One of the best FanGraphs articles I read during the offseason took to task the typical fan notion that once their beloved nine’s 162-game record falls below that 82-win threshold, there’s no difference between the remaining win totals. 77 wins, 62 wins, whatever — the team didn’t make the playoffs, and they didn’t manage to win more than they lost, therefore the win total is meaningless.
Under the knife of analysis, of course, this type of statement looks ridiculous, but fans utter versions of it under their breath all the time. Even diehards — it amounts to, “hey, I love baseball, but if my team isn’t winning, I might expend more energy on my stamp collection.” FanGraphs found significant differences within the dark area of losing records. Specifically, attendance shifts significantly between clubs with “better” and “worse” losing records; in terms of the owner’s ability to run their business, there is definitely a difference between a 77-win and 62-win club. The same goes for the length of time a club can hang onto the Wild Card race, giving fans some excitement (remember last year’s climb back by the Brewers? THAT was fun!), and so on.
The simple point is, outside of our collective frustration as fans, it absolutely makes a difference what type of losing club we’re watching.
Entering 2013, the Brewers’ organizational approach leaned toward competing, rather than rebuilding. Their 2012 ballclub hit some rough stretches of injuries and replacement players, but still managed to score more runs than anybody in the National League. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise was the way a group of young starters seized jobs throughout the season — contrary to the typical fan notion that the Brewers can’t field good pitching staffs, every hurler on the club except Randy Wolf was better than average. Even better, some of the club’s best performances occurred after they traded Zack Greinke, which displayed some serious character and fortitude in the clubhouse. Thus, the team decided to compete.
On the other hand, the Houston Astros remained squarely in rebuilding mode. There were no difficult wagers for their front office, perhaps other than which player they might select with their top draft pick. The last time the franchise had a winning season was in 2008, and even that club was peculiar — Cecil Cooper‘s gang outplayed their run differential by nine wins. At best, rushing a few organizational depth players to the majors while their true prospects developed, the Astros had answers about whether guys like Jose Altuve could cut it in the big leagues; perhaps learning that some of these kids could play was the best part of 2012.
Interestingly enough, the Astros went a different direction than the Miami Marlins upon receiving a grand labor development (namely the first year of their 20-year TV contract, which includes a sizable equity stake in the network). Instead of using their newfound cash in 2013 to field a winner, the Astros received at least $80 million in TV money to field a club without a pennant chance. If anything, the Astros have found that one of sports’ oldest dirty secrets translates to the new era of TV money: one can earn a fortune in sports, even while fielding a losing team. Think about the Astros’ $26 million payroll on at least $80 million of TV money the next time the Brewers cannot afford to add that extra player to compete.
And so, our Milwaukee Nine head to Houston. In terms of expected wins and losses, the Brewers are roughly on pace for 71 wins, the Astros 58. Interestingly enough, the Brewers are now underplaying their expected record by two, while the Astros are outplaying their run differential. What could be an expected gap of 13 wins between the clubs (over 162) is nearly cut in half — we’re looking at potential 67-win and 60-win clubs based on their actual winning percentages. What explains the differences between the Brewers and the Astros is not so much their pitching and hitting, but their distribution between the two:
|Team||Expected W%||RS vs. park||RA vs. park|
|2013 Brewers||.441||-10 RS||+25 RA|
|2013 Astros||.357||-40 RS||+52 RA|
|Team||Record w/ 3-4 RS||W%||Record w/ 6+ RS||W%|
I’m only isolating three specific runs scored totals for this exercise. But, I think they’re the most telling areas because (1) even though three or four runs scored is typically a below average total in one game, those totals of runs scored are rather common and isolate a club’s ability to win extremely close games, and (2) an outcome of six runs scored or more is notably above average for one game, which can isolate a club’s ability to win games it absolutely should win.
Here, the Astros’ and Brewers’ respective records are telling. Although the Astros’ pitching is notably worse than the Brewers staff, their winning percentage when scoring three or four runs is not much worse than the Brewers. However, even though their offense is much worse than the Brewers’ bats, the Astros have a notably better winning percentage when they do manage to score runs.
I’d like to point out that even with the Brewers’ current pitching staff projected over 162 games, the Brewers would be expected to win approximately 81 games if their offense measured up to the 2012 squad.
Think about that — this club is currently on pace to allow approximately 760 runs, but they are only on pace to score 669 runs. For all the talk about the pitching staff, the Brewers bats might very well score one hundred fewer runs in 2013 than in 2012.
|Year||162 G Brewers RS||162 G park RS||162 G Brewers RA||162 G park RA|
Even when we correct for the decrease in runs across the 2013 National League, the 2013 projected Brewers runs scored is more than 80 runs worse than their 2012 counterpart. That’s actually a worse performance shift than the 2012-to-2013 pitching staffs.
When we wrote about the Brewers prior to 2013, so few of us actually thought the club might be comparable to the 2013 Astros. Yet, here we are, more than a third of the way into the season, looking for ways to differentiate our own club from the Astros. In that differentiation is a unique lesson: (1) when one area of a club turns out to be so much worse than another part of the club, focus on that single area often leads one to gloss over other areas of the club, and (2) even between losing clubs, one can find notable differences that explain one club’s ability to outperform its expectations (compared to the other).