Evaluating early MLB streaks

Evaluating early MLB streaks

Evaluating early MLB streaks
Jacob Wheatley-Schaller

It’s always tough to know how much stock to put in to the beginning of the baseball season. You look at the standings and see that the Marlins are 14-10, but what does that mean? Obviously it would be unreasonable to expect Florida to continue winning 58 percent of their games, but what significance does their early season success have?

If we just look at a team’s place in the standings, the answer is almost none.  Strange things can happen in 24 games - a couple timely hits and favorable bounces can turn 10-14 into 14-10. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore the early season results- it just means that they need to be put into context.

The Baseball Prospectus Adjusted Standings do exactly that. They list each team’s wins and losses, but also go a lot deeper than that, making multiple adjustments. The first of these is very simple: their Pythagorean record shows how many games they should have won based on how many runs they have scored and allowed. This is a common thing to look at, as it has more predictive value than a team’s actual record.

This early in the season though, one adjustment is not enough. Teams can still get lucky and score more runs than they should have. To account for this, there are two more adjustments. The first considers how many runs a team should have scored, based on their on-base percentage, slugging percentage, etc.  This is useful because it takes out things like timely hitting, which can have a significant effect on how many runs a team scores, but don’t really tell us anything about the future.  The other takes into account the strength of a teams schedule- this can vary widely throughout the league less than a month into the season.

Looking at the standings that result from these adjustments can give us a much better idea of what to expect going forward than a team’s W-L record. For example, the Marlins are 14-10, but their “third-order” record is only 10.8-13.2.  This is partially because they’ve been outscored by their opponents, by four runs.  But the main reason is that these opponents have been very week. They have already played 14 games against the Pirates, Nationals, and Astros. I doubt anyone expected the Marlins to keep up their pace, but BP’s standings tell us that they haven’t even been playing that well to begin with.

Conversely, the Diamondbacks appear to be for real. They’ve outscored their opponents by 54 runs, and their third-order record of 15.7-8.3 is easily the best in the majors. The only criticism could be that their schedule hasn’t been particularly strong- that adjustment knocks them down by 1.1 wins- but that’s only a minor complaint. Arizona has opened up a seven-game edge in the West and it looks very unlikely that they’ll relinquish that lead.

The big disappointment early in the year was, of course, the Tigers. But a look at the adjusted standings indicates that they have nothing to be worried about; their biggest problem is that they’ve been unlucky. Their peripheral pitching stats indicate they’d be expected to give up 119 runs, but in reality they’ve given up 136. This is because their opponents have hit .317/.419/.514 with runners in scoring position, which is not a pace that can possibly continue. Detroit’s pitching staff isn’t great, but it’s also not as bad as it seems at the moment.

For each of these teams, it’s still far too early in the season to draw any decisive conclusions. At this point, we should rely much more on our preseason expectations than on their early season performance. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore what has happened- when put in the correct context, a lot can be learned from the first month of the season.

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