04 September 2007

Snake Hunt

by Joshua Worley

The Cubs can absorb losing two of the next three a lot better than the Dodgers can. Even if the Cubs were to be swept they would still likely be tied for first place, or just a game out. If the Dodgers lose three in a row, they slip into fourth place in the wild card standings.

So who plays better, the team with all the pressure on them, or the team who knows they have a cushion? The answer is probably neither, that pressure has little to do with who wins the game. But both "nothing to lose" and the opposite reason of "backs against the wall" are favorite lines in game stories late in the season. Why did team A win the game? Just reach into the big bag of psychological reasons and find the one that fits.

Of course the Cubs are feeling some pressure, but I do think it's less than what's on the Dodgers at this point. And yet I'm feeling pretty good about the Dodgers' chances. The Diamondbacks appear very catchable right now. You still have to give the Snakes the edge, because they are 3 games up. Who's playing better right now, though, between the Dodgers and the Snakes? Who's likely to play better in the coming weeks?

People often point to the Snakes' run differential ( currently 591-635 ) as evidence that they are a mirage. This two-week-old article by Chris Jaffe at the hardball times argues otherwise. His basic argument is that the Snakes negative run differential is largely a result of some truly awful back of the bullpen relievers, but that these men are only used in games that the Snakes are already on their way to losing, so the don't effect the bottom line of wins and losses.

Here are the OBP and SLG of the Snakes and their opponents:

Arizona -- 0.315 -- 0.407
Opponents -- 0.332 -- 0.419

Well, no wonder they've been outscored! Their opponents get on base more and push those runners around the bases more. But these numbers include the terrible back end of the Arizona bullpen, which is misleading since nearly everything they allow comes in sure losses anyway. So below are the OBP and SLG of the Snakes and their opponents when just the good Snakes pitchers are counted. I've used the pitching stats for the good five relievers of Slaten, Pena, Lyon, Valverde, and Cruz and the current four regular starters of Webb, Owings, Hernandez and Davis.

Arizona -- 0.315 -- 0.407
Opponents -- 0.324 -- 0.400

Well, this is much better. But it's still not exactly the profile of a winning team. This looks like a slighlty below 0.500 team to me, since OBP is more important to scoring runs than SLG.

( What about Randy Johnson? Should I have included him? Well, he's not important to the games ahead of the Snakes, but if he's included the SLG and OBP allowed each improve by just a point. )

Of course, the recalculated pitching numbers leaves out the Snakes' fifth starter. Dana Eveland made the last start in the 5 position, but he'll likely be replaced by Edgar Gonzalez next time around. Fortunately for the Snakes they get to skip the 5 spot once because of days off; unfortunately Gonzalez has an ERA of 5 on the season.

So yeah, the Snakes are better than their run differential. But not enough better to make them intrinsically better than the Dodgers, who do have the profile of a modestly winning team. The Dodgers have a 17 point edge in OBP and 13 point edge in SLG over their opponents. The huge advantage for the Snakes is that 3 game lead in the standings. The Dodgers can't have any more losing streaks.

I think there's a good chance the Snakes go 0.500 or worse in their remaining games. If they do that, the Dodgers have a shot at catching them. And ... so do the Phillies. In the end, the Dodgers may find it harder to stay even with the Phillies than to catch up with the Snakes!

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