How Much Does The AL East Hurt The Orioles?

One thing I commonly hear when discussing the Orioles, their progress, and their chances of contention, is that things would look so much brighter if they were in another division*.

* I’m ignoring the NL since the level of competition there is generally much lower than the AL – or, at least, has been recently – and would perhaps require different team building philosophy. That is, the Orioles in the NL Central this year might have been smart to go after some big name players in an effort to win 85-90 games this year and in the next few years.

This tends to take two forms:

(1) If they were in another division they’d be more likely to make the play-offs
(2) If they were in another division they’d win more games

These may seem like the same idea, but they’re not. (1) I think is pretty clearly true, as far as the divisions stand now. The Yankees came in second place in the AL East last year, but would have finished first in the Central or West. The Red Sox finished second in 2009, and though their 95 wins would have been behind LA’s 97, they would have taken the Central in a walk (the Twins and Tigers ended 162 games with 86 wins each). The preceding couple of years played out similarly – to win a division title recently, one needs to beat two 90+ win teams in the East but only one (or zero) 90+ win teams in the Central or West.

In the AL East, the Orioles need to build themselves into a 90-95 win club and hope to catch a break or two to even compete for the division. In the Central or West, coming into the season as an expected true talent 90-95 win club makes you a prohibitive favorite at the moment. So yeah, moving to another division would up the team’s chances of making the play-offs.

Point (2) though, is a little different. It posits that the O’s moving to the Central or West would actually see a significant increase in raw win total, by virtue of not having to play their unbalanced schedule against the tougher AL East teams. I don’t think that’s really true, after looking into the matter at Beyond the Box Score last year*:

* Maybe this sounds silly, but that post is the one – out of the well over 1,000 I’ve written on baseball* - that I’m most proud of. It was relatively simple and clean – with no real advanced stats or lengthy research – but it (more or less) answered an issue that gets discussed often enough without much evidence. I’d like to think that it gets linked whenever the topic is broached (for some reason, I doubt it).

* Yikes. Getting into War and Peace* territory, but with slightly more acronyms and slightly fewer Russian aristocrats.

* This Pozterisk sequence is like a Russian nesting doll, but each one gets progressively more off topic… I tried to read W&P many years ago but gave up after about a hundred pages or so (should probably give it another go). My main problem with it – which is still present with some Russian literature – was the names. Because of how common/similar some names are and the Russian first name + patronymic convention, it makes it hard to tell who’s who without paying very close attention if there are more than a few characters since (and I don’t know if this is common or not) when I see names in books they quickly become images (made up of a particular letter combinations) rather than words. Sorry for the interruption – back to baseball…

“First, some assumptions (they may be a bit messy, but I think the point still stands):

(1) The AL East each year has a 95 win team, a 92 win team, an 87 win team, a 76 win team, and a 70 win team. That’s an average of 84 wins for the division, which is where it’s been (on average) for the last few seasons.

(2) The rest of the AL plays like a 79-80 win team, so that the average AL is at about 81 wins. You’d expect an AL East team to then beat another AL team about 53% of the time. Actual AL East winning percentage against the Central and West the last three years: 53%.

(3) The NL plays like a 73 win team, so that the average AL team beats the average NL team about 55% of the time (which also corresponds pretty well with recent history).

So based on the unbalanced schedule, an AL East team will play each other East team 18 times, the NL 18 times in interleague play, and the rest of the AL 72 times. Using the log5 method for calculating winning percentages for games, here’s how many victories the 70 win AL East team is currently expected to have versus the:

95 win team: .349 winning % for 6.3 wins
92 win team: .367 W% for 6.6 wins
87 win team: .396 W% for 7.1 wins
76 win team: .463 W% for 8.3 wins
Rest of the AL: .441 W% for 31.8 wins
NL: .481 W% for 8.6 wins

For a total record of almost 69-93. The team would be penalized a little over 1 win for playing the tougher schedule. The 76 win team would be knocked down by about half a win. That’s certainly not the end of the world.

So for each game that the 70 win team plays against another AL opponent instead of the 95 win team, they gain about .092 wins (.441 minus .349). For AL over the 92 win team it’s .075 wins; over the 87 win team it’s .045 wins; and over the 76 win team it goes the other way by .021 wins. So on net, each game moved from the AL East to the rest of the AL would expect to add about .048 wins to the 70 win team’s tally.”

Now this example uses older data, and the AL East had an even higher winning percentage as a division last year, but the Orioles are also better, which increases their odds of beating the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, and Jays. That makes the final numbers rougher, but still in the ball-park.

So each game moved from playing in the AL East to the rest of the AL would net the O’s around 0.05 wins. How many games would be moved? The unbalanced schedule has the team playing division opponents 72 times. Not all those games will go away though – they’d still see each of the other four 6 to 10 times a year. Average that out to 8, and you’re only transferring 40 games from the East to the Central/West. 40 games times 0.05 wins per game pick-up, is an extra 2 wins.

So you’ve got right around an extra 2* wins from moving, but I really don’t see the justification for thinking a 76 win Orioles team in the AL East would suddenly be a contender in the Central or West with 85+ wins. It’s just not that big of a deal – the hard part is possibly winning 90 games and still ending up in third (or fourth!) place.

* Baseball Prospectus does a strength of schedule adjustment, and last year they bumped the O’s up 4 wins. A ha! Except the other last place teams in the league were around +2 wins. So there’s still a 2 win difference (in a year in which the non-Baltimore AL East teams were better than they had been on average).