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Stats Geek: Bucs Have a Chance

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The Stats Geek thinks the Bucs have a chance in the weak NL Central.

I hate to keep repeating myself, and I hate to disagree with the Stats Geek, but arguments like the one he makes about the Bucs' 2006 season just drive me up the wall.

I don't want to blockquote the Stats Geek here because he uses a lot of words to make his point and so there are fair use issues, so I suggest you go read it and come back. If you won't, here's the gist: the Stats Geek disagrees with an oddsmaker who sets the Pirates' chances of winning the Central at 20-1. The Stats Geek thinks the Pirates can hang with the rest of the division because the team's 7-19 April was mostly the fault of players who ended up losing their jobs and aren't with the team anymore, and because no team in the division played winning baseball from the end of April to the end of the regular season.

There are a number of big problems with this argument.

First, every team has players who stink and lose their jobs after playing badly at the beginning of the season. The Pirates, of course, did an exceptionally stupid thing by throwing piles of money at Jeromy Burnitz and Joe Randa, and it was no real surprise when those guys were replaced by better players. It's true that there aren't any stupid Burnitz or Randa types of contracts this year. But any team starting the season with Chris Duffy, Jack Wilson and a Jose to be named later in its starting lineup, Tony Armas or B.P. Chacon and a bunch of relative youngsters in its starting rotation, Dan Kolb in its bullpen, and some combination of Luis Matos, Jose Hernandez, Humberto Cota and Einar Diaz on its bench should expect a bunch of players to fall apart. I'm not saying all those players will collapse, only that a few of them will be as bad as Burnitz and Randa were last year. They won't be paid as well, fortunately, but that isn't the point. The point is that the Pirates are still loaded with mediocre players.

Secondly, the Pirates weren't as bad in April as their record indicated, or as good after April as their record indicated. In April the Pirates scored 101 runs and allowed 138. Based on those numbers, their Pythagorean W-L would be somewhere between 9-17 and 10-16 (about 9.38 wins, to be more precise), rather than their actual 7-19. The issue was not just that the Pirates stunk then - although they did - but the fact that they lost six one-run games that month. Given that just about everyone associated with the Pirates seemed to have some sort of contractual obligation to mention their record in one-run games early in the season, I'm surprised the Stats Geek doesn't mention it here.

The Pirates also lost eight one run games in their disastrous May, and by the end of that month they were 19-34. Despite that, they had scored 251 runs and only allowed 261, showing that they were merely bad rather than horrible - even with several of the players the Stats Geek mentions as key offenders in the Bucs' awful April (Burnitz, Oliver Perez, Victor Santos) still occupying key positions on the team.

My point here, just in case your eyes are glazing over, is that it rarely makes sense to just toss out a month of baseball as if it doesn't count. The truth is usually a lot more complex than that. Sure, the Bucs were bad in April, but not nearly as bad as their record, and a lot of the bad luck they had evened out over the year. Also, it's true that some of their badness in April was due to the crappy players they depended on, but in May, the Pirates scored a bunch more runs (150) than they allowed (123) - while depending on many of the very same crappy players! In fact, the April and May Bucs - which still featured Burnitz, Perez and Santos in key roles - were actually much better from a Pythagorean standpoint than the June through October Bucs.

April and May: 251 RS, 261 RA
June through October: 440 RS, 536 RA

Winning more games than indicated by one's runs scored and runs allowed is not a skill - teams that win or lose more games than suggested by their runs scored and allowed tend to regress to the mean. So the Pirates' perceived improvement once the Burnitzes and Perezes were completely phased out was not actually an improvement at all. They won more games, but not because they were actually better.

Third, it is worth pointing out that, even if you throw out April, the Pirates would've finished fifth in the N.L. Central. They would've been six games back of the lead rather than 16, but still.

Fourth, even if we posit that the Central is likely to be as weak as it was last year - which is highly unlikely, simply because the division as a whole was so incredibly bad that it has to get better - other teams are better positioned to take advantage of that weakness than the Pirates are. Yes, the Pirates added Adam LaRoche. But the Brewers' young talent is much better than the Pirates' - unlike the Bucs, they have any number of players who could break out in a big way - and they should improve a lot simply by avoiding the ridiculous number of injuries they suffered last year. And everyone knows the Cubs threw $300 million at free agents last offseason.

In short, the Stats Geek's argument is simplistic and, in my view, overly rosy. Unlike me, he's got a word limit, so I understand that he's got to keep things short. What I don't understand is his conclusion that the Pirates could contend this year. Well, I'll concede that the Pirates could contend, but only in a Dumb & Dumber sort of way:

Lloyd: What are the chances of a guy like you and a girl like me... ending up together?
Mary: Well, that's pretty difficult to say.
Lloyd: Hit me with it! I've come a long way to see you, Mary. The least you can do is level with me. What are my chances?
Mary: Not good.
Lloyd: You mean, not good like one out of a hundred?
Mary: I'd say more like one out of a million.
[pause]
Lloyd: So you're telling me there's a chance.

Sorry to rain on anyone's parade.