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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. LaBombo's Avatar
      LaBombo -
      Quote Originally Posted by Riverbrian View Post

      OK... Call me Emily Litella! I misunderstood your point. Yes... Winning 85 decreases your odds of winning the WS because it decreases your odds of making the playoffs.

      My Next question would be this then... What GM would design a baseball team to win 85 games specifically? That point will never make any sense to me. I would never want to be hung up on a specific number.

      The Gist of it... Is get into the playoffs? It doesn't matter if you win 80 or 100... just get in... Don't place your eggs in one year... Build something that can challenge for the playoffs every year. That increases your chances of winning it. Play meaningful baseball in September... That way you'll know for sure what kind of players you have. Have something for the players to get up and look forward to.

      As for the the "pretty freaking far from 85" comment. On Paper I agree... Common sense... I Disagree... 19 more wins gets you to 85. 1 more win every 8.5 games is not freaking far at all. It's baseball... Everybody is close! Some Pitching would help immensely.
      Not your fault; it's all pretty convoluted at this point! And I understand intangible advantages of the hypothetical 85 win bar...attendance/revenue, ability to attract free agents looking to play for a winner, etc. And if the Twins can squeeze out 85 wins without parting company with their best prospects, have at it. Still looks like an uphill battle to me for 2013, though. But I'll still be pulling for them, even while Gardenhire has me pulling my hair out.
    1. bdhenders's Avatar
      bdhenders -
      Quote Originally Posted by Craig in MN View Post
      Quote Originally Posted by John Bonnes View Post
      I'll go a step further - and I think this might be important. This suggests that the best strategy for an organization to win a championship is NOT to push all their chips to the middle of the table and become really, really good (as judged by wins) for a few years. It is to extend their window of opportunity as long as they possibly can and make the postseason as many times as they can.
      You are probably right, but I don't see where Regular Season Wins leads us anywhere in the argument. I wonder if can figure it out with simple probability and some thought exercises. Hopefully my math here is right:

      Let's say the playoffs are a crapshoot and every team (excluding one wildcard) has a 1 in 8 chance of winning. If an average/crapshoot team makes the playoffs (with a a .125 probabilty of winning) five times, they've got a 50/50 chance of winning at least one World Series. What about if it's not a crapshoot? Say you can create a playoff team with 1 in 5 chances of winning the series: .200 probability. They team would have to have about 59% chance of winning each playoff series to get to 1 in 5 odds overall that year. That's a really good team. If that elite team make the playoffs 3 out of 5 years, they have basically the exact same odds....50/50 chance of winning at least one World Series in the same stretch...
      Taking the stats a step farther, I recalled this reference from a book I had read and thankfully someone else has put it on the internet. More ammo that in a short series, anything can happen (as John says, the playoffs are a crapshoot). See this link. http://goo.gl/lxSM9. Basically, it says that mathematically, you can't determine the true best team in a 7 game series, even if one team is significantly better. For instance, if one team has a 2/3 probability of winning, then they would need to have best of 23 game series to have the better team come out on top 95% of the time...Click the link for more probability and examples from the book The Drunkards Walk: How randomness rules our lives by Leonard Mlodinow (highly recommended).
    1. John Bonnes's Avatar
      John Bonnes -
      I'll throw out a different question out there that I'm turning over in my head: under what circumstances should a MLB team play for next year versus playing for some year down the road? We could use the Twins as a case in point, if you like....

      The advantage to reloading and trying again next year is that it is one more shot at winning a winnable division. Plus, there is still quite a bit of talent that is not a sure thing to be around in future years. Finally, it's not like any money saved this year can be put towards future years when talend and payroll climb. It's just pocketed.

      The advantage to wiping off next year - maybe you invest in players that use that time to develop. Maybe the prospects that are receive in a trade become pieces in the future (or mabye they don't.) I'm having trouble thinking of others.

      I'm not sure the Twins are clearly on one side or the other. But I think unless I know there is a pretty clear path toward winning in the future, I'd prefer to play for any given year.
    1. diehardtwinsfan's Avatar
      diehardtwinsfan -
      A couple of others said it, and I'll echo. An 88 win team in a tough division may very well be better than a 95 win team in a weak division. That's what the unbalanced schedule does.

      I really hope that it is no one's goal to simply make the playoffs.. This bugs me. The goal is the series. The playoffs is a stepping stone to getting there, but if the focus is only on the playoffs, then you've missed the point.
    1. Riverbrian's Avatar
      Riverbrian -
      Quote Originally Posted by John Bonnes View Post
      I'll throw out a different question out there that I'm turning over in my head: under what circumstances should a MLB team play for next year versus playing for some year down the road? We could use the Twins as a case in point, if you like....

      The advantage to reloading and trying again next year is that it is one more shot at winning a winnable division. Plus, there is still quite a bit of talent that is not a sure thing to be around in future years. Finally, it's not like any money saved this year can be put towards future years when talend and payroll climb. It's just pocketed.

      The advantage to wiping off next year - maybe you invest in players that use that time to develop. Maybe the prospects that are receive in a trade become pieces in the future (or mabye they don't.) I'm having trouble thinking of others.

      I'm not sure the Twins are clearly on one side or the other. But I think unless I know there is a pretty clear path toward winning in the future, I'd prefer to play for any given year.
      Honestly... I thought it was time to tear down and rebuild in late April... I guess it must depend on your owners... Pohlad and Ryan appear to be more steady for lack of a better word. If they are not tearing down right now... They must think they can fix it... The Marlins have a different style... Go big and bring some players in and start rebuilding the second it didn't work.

      Who's right? Lets see who gets there first.
    1. Riverbrian's Avatar
      Riverbrian -
      Quote Originally Posted by diehardtwinsfan View Post
      A couple of others said it, and I'll echo. An 88 win team in a tough division may very well be better than a 95 win team in a weak division. That's what the unbalanced schedule does.

      I really hope that it is no one's goal to simply make the playoffs.. This bugs me. The goal is the series. The playoffs is a stepping stone to getting there, but if the focus is only on the playoffs, then you've missed the point.
      Of course the goal is to win the WS... But you can't skip step one.
    1. 70charger's Avatar
      70charger -
      Quote Originally Posted by John Bonnes View Post
      I'll throw out a different question out there that I'm turning over in my head: under what circumstances should a MLB team play for next year versus playing for some year down the road? We could use the Twins as a case in point, if you like....

      The advantage to reloading and trying again next year is that it is one more shot at winning a winnable division. Plus, there is still quite a bit of talent that is not a sure thing to be around in future years. Finally, it's not like any money saved this year can be put towards future years when talend and payroll climb. It's just pocketed.

      The advantage to wiping off next year - maybe you invest in players that use that time to develop. Maybe the prospects that are receive in a trade become pieces in the future (or mabye they don't.) I'm having trouble thinking of others.

      I'm not sure the Twins are clearly on one side or the other. But I think unless I know there is a pretty clear path toward winning in the future, I'd prefer to play for any given year.
      I think you absolutely try to reload and compete in a crappy division. If the Tigers can make it to the WS, the Twins could with something like 3 or 4 new pieces (mostly pitchers).

      The other option, I think, requires that you rush too many prospects. Attempting to reload solves two problems. 1) You don't punt on this season. 2) You delay rushing prospects to the majors and save some money over the long term.
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