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  • The Twins Binary Hope

    Wins Don't Accurately Judge The Championship Caliber Of A TeamIn the latest Gleeman and the Geek podcast, Aaron Gleeman and I argued, as we are apt to do. Among the questions raised was one that stuck with me: what is the goal of baseballís regular season? Certainly, it is to make the playoffs, but beyond that, is there an advantage to posting a high win total?

    The answer to that question influences the path one thinks the Twins should travel this offseason. The AL Central champion had only 88 wins last year, the lowest amount for any division. It is not unlikely that could happen again next year. It is not unreasonable to suggest that even coming off of a 66 win season, by piecing together even a mediocre rotation, the Twins could improve to a mid-80s win team.

    But is that good enough? Or does a team need to win 90+ games to be taken seriously as a champion?

    To be honest, I have no idea. Aaron and I have gone back and forth on it throughout the year and again on Sunday night. On the one hand, it makes sense that a better team (one with more wins) would be favored versus a worse team. (Vegas certainly thinks so.) Furthermore, over several games, that advantage would could be more pronounced.

    On the other hand, itís often said that playoffs are random. There are certainly enough counterexamples of underdogs who have held parades at the end of October, including this year.

    It occurred to me today that this is something we can test, and it may provide a pretty definitive answer. Best of all, it isnít that difficult to do. Hereís howÖ.

    (Warning: high level stats discussion coming.)

    One sabrmetric tool used a LOT is called a correlation test. A correlation test compares two sequenced sets of data and sees what kind of relationships the two sets of data have. It is by using correlation tests that sabremetrics can definitively say that OBP or SLG is more important than BA, because it more closely correlates with the runs a team score. It is also by a correlation test the we know that xFIP is a slightly better predictor of future ERA than ERA is. Weíre going to use it to compare wins in the regular season to series wins in the playoffs.

    Here is a link to the data. Itíll consist of all the playoff teams from 1996 through 2012, along with their playoff series wins and also their regular season wins.* Weíll run a correlation test on those two sets of numbers, and the test will return a value somewhere between -1 and 1:

    • The closer to 1, the more regular season wins translates to playoffs success. For instance, comparing temperatures in Celsius to temperatures in Fahrenheit would have a correlation of 1. Not only does one go up when one goes up, but it goes up or down proportionally the same.
    • The closer to -1, then regular season wins would have a negative correlation to playoff series wins. For instance, comparing how much I cumulatively spend to my checking balance would have a correlation of -1. The higher the amount I spend, the more my checking balance goes down.
    • The closer to 0, the more regular season wins and playoff series wins just arenít related. If I were to compare the total wins of a team to the numbers of migratory monarch butterflies for each city, I would expect the number to be close to 0. The two sets of data mean nothing to each other.


    So what do you think it will be? Take your guess, before I do the work. Iím guessing a fairly small correlation, somewhere around .25, which would be similar to the correlation that SABR folks use to conclude that pitchers canít control if balls in play are hits.

    (Off to enter data and do the mathÖ.)

    Wow. The answer is actually quite a bit lower than that. The answer is just .07. Winning more games - being a 95 game winner versus an 85 game winner Ė affords a team almost no advantage in terms of advancing in the playoffs. If I wanted to drive home just how random this is (and I had a little more patience) I could compare the series wins to other ridiculous pieces of data for each team and find one that had a higher correlation. Iíd venture to bet that one of these four items would have a higher correlation: team batting average, team errors, average height, or total letters in the names of all the players on 25-man roster. Thatís how ridiculously low this correlation is.

    To me, that means that success in MLB isnít qualitative - itís binary. Either a team makes the playoffs, and thus has a pretty even chance to win a championship, or it doesnít. To give extra credit for wins is akin to giving extra credit for something like team batting average or how many ex-Twins they have Ė you might find it interesting, but that doesnít mean it is important.

    It also suggests that if you think the Twins can win the AL Central next year, then a complete overhaul might not be in order. A team does not need to be razed and rebuilt and win 95 games to position themselves to be a champion. Indeed, it earns them almost nothing at all. They just need to be good enough to get into the postseason, even if itís in a poor division.

    ~~~

    *(Three geek notes about the data I used. First, I did all the teams since the wild card began. Second, I skipped 1995 because they didnít play 162 games, and since I was using win total instead of win percentage, that would have produced skewed data. And finally, for 2012, I only used the two wild card teams who won their playoff wild card game.)
    This article was originally published in blog: The Twins Binary Hope started by John Bonnes
    Comments 47 Comments
    1. jm3319's Avatar
      jm3319 -
      I'd rather the Twins build a team that has a chance, or is projected, to win 95 and miss the mark and end up with 90 rather than aim for 86 and end up with 81. No one knows what it will take to win the division, but I'd rather aim for the best team possible rather than building an okay team that might squeak it out in game 163.
    1. OldManWinter's Avatar
      OldManWinter -
      Interesting. Thanks.
    1. chamoman's Avatar
      chamoman -
      Hi John, great idea and legwork looking up the data and running the correlations!! Although I have read Twins Daily since you all set it up, this is the first post that has caused me to actually register in order to post.

      You seem to be showing what baseball pundits and statisticians alike believe. However, I think the correlations may be limiting because it merely shows, well, correlation, and not causation. And since in this case, you clearly have a testable hypothesis (more regular season wins causes greater postseason success) with a clear causal arrow and no chance of reverse causality (e.g. postseason success causing more regular season wins), wouldn't it make more sense to run a regression? That way you could determine the precise statistical significance as well as the substantive significance of the effect (iff statistically significant, of course).

      You could begin by running a bivariate regression with the two variables you just used, and then could *really* play around to see what factors increase/decrease postseason success--or if it is indeed a crapshoot. You could add pitching, hitting , and fielding numbers and basically play with the specification ad nauseum. Something interesting it bound to pop up, right? Maybe fielding is more important, or player age, or postseason experience, or whatever. But this is a pretty simple model that savvy front offices must be familiar with.

      Of course, this may all be for naught, seeing as your correlation coefficient is so small! But with extra time, it might be a fun game.
    1. Top Gun's Avatar
      Top Gun -
      Record doesn't matter once you are in the playoffs. It's a new season. Anything can happen in a short series and usually does.
    1. glunn's Avatar
      glunn -
      I would have thought that the correlation between regular season wins and postseason success would have been a lot higher.

      As a Twins fan, I am used to not going far in the playoffs. I wish that someone would figure out how the Twins could squeak into the playoffs then go to the World Series instead of getting swept by the Yankees in the first round.
    1. Seth Stohs's Avatar
      Seth Stohs -
      Since the teams play different schedules, I think that the W-L record of division champs and playoff teams matter less and less.

      The cause of the Twins losses in the playoffs were many, but it had nothing to do with the regular season. Against the Yankees, the Twins lefty-heavy lineups struggled against Sabathia and Pettitte. There were also a couple of bad calls (Mauer fair ball/foul ball), bad bounces (Koskie's ground rule double), and bad pitching (from guys who generally pitched great).

      To summarize, I'm not at all surprised by the 0.07 number.
    1. Kwak's Avatar
      Kwak -
      Are all Wins the same? Example: some teams crush the lesser teams but struggle against the better teams. Matchups? Some teams are dominated by one or two outstanding players, while others are far more balanced. The playing field--higher winning teams get to play an extra game on their field--or some teams are configured for their home field, ergo NYY has many LH power hitters. How is that reflected in the analysis?
    1. drivlikejehu's Avatar
      drivlikejehu -
      This wasn't what you were arguing with Aaron about. His point was just that a team with more wins, in a tougher division, is a better team that one with similar or fewer wins, in a much weaker division. That is obviously correct proposition, so on the podcast you were trying to change the topic a bit into something about whether getting more wins matters (a completely separate issue).

      Your new topic is bogus for several reasons, but the most obvious is that teams can't predict the regular season outcome with specificity. They don't know exactly how their players will perform, who will get hurt, and how other teams will do. So the dominant strategy is to attempt to build the best team budgetary constraints allow.
    1. Brock Beauchamp's Avatar
      Brock Beauchamp -
      Quote Originally Posted by drivlikejehu View Post
      This wasn't what you were arguing with Aaron about. His point was just that a team with more wins, in a tougher division, is a better team that one with similar or fewer wins, in a much weaker division. That is obviously correct proposition, so on the podcast you were trying to change the topic a bit into something about whether getting more wins matters (a completely separate issue).

      Your new topic is bogus for several reasons, but the most obvious is that teams can't predict the regular season outcome with specificity. They don't know exactly how their players will perform, who will get hurt, and how other teams will do. So the dominant strategy is to attempt to build the best team budgetary constraints allow.
      You're missing the point. No one tries to build an 85 win team and says "Well, that's good enough. My job is done." Every team tries to build a 100 win team (within reason). John's point is that it's unimportant whether you win 85 or 95 games. What's important is whether you make the playoffs or not. Once you're in the playoffs, it's a crapshoot... After all, the winner of the supposed "worst division in baseball" went to the World Series again while the Yankees, Rangers, and A's were sitting at home.
    1. drivlikejehu's Avatar
      drivlikejehu -
      Well home field matters, but beyond that additional wins don't "matter." No one argued that they did, certainly not Aaron on the podcast. But they still tell you something about how good a team is. It's fair game if you are evaluating front offices, since every team wants to win, and they have varying degrees of success.
    1. Teddy's Avatar
      Teddy -
      Clarification please. You said:

      The closer to 1, the more regular season wins translates to playoffs success. For instance, comparing temperatures in Celsius to temperatures in Fahrenheit would have a correlation of 1. Not only does one go up when one goes down, but it goes up or down proportionally the same.
      Did you mean to say "not only does one go up when the other goes UP..."?
    1. Riverbrian's Avatar
      Riverbrian -
      Get into the playoffs... It's that simple... Being the better team in the standings or on paper means nothing and always has. The beginning of each series matchup is a blank slate and small sample size.

      It doesn't matter if you won 119 games during the regular season. You can still get beat in the first round against a team that won 82 games.

      It doesn't matter if you swept the first series. You can still get beat by the team that had to eek it out in 16 innings in game 7.
    1. jharaldson's Avatar
      jharaldson -
      Quote Originally Posted by Seth Stohs View Post
      Since the teams play different schedules, I think that the W-L record of division champs and playoff teams matter less and less.

      The cause of the Twins losses in the playoffs were many, but it had nothing to do with the regular season. Against the Yankees, the Twins lefty-heavy lineups struggled against Sabathia and Pettitte. There were also a couple of bad calls (Mauer fair ball/foul ball), bad bounces (Koskie's ground rule double), and bad pitching (from guys who generally pitched great).

      To summarize, I'm not at all surprised by the 0.07 number.
      If you take John's point to heart and think that playoff success is binary then the odds that a team would lose 6 straight playoff series is %1.6 (%50^6). That either indicates horrible luck for the Twins or indicates that other factors besides win/loss are involved.
    1. Boom Boom's Avatar
      Boom Boom -
      Quote Originally Posted by Seth Stohs View Post
      Since the teams play different schedules, I think that the W-L record of division champs and playoff teams matter less and less.

      The cause of the Twins losses in the playoffs were many, but it had nothing to do with the regular season. Against the Yankees, the Twins lefty-heavy lineups struggled against Sabathia and Pettitte. There were also a couple of bad calls (Mauer fair ball/foul ball), bad bounces (Koskie's ground rule double), and bad pitching (from guys who generally pitched great).

      To summarize, I'm not at all surprised by the 0.07 number.
      I think you've hit on something here - the Twins were no more successful during their run against the Yankees in the regular season than they were in the postseason.

      The Yankees have missed the playoffs once since 1995. So if the Twins (or any other AL team) wants to be a World Series contender, they're going to have to be able to compete with the Yankees. That means that playing for one run and pitching to contact is not a recipe for postseason success.
    1. Jim H's Avatar
      Jim H -
      I have believed that getting to the playoffs is the goal. I am not surprised at your results. Clearly the "best" regular season team or teams do not seem to have much if any advantage in the postseason. What might be interesting is whether "how" a team is constructed gives any advantage in the postseason.

      For example, many people have claimed that the Twins need more strikeout pitchers to have more postseason success. Personally, I think having good pitching is important in the post season. Still, having good pitching during the regular season doesn't always translate directly in the postseason. Verlander was great all season and in the postseaon. One bad game helped short circuit Detriot's chances in the World Series, however. This year in the post season, having power pitchers seemed pretty important, till you consider Barry Zito. Last year, St. Louis did well without any real power pitchers in their rotation.

      I think having good defense in the post season as well as the regular season is important. But, staying with Detriot, they were pretty poor defensively during the regular season. They were better in the post season, at least in terms of making the plays they had too.

      One other consideration, is a home run hitting team better in the postseason than having more of a high average type team? Does it really matter when Mark Scutaro is one of the top hitters in the post season?
    1. Craig in MN's Avatar
      Craig in MN -
      The problem with this is that you are using raw wins.....which completely neglects Gleeman's point. His point is that Win totals don't do a good job of telling what teams are better. A 85 win team in the AL Central is not equivalent to an 85 win team in the AL East or the NL West. An 85 win team that has a ton of injuries at the end of the year is different from an 85 win team that added a lot of talent in trades at the deadline, which is different than an average 85 win team.

      If wins don't do a good job of rating how good a team really is, why would anyone be surprised that the wins don't do a good job of predicting which team will win in a head-to-head matchup? In some respects, you might be giving Gleeman's argument more strength.

      That said, I'm surprised that the relationship isn't higher, but without knowing what other factors might be higher than .07, it's impossible to know if that's really a lot or not. If the playoffs are a crapshoot, then every correlation should be zero. If most other correlations you can think of are much smaller than .07, then .07 is a lot. If there are a lot of other factors that you can find higher, then this is surprising. By itself, this doesn't say much to me.
    1. John Bonnes's Avatar
      John Bonnes -
      Quote Originally Posted by Teddy View Post
      Clarification please. You said:

      The closer to 1, the more regular season wins translates to playoffs success. For instance, comparing temperatures in Celsius to temperatures in Fahrenheit would have a correlation of 1. Not only does one go up when one goes down, but it goes up or down proportionally the same.
      Did you mean to say "not only does one go up when the other goes UP..."?
      I did. Thanks for the catch. Fixed.
    1. tmerrickkeller's Avatar
      tmerrickkeller -
      Many good points here. A 90-win team in a "weaker" division can still make the WS, but one would have to believe that a team playing in a more competitive division would be a stronger team, having defeated better competition all year to get to 90 wins. It has struck me that two factors seem to elevate playoff teams: 1) teams with pitchers 1-3 with the lowest xFIP during the regular season (as your 4th and 5th starters don't seem to play into playoff wins and losses as much), and 2) teams that hit more home runs per game in the playoffs than they did during the regular season. They often talk about teams winning that weren't huge power teams, but it also seems that those teams elevate their power numbers during the playoffs.
    1. minn55441's Avatar
      minn55441 -
      Another variable is that the regular season is very long. It starts in April and runs through September if not later. Although the same season, you may have a different team in October than you did in April or May. Each of the wins counts the same, but as a group of players, a team, they will progress as a unit or regress as a unit, they won't stay the same. I'm not even talking about additions to the team at the trade deadline. There were several discussions about team chemistry last summer and much of it devoted to the fact that the team with the most talent wins. I consistently argued against that thesis. It helps to have talent, but the best team wins not the team with the best players. Oakland, Baltimore and others are prime examples.

      Through the season, teams evolve and change. Some change for the better, some change for the worse. I wonder if a better predictor is how many wins a team has after the all star break? Of course first taking into account teams that have things locked up with a week or two to go and then coast into the postseason.

      Great topic. John
    1. rambis26's Avatar
      rambis26 -
      I wonder if there is a better correlation between having the worst record of the playoff teams and losing in the playoffs
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