Monday, July 16, 2007

Unbalanced Analysis

It's almost a rite of every baseball season.

Every year, usually in the second half of the season, there is an article in the daily paper telling fans exactly how good their team needs to be to finish in first place. It usually involves a few different assumptions about how the first place team will play, and then lists the records the hometown nine will need to post to pass them.

The conclusion is usually pessimistic. For instance, if the Tigers continue to play baseball at their current pace, they’ll win about 97 games. For the Twins to win 98, they would need to roll through a 48-22 record for the rest of the year, which is darn near impossible. Even if the Tigers just play .500 baseball, the Twins would need to finish 42-28, which is a tall enough order. It doesn’t matter if the team is nine games back or four games back, this analysis almost always proves the hill is going to be too steep to climb. Worse, it’s objective, even mathematical.
And often it’s wrong. Instead, we sit back and watch a great pennant race and wonder how the winning team overcame the odds. But we never doubt the analysis.

Maybe we should. I remember these stories from my childhood, too, and there’s an important difference between pennant races then and pennant races now. It’s the schedule. Baseball used to have a balanced schedule, where each team played each other the same amount of times, which was nice and even and made the mathematicians (and those with a hypersensitive sense of fair) very happy. We often hear the downside of the unbalanced schedule (cue Sid!) but it allows a team to play teams in its own division a half dozen more times per year. And that makes it a lot easier to make up ground in a pennant race.

For instance, this year the Twins still have thirteen games left against Cleveland, which are as many games as they played Cleveland the entire year prior to unbalanced schedule. They also have nine games against Detroit, and Cleveland and Detroit have eight games against each other. Add all that up, and you end up with thirty games left on the schedule where the Twins not only control their own destiny, but the destiny of one of the teams in front of them. That’s almost half of the Twins remaining games.

So the next time you see this story, or hear this point on your favorite sports radio station, don’t be afraid to ask what happens if the Twins sweep one of the series versus their opponents. Because it’s pretty likely a series against them will be coming up soon.

5 comments:

Jake said...

really looking forward to watching the series that starts tonight. Come on boys! once more into the breach! Any thoughts on the rotation heading into these pivotal games Vs. the tiggers? (sp intentional).

John said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John said...

To be honest, I'm really excited about the rotation for this series. We start off with Garza, who looked a lot like he plans on sticking around vs. the White Sox. Then Santana. And then Baker, who had that great game versus the Tigers a couple of weeks ago.

It's pretty easy to get excited about the rotation on most series right now, especially as you start to think how it will look in 2008 and 2009. Imagine swapping Liriano for Silva AND gaining another year under the belt of Garza, Bonser and Baker. Not to mention Slowey waiting in the wings. It's easy to get carried away.

Jack Ungerleider said...

Of course the "Balanced" schedule was a result of expansion. When you had 12 teams in two division the your unbalanced schedule was 12 games against each team in the the other division and 16 against the teams in your division. As you keep adding teams you need to spread those games out more.

I'm sure the mathematicians in the group could come up with some happy medium between a completely (or almost completely) balanced schedule and what we have now.

Of course there's good money in 19 games between the Yankees and Red Sox or the Cubs and the Cardinals (or Brewers) each year. Not to mention LA vs SF. So maybe the unbalanced schedule is designed to drive attendance and revenue.

[rambling stops here]

Daymonster said...

was this in response to howard sinker's post?
http://www.startribune.com/blogs/sinker/