Friday, September 27, 2019

Dodgers in fight for 2020 Elite Division spot

The postseason is coming soon to Major League Baseball, and much is at stake in that process for the top two divisions of the pyramid across the game.


The Dodgers will need a big bat from Cody Bellinger to avoid a repeat of last season's postseason collapse that dropped them from the Elite Division (TonyTheTiger/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license).

Going to the final weekend of the Major League Baseball regular season, our pyramid of ordinal divisions is half set.

To a greater degree than usual, perhaps, the top of the pyramid remains to be decided in the postseason. The bottom of the pyramid is where the decisions have been made.

We've mentioned several times in these pages that baseball presents unique challenges for running a pyramid. Other long-season sports like pro basketball, hockey and soccer schedule at least a home-and-home double round-robin. Everybody plays everybody, home and home, at least once. That's a fair way to run a pyramid.

Baseball plays a 162-game season for each team, and your ball club is still playing four games against some club it hasn't seen in three years. In the way old days, you had eight clubs in a league, each club played each of the others 22 times per year and you had 154 games. You pretty much knew the opposition. Now, you need a CIA dossier to find out who you're playing. So, there is some usefulness for analytics.

Once upon a time, baseball was two separate but equal leagues, the American and National Leagues, which agreed to a strong over-seeing commissioner to maintain public faith in the game, ensure the legitimacy of transactions between clubs and keep them from poaching each other's players. Over time, it made increasing sense for the two leagues to centralize their national business operations and relationships.

Ushering in the new century in 2000, the two league offices dissolved and merged into one entity called Major League Baseball. All of the game's national operations were ceded to the commissioner's office.

The problem is that the American League and the National League are Americana. They are a folk tradition. Generations of our countrymen spent their entire lives arguing about which was better. If you're Baseball, you can't just say to the public that you have eliminated the American and National Leagues, even though this is, in fact, what you have done. People might think that baseball, itself, had come to an end.

So, Baseball undertook a charade and baseball fans, being baseball fans, played along. Baseball continued to act as though the American and National Leagues still existed as separate entities. The lie was put to all of this at the 2002 All-Star Game in Milwaukee, hometown of then-Commissioner Bud Selig. The game ended in a tie because both teams ran out of pitchers. The truer reason was because the entities allegedly being represented on the field, the American and National Leagues, no longer existed and, therefore, didn't concern themselves with winning. That's why Selig was compelled to put something on the line in the All-Star Game: home-field advantage in the World Series.

Another component of the ruse, which fans wanted, was the maintenance of scheduling as if two separate leagues existed, so each club still plays 85 percent of its games in its traditional but no longer existing "league." The crowning and focal absurdity is interleague play. The absurdity, of course, is that in order for there to be interleague play, there would have to be at least two leagues involved, and there is, in fact, only one.

Through nearly 20 years of this, Baseball has butchered the competitive integrity of its nominally separate leagues by imbalancing the schedule to accommodate interleague play, but it hasn't been able to take full advantage of interleague play that way. Once a comforting salve to a jolting change in business arrangements, the fictional maintenance of American and National Leagues now has become a limiting belief.

That shows especially when we try a competitive arrangement of universal scope, such as the pyramid with promotion and relegation. This season, 2019, is our tenth of attempting such a pyramid in baseball, and the most persistent and irksome problem, by far, is dealing with the scheduling disparities across the game.

When we look at these pyramids at the end of a year, we see that some team has played 60 games in a division and some other team played 30 in the same division. Some team played five other teams in its pyramid division, and some other team played three. This problem does not arise in any other sport where we do pyramids (the only sport where we don't is American football, simply because the seasons are so short).

MLB could solve the problem for us by facing reality and scheduling at least a home-and-home double round-robin across its universe, but we're not waiting for that. Instead, we need to make decisions about how certain performances will be valued and which achievements truly warrant promotion or demotion, especially now that we have ramped up the Elite Division and there actually is something riding on these calls.

Here's where the rubber meets the road: The probabilities tell us that it is more difficult to win 62 percent of 100 games than to win 67 percent of 50 games. The more games you play, the more your results will converge on the mean. In real baseball standings, the team winning 62 percent of 100 games is 62-38 with a .620 winning percentage, and that team is four games ahead of a 33-17 club with a .660 percentage. Typically, we have split championships in cases like this, or let percentages prevail when we needed a choice.

But when our result matters, such as when we qualify clubs for the Elite Division, do we really think the 33-17 club is better than the 62-38 club? The numbers tell us that both clubs over 162 games or some other long haul will regress toward the mean, which is .500, and that the club with the .620 through 100 games is likely to come through that process better than the club that's .660 through 50 games. The team with 62 wins out of 100 games is the better team and should be promoted.

Fortunately, the eyeballs and intuitions in this matter are supported by mathematicians who delve in baseball statistics. They don't all agree on how heavily to weight the mean over 162 games, but they do all agree that the accurate way to determine how some club would fare over 162 games from a limited sample involves adding some weight of .500 to a club's actual record and computing the percentage that results. Phil Birnbaum, purportedly following Tom Tango, says the weight is 74 games (add 37 wins and 37 losses). Fivethirtyeight.com says it's 67 games (33.5-33.5). This Bayesian approach lands on 100 (50-50).

For no particular reason, we'll weight the actual winning percentages that pop up here with 74 games of mean and let Birnbaum explain the math. Thus, the winning percentages showing up in these baseball standings will be determined by a club's winning percentage weighted by 74 games of .500. Fair enough. Problem solved!

Unless it isn't. In that case, if we discover that we're applying this wrong or we come up with a better idea, we'll try something else. For now, we'll try this.

What does 74 games of .500 weight do to our example? Well, 62-38 plus 37-37 is 99-75, a winning percentage of .569. And 33-17 plus 37-37 is 70-54, a winning percentage of .565. So, the 74 weight agrees with our intuitions about which team is better and also has working credibility among baseball researchers. The 62-38 club also comes out better if we apply weights of 67 or 100. They all do roughly the same work.

This will come up a couple of times as we run through the pyramid.


The most striking aspect of this pyramid as we look out across the standings is how well it conforms to the playoff entries across Major League Baseball. The top five clubs in the First Division at this moment all are ticketed for the playoffs, as are the top three in the Second Division and the champions of the Third Division and the Fourth Division. If the Cleveland Indians can somehow catch the Tampa Bay Rays or Oakland Athletics for American League wildcard spot, that won't be the case, but it's unlikely with three games left in the season that the Indians can do it.

The upside, for us, with the scheduling imbalances in baseball is that when the playoffs arrive, we just go ahead and include them. In other sports, the regular season pyramids work so well that including the playoffs would ruin them, but the proportions in baseball are so screwy that there is no integrity to ruin, so we include playoffs.

Often, something big happens in some division during the playoffs, though more of the action in the early years took place in the lower divisions. In 2016, though, the Dodgers rode a good run of playoffs to the First Division championship. It's hard, sometimes, to convince Dodgers fans that they've ever accomplished anything in the postseason, but they have.

Looking at the very top of the First Division, we see the New York Yankees, Houston Astros and Tampa Bay Rays bunched tightly together. The Rays just beat the Yankees twice in St. Petersburg this week to arrive within two games of the top. If the Rays can make it through the wildcard playoff round, they're playing the Astros or the Yankees, and the winner of that series is likely to play the Astros or the Yankees. Any of these clubs could go up or down during the playoffs.

Of course, there is a cost to going too far down. The top four clubs in the First Division go to the Elite Division. The fifth-place club does not. Dodgers fans in the know remember how this went down last year. The Dodgers were the fourth-place club entering the postseason, then got knocked down the standings with a five-game loss to the Boston Red Sox in the World Series and missed the Elite Division.

This time, the Dodgers are 19-17, fourth place again, thanks largely to the Arizona Diamondbacks winning two of three from the St. Louis Cardinals in the desert this week, pushing the Cardinals down to 8-8. By our rules of the pyramid, a team needs 10 wins to qualify for the Elite Division, so the Cardinals are short at the moment. However, if it gets to the Cardinals and Dodgers meeting in the playoffs, two wins for the Cardinals make them eligible and a series victory would put them in fourth place. Pending the World Series.

The top of the First Division is up for grabs. The bottom is settled. The Boston Red Sox, two-time defending First Division champions, fell all the way to the bottom of the First Division in 2019 and will be demoted. In ten years of the pyramid, the Red Sox have won the First Division three times, including 2010, the first year. No other club has won the First Division more than once.

Following their 2010 victory, the Red Sox fell to the Second Division for 2013 and to the Third Division for 2014. Then the Red Sox went on a streak of four straight years winning pyramid division championships, capturing the Third Division in 2015, sharing the Second Division title with the Cleveland Indians in 2016 and winning lopsided First Division titles in 2017 and 2018.

The Indians, who were promoted with the Red Sox to the First Division in 2017, appear to be headed back to the Second Division with the Red Sox in 2020. A slim chance remains that the Indians can slip into the playoffs and fight their way through there to avoid relegation, but it is slim.

The top of the Second Division remains open, but not like the top division. The Milwaukee Brewers and Washington Nationals could meet in the playoffs, and either of those clubs could play the Minnesota Twins in the World Series. It's not likely that any combination of results could dislodge the Brewers from the top, especially if they can win just a couple games in a series against either of these Second Division foes.

But if the Nationals get hot in the playoffs, they could overtake the Twins for the second promotion to the First Division. If we're just looking at winning percentage, the Twins have a formidable advantage at .619 (13-8) to .551 (16-13). But when we add the weights, the Twins are up only 11 percentage points, .526 to .515.

At the bottom of this pile, we see another example of weighting. The Pittsburgh Pirates actually are well ahead of the Toronto Blue Jays and Texas Rangers by raw percentage, even at a modest .400. But the Blue Jays have played so few games that they barely lost the 10 required for relegation, and the Rangers played not many more. Adding the weights put 102 points on the Blue Jays, raising them from .375 to .477. The Pirates gain on .500 with the weights, too, but not nearly so much because they played at least twice as many games as either of the other clubs. The weights are getting the Pirates relegated.

The weights are making an impact on top of the Third Division, too. They don't matter so much for the Oakland Athletics, who roared through this group and would have won it under any scenario. Under the old rules, though, the San Francisco Giants would be joining the A's both in promotion to the Second Division and entry to the Elite Division. With the weights, though, the Giants finished fourth in this level.

With that, the Philadelphia Phillies took in the big payout they sought with the Bryce Harper contract, rising to second place in the Third Division and the glorious credentials that come with it. The Phillies will go both to the Second Division and the Elite Division in 2020. The Seattle Mariners made a surprising bid to capture Third Place.

With no other clubs in the Third Division playoff bound except for the Athletics, there will be no change in these standings. That's no consolation for two forlorn American League Central clubs, the Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers, who drop to the Fourth Division and join the Chicago White Sox, a long-time dweller in that cellar.

Down in the Fourth Division, we saw crushing performances by the Atlanta Braves and the Cincinnati Reds, who both will be promoted to the Third Division in 2020. The Braves, for winning the Fourth Division, also will enter the Elite Division.

The teams being held over in the Fourth Division have, more or less, established permanent residence there. The San Diego Padres entered the basement in 2013 and still haven't come out, a seven-year streak that stands as the longest ever. But the Baltimore Orioles actually have spent the most time in the Fourth Division, eight of the 10 years since we began running the pyramid. The Orioles were an original Fourth Division member before making a brief escape.

The Chicago White Sox entered the Fourth Division in 2012 and got out in 2016 only because of a special ruling necessitated by the light schedule at the bottom level. They returned in 2019. The Royals, an original Fourth Division club and the last to finally escape after the 2013 season, now are headed back to the lowest tier.

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