2012 Team Efficiency


Are you smarter than Buck Showalter?
Measuring 2012 Team Efficiency

By Jim Wheeler
December 10, 2012

Several years ago, Tom Tippett would regularly pen an article discussing the most recently concluded MLB season aimed at discovering which team was the most efficient in scoring and preventing runs along with creating wins. This is my attempt to resurrect these articles. Most of the thought and boilerplate of this article belongs to Tom Tippett and not myself. I am merely trying to keep the flame lit.

Every few seasons it seems like a special team comes from out of nowhere to rocket into the playoffs. In 2006, it was the Arizona Diamondbacks zooming into the NL playoff picture. In 2012, it was the Buck Showalter led Baltimore Orioles who won an amazing 93 games as opposed to a Pythagorean prediction of 82 wins. The Orioles were scintillating in one run games, going 29 and 9, a factor that no doubt helped them reach the American League playoffs. So the million dollar question then becomes; do you think that you can manage the Orioles with equal skill as Buck Showalter did in 2012? Can you replay the "El Birdos" 2012 season and maneuver them into the top of the AL pack? As explained below, doing so will be a real challenge. So as a famous man once said, "Do you feel lucky, punk? Well do you?"

What do we mean by team efficiency?

In a nutshell, you win games by outscoring your opponents, so the connection between runs and wins is very strong, even though every season produces a few teams that win more or less than you'd expect given their run differential. To explore the relationship between runs and wins, we'll use the Pythagorean method that was developed by Bill James.

You score runs by putting together hits, walks, steals, and other offensive events, and you prevent runs by holding the other team to a minimum of those things. In most cases, there's a direct relationship between runs and the underlying events that produce runs.

We use the term efficiency to represent the ability to turn events into runs and runs into wins. An efficient team is one that produces more wins than expected given its run margin, produces more runs than expected given its offensive events, or allows fewer runs than expected given the hits and walks produced by their opponents.

In the 2002 edition of this article, we showed that teams that are unusually efficient (or inefficient) have exhibited a very strong tendency to revert back to the norm the next year. That's good news for some teams and bad news for others. If you'd like to find out who falls into which category, read on.

Converting runs into wins

The Bill James Pythagorean method, a well-established formula based on the idea that a team's winning percentage is tightly coupled with runs scored and runs allowed. Bill's formula is quite simple ... take the square of runs scored and divide it by the sum of the squares of runs scored and runs allowed (RF = runs for, RA = runs allowed):

                                RF ** 2

  Projected winning pct =  -----------------

                           RF ** 2 + RA ** 2

In 2012, for instance, 21 of 30 teams finished with win-loss records within three games of their projected records, and 26 of 30 teams finished within five games. In 2010 and 2011, 27 of 30 teams finished within five games of their Pythagorean projection.

We had a very big exception this year. The Orioles won 11 more games than normal for a team with a run margin of +7. On a run-margin basis, they were 29-9 and they surprised everyone by finishing second in the AL East with 93 victories. Since 1962, when the 162-game schedule was first used in both leagues, no team had ever been more than 12 games better than their Pythagorean projection, so the Orioles came very close to tying this record which is also held by several teams.

But 50 years of baseball history tells us that such large deviations are unusual and tend not to be repeated the following year. In other words, the Orioles must dramatically improve their run margin in 2013 if they are to come close to matching this year's win total. The same is true of the Cincinnati Reds, who finished 6 wins to the good.

The teams that most underperformed their Pythagorean records were the Rays, Cardinals, Diamondbacks, Red Sox, and Rockies all with (-5) Pythagorean wins.

Converting offensive events into runs

Just as there is a strong relationship between runs and wins, it's almost always true that the more hits and walks you produce, the more runs you'll score. Sometimes, of course, a productive team comes up short on the scoreboard because they didn't hit in the clutch, didn't run the bases well, or hit line drives right at people in key situations. But this relationship holds up most of the time.

To shed some light on this relationship, we need a way to take batting stats and turn them into a measure of overall offensive production. There are several good options here, including Runs Created (Bill James), Batting Runs (Pete Palmer), Equivalent Average (Clay Davenport), OPS (on-base average plus slugging average), and Base Runs (David Smyth).

For this exercise, we'll use the sum of total bases and walks, or TBW for short. TBW is not a perfect measure, but it does have a few things going for it. It captures the most important things a team does to produce runs -- singles, extra-base hits, and walks -- and it's easy to figure without a computer.

As with other statistics, a team's TBW total can be significantly influenced by its home park. For that reason, we focus on the difference between the TBW produced by a team's hitters and the TBW allowed by its pitchers. This effectively removes the park from the equation and helps us identify teams that out produced their opponents.

The following table shows the offensive and defensive TBW figures for the 2012 American League, along with the difference between these two figures and each team's league rank based on those differences. It also shows runs for and against, the run differential, and the rankings based on run differential. Finally, because we're trying to trace a path from TBW to runs to wins, it lists the team's win total and league rank for the year.

The 2012 American League:

                       TBW                     Runs                Wins

Team             Off   Def  Diff  Rank     Off  Def  Diff  Rank     Num  Rank

New York (A)    3068  2753   315     2     804  668   136     1      95    1

Baltimore       2799  2769    30     8     712  705     7     8      93    3t

Tampa Bay       2699  2374   325     1     697  577   120     2      90    5

Toronto         2704  2989  -285    13     716  784   -68    10      73   10

Boston          2753  2894  -141    10     734  806   -72    12      69   12

Detroit         2824  2645   179     5     726  670    56     7      88    7

Chicago (A)     2789  2718    71     7     748  676    72     5      85    8

Kansas City     2658  2899  -241    11     676  746   -70    11      72   11

Cleveland       2662  2951  -289    14     667  845  -178    14      68   13

Minnesota       2676  2942  -266    12     701  832  -131    13      66   14

Oakland         2781  2555   226     4     713  614    99     4      94    2

Texas           2971  2696   275     3     808  707   101     3      93    3t

Los Angeles (A) 2845  2674   171     6     767  699    68     6      89    6

Seattle         2493  2608  -115     9     619  651   -32     9      75    9

The AL East produced some very intriguing results. The Yankees finished first in Runs Differential (RD) and as expected, won 95 games. Of course we have already discussed the Orioles. With a Runs Differential of 8, they ranked 8th in the American League. Their TBW differential also was a positive 30 which also placed them in 8th place in the AL. Neither stat bodes well for Orioles fans in 2013. The Rays proved to be the biggest losers in the 2012 race. With a Runs differential of 120 (2nd place) and TBW of plus 325 (1st place), you would have expected them to win more than 90 games.

Bringing up the AL East rear was the Blue Jays and Red Sox. Adding to the Red Sox misery is that they finished even worse than their Pythagorean with 5 less victories.

In the AL Central, the White Sox should have won 89 games and the division. But instead, the Tigers went 8-2 in their last 10 games while the White Sox were 4-6 and consequently the Tigers took the division by 3 games. The Tigers had an RD of +56 Runs and the White Sox +72. But Detroit was more efficient in TBW with a +108 advantage over the White Sox.

The remainder of the AL Central, KC, Cleveland and Minnesota were nothing specular. Despite the Indians lack of offense (-289 TBW), they managed to squeeze out 6 more victories than expected. KC, finished with the 11th ranked TBW team, the 11th ranked RD team and finally the 11th ranked team in wins. A trifecta of sorts!

Over in the AL West, the Rangers finished 3rd in TBW, 3rd in RD and tied for 3rd best in AL wins. Yet it was not enough to best the A’s who converted 4th place in both TBW and RD into a division winning 94 wins. Incidentally, those 94 wins represent the 2nd best total in the AL. The Angels never seemed to get rolling in 2012. Their +171 TBW and +68 in RD rated 6th best in the AL and they parlayed this into 89 victories, 1 win better than their expected win total.

The 2012 National League:

               TBW                     Runs                Wins

Team             Off   Def  Diff  Rank     Off  Def  Diff  Rank     Num  Rank

Washington      2880  2537   343     1     731  594   137     1      98    1

Atlanta         2678  2502   176     3     700  600   100     3      94    3t

Philadelphia    2669  2656    13     9     684  680     4     9      81    9

New York (N)    2605  2673   -68    11     650  709   -59    11      74   12

Miami           2561  2692  -131    13     609  724  -115    13      69   13

Cincinnati      2730  2571   159     4     669  588    81     4      97    2

St. Louis       2900  2594   306     2     765  648   117     2      88    5

Milwaukee       2892  2842    50     6     776  733    43     7      83    7

Pittsburgh      2582  2616   -34    10     651  674   -23    10      79   10

Chicago (N)     2492  2864  -372    15     613  759  -146    15      61   15

Houston         2471  2906  -435    16     583  794  -211    16      55   16

San Francisco   2688  2646    42     7     718  649    69     5      94    3t

Los Angeles (N) 2513  2495    18     8     637  597    40     8      86    6

Arizona         2823  2696   127     5     734  688    46     6      81    8

San Diego       2599  2716  -117    12     651  710   -59    12      76   11

Colorado        2884  3216  -332    14     758  890  -132    14      64   14

The old saying used to be, "Washington, First in war, First in Peace and last in the American League." Well guess what, Washington in now in the National League and in First place! The Nationals led all of baseball in 2012 with 98 wins, ranked 1st in DR (+137), and 1st in TBW differential (+343). Yet, the Cardinals who managed to under-perform by 6 Pythagorean wins (88 wins as opposed to 94 projected wins) were victorious in the play-offs over the Nationals. Which leads to one of the great questions of the 2012 season? Had Steven Stasburg been available for the play-offs rather than games in April and May, would the Nationals have done better in the playoffs? Well now you replay managers have your chance to see how history could have been altered with Strasburg in the Nationals playoff rotation.

The National League Central Division produced two teams that were among the leaders in baseball at being efficient and also inefficient. The Reds finished 1st in the division with 97 victories which is 6 better than their Pythagorean expectation. But the Reds were very efficient in producing wins despite rating 4th in the NL in RD (+81) and TWB (+159). Meanwhile, last year’s darlings the Cardinals should have run away with the pennant. The Redbirds had a very potent offense (+306) TWB plus a stingy defense and pitching staff, had a +117 in RD, both good enough for 2nd place in the National League. But when it came to converting these two positives into victories, the Cardinals were -6 games worse than their expected win total. The NL Central pennant race should have been much tighter than it was. It is worth noting that the Reds bested the Cardinals in one-run games going 31-21 compared to the Cardinals 21-26. Perhaps the difference comes down to the performance of "The Cuban Missile" Aroldis Chapman?

Once again the Pirates played well for the first 4 months of the season and then tailed off to finish up with 79 wins, one less than expected. But the Pirates did perform to the level that the stats predict: -34 TBW, -23 RD were both good enough for a 10th place rank amongst the National League. And their final win total was also in sync with their 79 wins. The Brewers were pretty much a mediocre team. They should have won 86 games but their lack of efficiency in TWB and RD doomed them to winning three fewer games and close the season with just 83 wins. The Cubs and Astros were nothing short of horrific in 2012. The Cubs allowed 146 more runs to score than their offense while the Astros had the worst RD in baseball with a -211 RD. Will the AL West be any easier for them in 2013?

The National League West mirrored the Central division in that the Giants won 5 more games than expected while the Diamondbacks lost 5 more games than expected. In fact, the Giants tied the Braves with the 3rd most wins in the NL at 94 and their expected wins total of 89 would still have been the best in the division. But neither the Dodgers nor the Diamondbacks could translate their positive TBW and RD into enough victories to give the Giants much of a challenge. Finishing on the two bottom rungs of the division as projected were the Padres and Rockies.

Looking ahead

As we've pointed out, it's unusual for teams that are especially efficient or inefficient to sustain those levels the next year. Instead, they tend to revert to the normal relationships between TBW and runs and between runs and wins. That means we can identify teams that are likely to improve or fall back even if they don't make moves that change their talent level significantly.

For that reason, the Rays have some reason for optimism going into 2013. With Baltimore overachieving and the Yankees losing players to injury and free agency, the Rays are in prime position to improve on their 90 wins. The Blue Jays had added some new interesting players but have a huge gap to make up to reach the top of the division. Hopefully, with a new, less controversial manager at the helm, the Red Sox can produce a much better season in 2013.

The Royals have added some much needed pitching but will it be enough to topple the Tigers with Cabrera, Fielder, and Verlander? Royals RD of -70 could be quickly made up by the new arms of Shields and Davis. In the AL West, Oakland and Texas ran neck and neck in TBW and RD. The unknown status of the Rangers’ Josh Hamilton makes this race too close to call based on their 2012 performances.

Expect the Nationals to again dominate in the National League. If Strasburg has no innings pitched limit, the Nationals may be unstoppable. The NL Central looks like a two team race between the Reds and Cardinals. The Dodgers signing of Greinke has to put them in the early driver’s seat. However, the Giants and Diamondbacks are still close to striking distance and any swing towards their expected win totals of 89 and 86 will make this division race quite interesting.

Wrapping Up

A lot of things will change between now and Opening Day. This process of looking at TBW differentials and run margins doesn't tell us how the 2013 season will unfold, but it can identify some teams that might have more or less work to do this winter than you may have thought.

I think it's safe to say that the Rays, Rangers, and Cardinals are among the good teams most likely to add to their win totals next season, even without major roster changes. The Braves, Brewers and Diamondbacks are also in line for small efficiency-related bounces.

On the flip side, it will be fascinating to see whether the Orioles and Yankees can sustain their recent successes. Perhaps they were a little lucky. Or perhaps they've figured out how to maximize the impact of the things that don't show up in these measures of expected runs, things such as base running, timely pitching (including a strong bullpen), and the judicious use of one-run strategies.

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