Originally written on Waiting For Next Year  |  Last updated 11/18/14
The Diff is your weekly WFNY look into the amazing world of sports statistics. For a complete log of articles, click this link. Last week, I recapped some stats from the Indians’ turnaround 2013 regular season. Today, I’m taking stats research questions from my WFNY colleagues with the Wild Card game tonight. Kirk: “How about how often the best team wins it all in baseball? Wild card vs. top division winner success.” That’s a great question, Kirk. This week, I was planning to write about MLB payrolls, but then realized that was too depressing of a topic. If payrolls don’t matter anyway, then have the low-to-medium-sized payroll Indians struggled for much of the last decade? Either way, my answer to this: The MLB playoffs are an absolute crap-shoot, even despite the incredible payroll imbalance. Let’s start by revisiting this tweet I sent out earlier in the week: In the 18-year playoff history in the Wild Card era dating back to 1995, five World Series champions and 10 league champions have been Wild Card teams. It’s all a toss-up once it starts. Based purely on 1/4th odds, assuming every team is exactly equal (which isn’t the case), the Wild Cards would be expected to have 4.5 World Series titles and nine league championships. But instead, they’ve actually out-performed these surreal coin-toss odds! Wild Cards have been better than the average playoff team! Consider this, as well: Only 11 No. 1 seeds have advanced to the World Series during this time, winning six titles. That’s just slightly better odds than the No. 4 seed Wild Cards. No top seed has advanced to the World Series in the last three years and none have done so in the National League since the 2004 St. Louis Cardinals. Overall, home teams have won just 53% of postseason contests since 1995. The playoffs are a pure toss-up; all that matters is just getting in and you have a very solid chance. That’s both optimistic and terrifying for the Indians, as there’s no proof of significant home-field advantage in baseball playoffs.   TD: “How about teams with new closers in the playoffs since 1995?” This reminds me of a great conversation that our friend @realcavsfans sparked over on Twitter a few days ago. The account asked: “When was the last time a team won the World Series without a closer who had at least 20 saves pitching?” While TD’s question is slightly more specific, I did do some research at the time to answer RCF’s original question. Cleveland’s Chris Perez had 25 saves this season. One will note that each of the past two World Series champions (SFG 2012, STL 2011) did not have relievers with more than 25 saves total in the regular season. The last champ to have no pitcher with at least 20: the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks. RCF later clarified its prompt, specifying only pitchers that remained the team’s closer after tallying at least 20 saves. That was not the case for the Giants or Cardinals over the past two seasons, of course. So that does provide some historical track record of irrelevance as it relates to TD’s question. Looking at teams who used closers who didn’t lead them in saves during the regular season, here is an incomplete list of a few recent examples: 2012 SFG, 2012 DET (Coke/Valverde), 2009 PHI (Madson/Lidge), 2008 TBR, 2006 STL and 2003 BOS. Those are a lot of World Series participants and closer time share situations. I’ve written twice – once in The Diff and again last week – about the fading need for a definite closer. A team’s best reliever should ideally pitch in the highest leverage situations in relief, whenever that may be: It could be in the sixth with the bases loaded or the eighth with one out. That’s where the Indians are now. And from this brief research, that doesn’t seem to be that huge of an issue.   Scott: “Preseason projections versus outcome? Team level, player level?” I’ll take a look at this prompt for just the two teams on our minds tonight: The Indians and the Rays. I’ll be using the ZiPS projection system, made famous by Dan Szymborski at FanGraphs and ESPN Insider. You can read Szymborski’s AL projected standings at this link. Let’s start with the road team. TD had a good article this morning called “Getting to Know the Tampa Bay Rays.” Szymborski projected the Rays for 88 wins this season, remarking that “no franchise does a better job at patchwork repairs than the Rays” in the wake of losing B.J. Upton and James Shields. The team ended up winning 91 games to tie for the Wild Card; not too shabby, especially after winning 90 a season ago. Looking at Tampa Bay’s player ZiPS projections, James Loney’s improvement and David Price’s regression were the two biggest stories of the season. Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist were their usual productive selves, with the efficient Rays infield also contributing a few wins each. Tonight’s starter, Alex Cobb, then surpassed Price to be Tampa Bay’s best pitcher at 4.0 WAR. You can read more Rays stats in my headline from yesterday. On the Indians side, Szymborski said the late Michael Bourn addition jumped the Indians from fourth to second in the AL Central standings. Along with the WFNY crew though, he had Cleveland pegged for just 80 wins and about 25% playoff odds. He shared the popular opinion that pitching was the team’s biggest problem, although Scott Kazmir was a player to watch. The Tribe ended up winning 92 games. In the player ZiPS projections for the Indians, unsurprisingly, Jason Kipnis, Yan Gomes and Ryan Raburn were the biggest surprises offensively. Their jumps in actual WAR over projected contributed an additional 7 wins to the team. But the projected rotation, man, it looked ugly, with Brett Myers and Justin Masterson expected to be the best at just 2.0 WAR. Instead, Myers hardly pitched, Masterson and the entire rotation improved drastically and the young bullpen also contributed above-average production. Overall, these comparisons aren’t really surprises to fans that have followed both of these teams in 2013. The Rays were their usually productive selves, except for a slow start and tough mid August to early September stretch. The Indians, on the other hand, were one of the biggest surprises in baseball. We’ll see if they can keep it going.     Rick: “I would like to see some stats about where the hottest team in September ends up.” Now this is a fun final question. You should already know that the 2013 Indians won their final 10 games this regular season, becoming the first such team to do so since the eventual World Series champion 1971 Baltimore Orioles. That’s a great stat. But are hot Septembers necessarily the best indicator? The answer is not really. I could say that each of the last five World Series champions won at least 19 of their final 30 regular season games. I could say that all 12 of the last pennant winners since 2007 won at least 16 of their final 30 regular season games. I could rattle of dozens of other facts, but the annual details tell the best stories – and it’s not that clear-cut. In 2011, Texas and St. Louis were getting better and better as the season rolled on. They each went at least 21-9 in their final 30 games. But so were playoff teams Detroit and Arizona. So this leads to a possible conclusion: Baseball’s hottest team isn’t a given to be a favorite, but it’s pretty important to at least be playing decent baseball down the stretch. In 2006, however, that was not the case at all. St. Louis and Detroit had the two worst records for any playoff teams in their final 30 regular season games, each going 13-17. Yet they each managed to advance all the way to World Series. San Diego and Minnesota were baseball’s two best teams in the final month of that season. Overall, seven pennant winners in the last 18 years were no better than 15-15 in their final 30 games. This includes the 2000 World Series champion New York Yankees, who were only 12-18 down the stretch. The playoff team with the best 30-game record to end a season in the Wild Card era was the 2001 Oakland Athletics at 26-4. After taking a two-game lead over the Yankees, they then lost the next three games to drop out of the playoffs. So I could look up more and more data. But anything that might hold true for the red-hot Indians might also be the same for the Rays, who are 8-2 in their last 10 games, or perhaps the Athletics, who cruised to a division title with a 25-10 run. The Indians’ story is not unique by any means.
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