11 May 2011

Are All Divisions Created Equal? Team WAR (2002-2010)

Many a fan, particularly in Baltimore, has uttered the words: if only we played in another division.  Without a doubt, the AL East is a difficult division to play in.  The Yankees and Red Sox have considerable resources that help them sign top talent in the offseason and gives them enough of a margin of error to absorb bad contracts.  The Rays are saddled with severe cash restrictions, but their front office finds remarkable ways to remain competitive.  Finally, the Blue Jays are a club that always appears to be underrated.  It is tough to be an Oriole fan at times with all of these successful teams to play against with an unbalanced schedule.  This leaves many wondering what would it be like if the Orioles were to play in a different division and makes me want to try to quantify it.

This is not exactly an original idea.  It has been addressed before by Stacey Long over at Camden Chat.  They decided to use the Orioles' winning percentage in each division to determine how the team would perform with various unbalanced schedules.  In that article, Long found that the Orioles' record in 2009 would have improved by four games had they played in an easier division.  I think that is solid work, but I wonder if the number of games the Orioles play against other teams in the other divisions is robust enough.  Daniel Moroz of Camden Crazies wrote over at Beyond the Box Score a short piece trying to determine what the difference playing between divisions would be.  Moroz used an elegantly simple set of assumptions (e.g., typical wins by AL East teams, an 81 win average for AL teams, interleague play winning percentages) along with Bill James' log5 calculations.  He found that unbalanced schedules could cause changes of a win.  That is not much to be concerned about.  So, two solid articles with two different conclusions.

This well tread idea needs, perhaps, another way to address it.  I propose that WAR (Wins Above Replacement) could be used to determine how many games a team could win by shifting divisions.  You may have noted in the past that if you sum up all of the WAR of individuals on a single team, you wind up with a number that is anywhere from 35-55 wins less than the actual total wins that the ball club earned.  This makes sense as a replacement level team (roughly defined as a team composed of AAA players) would be able to win a game here or there.  WAR actually relates rather well to actual wins.  The graph below illustrates how WAR relates to actual wins for AL teams from 2002 to 2010.

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The trend line shows a good fit between wins and WAR with an R-squared of 0.81.  The y-intercept (where the line crosses the y axis (the vertical one)) is the number of wins that would be expected to be won by a replacement level team.  As this can be done with all of these data points from 2002 to 2010, we can also do something similar for teams in each division for each year.  With fewer data points, the correlation will not be as strong, but using replacement level performance as a base line for each division would provide a different way to measure how a team would perform in a different division. The following graph illustrates Replacement Level Wins (essentially Average Wins minus Average WAR) for each division.

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The graph above passes a general smell test for me.  My perception has been that the AL East is the toughest division to play in because there is a concentration of talent of both young players (Tampa Bay Rays) and free agents (New York Yankees).  It has also been my perception that this concentration of talent has been challenged at times, which is also indicated in the graph above.  What I find interesting is that over this stretch of time, a replacement level team shifting from the AL East to the AL Central or AL West would improve by one and three wins, respectively.  If you translate that into free agent money (4.5 MM for every win), you could say that it costs 4.5 MM less to compete in the AL Central or 13.5 MM less to compete in the AL West.

Again assuming that the replacement level is additive, we can determine how well the Orioles would perform in "weakest" AL Division each year over the past nine years.

Comparing our results to what Long and Moroz found, we see in general that our numbers fit in more with Long's in the idea that shifting divisions would cause a decent sized shift in the number of wins.  When we specifically unravel Long's predictions for the Orioles in the AL Central from 2002 to 2009, we do not see a strong match between our efforts.  Years in which I show little difference between the AL East and AL Central (e.g. 2005), she shows a difference.  In my opinion, I think this is largely a product of there may not being enough games played when using one team's winning percentages to determine division strength.  What is certainly known by all of these efforts is that simply moving the Orioles to another AL division is not a cure for what ails them.

In the near future, I will be using this approach to address the addition of a fifth team in each league's playoffs and will try to determine how good that team would be in comparison to the current field.


Morgan Conrad said...

Your perception that the AL East is the strongest division is based upon watching too much ESPN. An objective measure is to compute the total wins-losses for the division. By measuring this way, games within the division do not count. You measure it's strength vs. the other divisions.

For example, in 2001, he AL West, in total, was 88 games over .500. The AL East was 42 games *below* .500.

In 2002, AL West was +86, the AL East was -16.

In 2003, AL West was +26, AL East was +32. Pretty equal, especially since the AL East has 1 more team, so the net plus per team is almost identical. I'll call this a tie.

In 2004, +22 vs. +20
In 2005, +14 vs. +12

A slight edge to the west, esp. since they have 1 less team so the plus per team is higher.

2006, +32 vs. -8
2007, +18 vs. +6

Clear win for AL West.

2008, -17 vs. +61. Finally, a year where the AL East is better!

2009 +40 vs. +32 AL West wins.
2010 -24 vs. +52. AL East wins.

In conclusion, through the last decade, the AL East was only better in two years. The AL West was clearly better in 5 years, and slightly better 2 years, with 2003 a tie.

Bryan said...

I really like this analysis. I think the obvious thing missing here is the Orioles' willingness to be aggressive from a personnel standpoint. Knowing from day one they had no chance to win their division in each of the last 10+ years, they've had little incentive to make one or two key trades or FA signings to put them over the top. If they were in the AL Central this year, for example, they may see themselves as a competitor and rather than throwing money at temporary solutions like Guerrero and Derrek Lee, they could have gone after Crawford or Cliff Lee. Then if they were in contention in July, they'd be in a position to add pieces, rather than trading veterans away for more prospects.

I understand your premise that they probably wouldn't have won 80 games any year in the last decade anyway, but they might have at least *thought* they could win 85, and sometimes that's all it takes to get better.

Bryan said...

Morgan, what your analysis is missing is that the bottom teams in a division don't determine its strength. If you moved the Orioles from the East to the West, you'd be making the East stronger and the West weaker by your method, but it wouldn't get appreciably easier or harder for another team to win either division.

It's very clear that the West had the strongest top two in the early part of the decade (really only through '02) and the East had the strongest top two since then (perhaps excluding '06). If you're not among the two best teams in your division, you can't make the playoffs, so it's been much more of an uphill climb for the Orioles in the East than it would have been in the West, especially since the decline of the Mariners.

Jon Shepherd said...

@Morgan - Truth be told, I cannot think of the last time I saw Sportscenter. Maybe 2001 or so. Of course, this does not mean I am without unintentional bias. So what makes WAR inaccurate? I may be wrong, but wouldn't all WAR gained within a division be equaled out by WAR lost? Maybe I am thinking about that wrong. It won't zero out by definition of WAR, but it should be even.

Anyway, just blindly picking out a year . . . 2004 . . . Al East vs AL West games result in a .500 record. How is this worse than your data? Do you think it is a power issue? I'm also not sure how you are defining slight and other terms you are using. I really appreciate the feedback.

@Bryan - That certainly is an issue. If a team thinks of themselves as 10 wins away as oppsed to 15 wins away, their approach may indeed differ. Wins are more valuable the closer you get to competing.

Morgan Conrad said...


Yes, it seems like WAR should somehow correspond to division records. If it doesn't, that's interesting in itself. The Angels have often beaten their Pythagorean expectation, and things like that could explain a small difference. However, I don't see how WAR can call the AL-West the weakest division in 2002, when it had a net +86 record! Something is badly off.

Looking at just AL-East games vs. AL-West is reasonable, but adding in games vs. AL-Central is more complete. It's true that the interleague and "rivalry" games will have an effect, but I'd think that they would tend to average out over 10 years.

Morgan Conrad said...


One theory. As I understand, WAR is based upon runs above replacement. Is that correct? The AL East tends to have more slug-fests, the West has more tight, low scoring games.

So A-Rod hitting 2 grand slams in a 12-7 laugher (or in a 12-14 loss!) would way get credit for WAR than Justin Smoak hitting a 2-run shot in a 3-1 King Felix win. In reality, their contribution to the win is fairly equal.

There needs to be some way to weight WAR relative to how low scoring the game was. Is there?

BTW, I grew up back east worshipping Brooks, Boog, Blair, Palmer etc., so good luck!

Jon Shepherd said...

@Morgan The thing about a slugfest is that it should hurt the pitchers just as much as a pitching duel should hurt the hitters. So, I don't think that is the answer.

Yeah, we need some good luck. I think MacPhail is a fine GM, but I do not think he is better than anyone else in the AL east. Maybe better than Cashman. Jury is still out on the Jays GM.