scored, runs allowed, and games played.

The important thing is that all these formulas have an average error of slightly more than four wins.

If you run the American League playoff contenders — Boston, New York, Minnesota, Chicago, Cleveland, Oakland, Anaheim, and Texas — through these formulas, this is what you find: Only the God-Damned, Mother-Fucking Yankees are overachieving among teams reasonably in the playoff race. They’re on a pace to win 100 games, and the average of the three formulas (Palmer and the original and modified James) says they should only win 88.

In this calculation, six of the eight contenders are within the four-win margin of error. The Red Sox, for instance, are on a pace for 96 wins, while the three formulas say they should win 99. The Chicago White Sox are the slackers, on a pace for 80 wins when the formulas say they should get 85.

That doesn’t mean that the Red Sox haven’t been slackers themselves; without the recent hot streak — the team went 21-7 in August — Boston would be outside of the margin of error, too. Entering the month, Boston was on a pace to win 89 games, while the average of James and Palmer predicted they’d win 94.

And, yes, the God-Damned, Mother-Fucking Yankees suffered in these formulas from the 22-0 spanking by the Indians; that one loss cost them three projected wins because it was so lopsided.

But I would suggest that we might be seeing not random hot and cold streaks but the law of averages. The Red Sox are winning so much now because they were due to, and the God-Damned, Mother-Fucking Yankees set themselves up for a fall by far exceeding what their stats said they should do.

If the formulas hold, expect a freefall from the God-Damned, Mother-Fucking Yankees, and a small surge from the White Sox. Incidentally, based only on runs scored and runs allowed, the playoff picture should look like this: Boston (99 wins, American League East winner) versus Anaheim (91 wins, wild-card winner), and Oakland (95 wins, American League West winner) versus Minnesota (86 wins, American League Central winner).

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