The job of a Major League Baseball player is to help his team win games, for the ultimate purpose of making the playoffs and winning the World Series. That is my first sentence on this website's home page. And itís true. So, logically, if the goal of a team is to make the playoffs and win the World Series, shouldnít we be measuring how a player contributes to that goal, not simply the goal of winning individual games?
The concept of Win Probability that underlies my work here begins with the assumption that not all runs are created equal. A run in the ninth inning of a tie game is more valuable than a run in the ninth inning of a blowout. But, by the same token, not all wins are created equal. A win over your closest division rival when youíre tied for the division lead with two games left in the season is obviously worth a lot more than a win over a 100-loss team in the middle of July. Given this, wouldnít it make sense to move from Win Probabilities to Pennant Probabilities, judging players based on how they increase their teamís odds of winning the pennant?
Thereís certainly some merit to this argument. At a basic level, it is certainly logically compelling. I have chosen to not evaluate Pennant Probabilities here, however. My reason for this decision is a fundamental difference between Win Probabilities and Pennant Probabilities. This difference is best illustrated by an example.
From 1949 Ė 1958, the New York Yankees won 9 pennants. In those 9 pennant-winning seasons, they won between 92 and 99 games every year. The only season over that time period when the Yankees won over 100 games was in 1954, when the Yankees won 103 games. The 1954 Yankees, however, despite winning more games than any Yankee team between 1942 and 1961, was the only Yankees team between 1949 and 1958 to not win the pennant. Why? Because they had the misfortune to play in the same league as a Cleveland Indians team that won a then-American League record 111 games that year.
The 1953 New York Yankees split their season series with the Cleveland Indians, 11-11, but went 88-41 against the rest of the league, while the Indians went 81-51 against the same teams and finished 8Ĺ games behind the Yankees. The 1954 Yankees again split their season series with the Cleveland Indians, 11-11, and improved their record against the rest of the American League to 92-40. But the 1954 Indians went an astounding 100-32 against the rest of the American League and beat the Yankees by 8 games.
The 1954 Yankees did more to ensure themselves a pennant than the 1953 Yankees did. They played equally well against their chief rival and played better against the rest of the American League.
With Win Probabilities, the sum of the contributions of the players on a team will always add up to 50% when a team wins a game and to -50% when a team loses. Win Probabilities are a perfect accounting structure for team wins and losses.
Pennant Probabilities are not and cannot be a perfect accounting structure for team pennants. The 1954 Yankees did more to contribute to a pennant than the 1953 Yankees. The reason that the 1954 Yankees did not win a pennant had nothing to do with the 1954 Yankees and everything to do with the 1954 Cleveland Indians. The 1954 New York Yankees lost the pennant because the Cleveland Indians improved from 9-13 against the Boston Red Sox in 1953 to 20-2 against the Red Sox in 1954.
So who gets the Pennant Losses for the 1954 Yankees? The Red Sox? The 1954 Yankees won more games against the Red Sox (13) than had the 1953 pennant winners (11). The Indians? Certainly, the Indians deserve credit for doing what they needed to do to win the pennant in 1954. But the Yankees did more in 1954 than they had the year before too. From 1947 Ė 1967, the only American League team other than the Yankees to win more than 103 games was the 1954 Cleveland Indians. If the 1954 and 1959 Yankees teams (the latter of which went 79-75 and finished in 3rd place) traded places, the Yankees would have won one more pennant in the 1950s (the pennant-winning 1959 Chicago White Sox had the same record in both 1954 and 1959: 94-60).
If we think about the 1953 Yankees and the 1954 Yankees as both starting the season with a 12.5% (1 in 8) chance of winning the pennant, thereís simply going to be no way to fairly allocate +87.5% Pennants Added to the 1953 Yankees and -12.5% Pennants Added to the 1954 Yankees, when the 1954 Yankees out-performed the 1953 Yankees in every meaningful way in which they controlled their own fate. Teams that split with their closest rival and play 0.669 baseball for the season will win the pennant far more often than they will lose it.
From 1900 Ė 1968 (when winning a pennant involved simply having the best regular season record), only 27 teams had better winning percentages than the 1954 Yankees. And of those 27 teams, only 2 Ė the 1909 Chicago Cubs and 1942 Brooklyn Dodgers Ė failed to win a pennant. In fact, after the Yankees you have to go down to the 45th best winning percentage during these years Ė the 1915 Detroit Tigers Ė to find the next best non-pennant winner. Moreover, in all three of these cases, the Cubs, Dodgers, and Tigers all lost the season series to the team that won the pennant (the Pirates, Cardinals, and Red Sox, respectively). The odds of the 1954 Yankees winning the pennant was certainly greater than 90% and given that they split with the Indians (and won the season series from everybody else) was probably greater than 95%.
But what good is a Pennants Added system that gives the 1954 Yankees the +80% or so Pennants Added that they likely deserve, when, after all, they didnít actually win the pennant? Not much, and thatís why I donít use one.
Am I saying that players donít deserve extra credit for performing better against their teamís top rivals? Not at all. Iím simply saying that I donít believe there is a simple objective means of evaluating how much credit that should be worth. Should players get bonus points for making the playoffs? All other things being equal, sure. Within a season, I can see valuing a playoff-making performance over a non-playoff performance.
But the 1980 Baltimore Orioles won 100 games while the 1987 Minnesota Twins won 85 games. Even though the Twins won a World Series, I find it hard to blame the Orioles for having the misfortune of being in the same division in the same year as a New York Yankees team that won 103 games (especially since the Orioles actually won their season series from the Yankees 7-6). I suppose you can blame the Orioles for not going 9-4 against the Yankees (which would have given them the division title with 102 wins to 101 for the Yankees) but ultimately the requirements for making the playoffs change every year and, more importantly, arenít known until the season is over.
And, how fair is a system that punishes the Orioles for only going 7-6 against their closest rival, while rewarding the Twins for going 5-8 against their closest rival (the Kansas City Royals, who would have beaten the Twins if they could have only gone 10-3 against them that year)?
As the season is unfolding, all a player can do is work toward winning the game at hand, taking the season day by day and game by game. And ultimately, thatís what is reflected in the Player Won-Lost records that I have developed here.
All articles are written so that they pull data directly from the most recent version of the Player won-lost database. Hence, any numbers cited within these articles should automatically incorporate the most recent update to Player won-lost records. In some cases, however, the accompanying text may have been written based on previous versions of Player won-lost records. I apologize if this results in non-sensical text in any cases.
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