Early-Season Surprises Hang Hopes on Schedule

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When the baseball season began eight weeks ago, who could have predicted that the Detroit Tigers would have baseball’s best record at the end of May? Who would have said that Detroit would take the mantle from the Cincinnati Reds, who would be giving the Cardinals a race in the NL Central? Few, if any, could have expected the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies to be contending in the NL West. And perhaps quite a few Yankee fans didn’t expect their team to be looking up at Boston in the AL East.

Yet here we are, watching these supposed also-rans riding high in the early part of the season. We can get some hints by evaluating a team’s past hitting and pitching performance by taking into account its strength of schedule. This is what we call a team’s third-order winning percentage. It adjusts a team’s runs scored and runs allowed relative to the strength of its opponents, and from that, calculates what the team’s record would be based on the adjustment.

Generating this metric doesn’t necessarily jumble the standings – some teams have performed exactly as well as you’d expect. The Mets, for example, are precisely where one would expect based on the strength of what they’ve done on the field and who they’ve done it against: Their record is 26-17, and their calculated third-order record is 26.1-16.9.

What about the Tigers? Baseball’s first team to 30 wins has impressed, but its tight race with the White Sox is really the product of the White Sox doing even better than the Tigers as far as expected wins and losses. The Tigers’ performance is not really that surprising when you consider their fundamental strengths. They boast what could be the league’s best five-man rotation, something that makes every game winnable.

The addition of veteran Kenny Rogers and the arrivals of youngsters Justin Verlander in the rotation and Joel Zumaya in the bullpen suggest that the Tigers have staying power. While the suddenness of Chris Shelton’s stardom might make you think that the Tigers’ offense will cool off when he does, he’s just the most visible player in a lineup that boasts veteran greats in sluggers Ivan Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez, and Jose Guillen, as well as a future All-Star in center fielder Curtis Granderson.

The quality of the talent that general manager Dave Dombrowski has assembled, the way that talent is being employed by manager Jim Leyland, and an unbalanced schedule with the always helpful Royals in the division all contribute to a season in which the Tigers should win more than 90 games.

Things are a little more interesting than that in the AL East, where the Red Sox have opened up an early lead. How have they done it? The Yankees have underperformed by three wins, while Boston has done better than expected by a win or two. In the Bronx, Joe Torre’s charges have turned what they’ve done at the plate and what they’ve done on the mound into fewer runs scored and more runs allowed than the numbers would have you believe. Keep in mind, that’s despite losing two-thirds of their outfield, and despite the mayhem in the rotation. Even with all that going on, the Yankees have been unluckier still.

That’s a major part of why, when we do a daily calculation of each team’s expected final record relying on our PECOTA projections for player performance, we still see the Yankees winning, if only just, with a 49% shot at the AL East title, against Boston’s 44% shot.

Certain things we know: The Yankees will get Gary Sheffield back and their schedule will ease up. Meanwhile, certain things in Boston will not continue to go the Red Sox’ way. Hitters like Trot Nixon, Mike Lowell, and Kevin Youkilis probably won’t keep hitting as well as they have, and Jonathan Papelbon will eventually stop channeling Eric Gagne. If Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett keep allowing a home run every five or six innings, they’re going to get burned. By contrast, the Yankees have areas in which they can easily help themselves, like finding someone who can help the offense as a DH instead of relying on Bernie Williams and Terrence Long.

The NL Central is particularly interesting, in part because of the relative strength of its top four teams. The Reds are something of a surprise, yes, but more surprising still is that the Brewers might be the best team in the division on the strength of what they’ve done and who they’ve played, and that’s without having staff ace Ben Sheets at his best. When we consider the Brewers’ playoff odds, there’s still a lot of optimism about how Milwaukee will finish up. Even with the injuries to Sheets and Tomo Ohka in the rotation and the struggles of their replacements, the Brewers are a surprising favorite to push the Cardinals down the stretch, though the Redbirds still remain the favorites.

Still, the biggest surprise in the division isn’t the Brewers, it’s the Reds. But there, the schedule has been a friend, as the Reds have drawn two series each against the Nationals and Pirates, and another with the Marlins. An 11-5 record against the dregs of the league has a way of making you look pretty good. In the same way that it’s far too soon to wrap your mind around a concept like “Bronson Arroyo: Cy Young candidate,” it’s too soon to think that the Reds are ready to shift the balance of power away from St. Louis.

Finally, while the early headlines have focused on how the “new” Dodgers are fulfilling expectations, they’re actually coming up a little short. The Rockies’ early run in the NL West makes them a happy early-season story, and it would be easy to expect them to fall short. However, this is the first Rockies team to win with a strong rotation and a much-improved defense, and that seems to indicate why the Rockies have become a much stronger road team for the time being.

The D-Backs make for a more interesting proposition, since they’re built around a balanced lineup, a strong pen, and really only have staff ace Brandon Webb to shut opponents down. As a result, the Dodgers should remain the favorites, especially if they can avoid last season’s wholesale trip to the disabled list, but the way things look now, the young Rockie and Diamondback squads certainly have the ability to keep things interesting well into August and September.

Ms. Kahrl is a writer for Baseball Prospectus. For more state-of-the-art commentary, visit www.baseballprospectus.com.


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