Thursday, May 26, 2005

BACK TO WHAT'S IMPORTANT

Baseball. It is almost Memorial Day and the Bulls are out of the playoffs. Baseball is all that matters.

In this week's Sports Weekly, Paul White discusses the varied paths the financially-challenged Oakland A's and Minnesota Twins have taken to success. He points out that the Twins have done a much better job developing talent in their farm system and bringing that talent to bear in the major leagues, while the A's have treated quality prospects as chips to be traded to fill needs each year. All true as far as it goes. However, I think White's analysis may also be touching on a more important issue-the division in which each team plays.

The Twins play in the American League Central, while the A's play in the American League West. The Central consists of the Twins, the White Sox, the Indians, the Royals, and the Tigers. The West consists of the Angels, A's, Rangers, and Mariners.

Let's start with 2004. In the Central, only the Twins (92-70) and White Sox (83-79) had winning records. In the West only the Mariners did not have a winning record. Baseball also plays an unbalanced schedule, so teams in a division play each other more than they do other teams. That means the West beat up on each other and still won much more than the Central. It took 92 wins to win each division in 2004.

2003? The Central had three teams with winning records, but the two others were nearly historically bad, with the Tigers record of 43-119 being close to being a record. Remember, the schedule is unbalanced, so the Twins got to play the Tigers and Indians a disproportionate number of times. The Twins won 90 games to win the division. The West had two winning teams, but the A's had to win 96 (!) games to win it all.

I know. You're thinking "sure, but what about 2002?" Well, in 2002 the Twins were the only team in the Central with a winning record. They won 94 games. The West had three teams with winning records (out of four) and the third-place team in the West would have finished one game back from the Twins were they in the Central. The A's won 103 games and only won the West by 4 games. By the way, the Angels won the World Series that year. The only year in this little study that the World Series winner was from either of these divisions.

In 2001 the Twins won 85 games and finished six behind the Indians. That year the A's won 102 games and finished 14 games behind the Mariners. That is astounding.

In other words, in the pokey American League Central, the Twins' strategy of slow and steady wins the race is appropriate. No team in the Central is head-and-shoulders above the others, and incremental changes matter. In the go-go West, a team will be buried if they go slow. Paul White should have made that last step, since it shows how well each team has adapted to its situation, and how the Twins may not have the Moneyball cachet, but they work similar miracles.

The Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia made these comparisons a snap, by the way.

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