Tuesday, July 08, 2014

A Look Back: Szymborski Calls The NL West To SF (June 13, 2014)

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, especially when one unearths articles like this one, which called the 9.5-game lead for the Giants all but insurmountable in the NL West (link insider only). If nothing else, it reminds us how quickly fates can change...and how foolish it is to bet on the Giants:

With a payroll of $235 million on Opening Day, the Los Angeles Dodgers weren't a team put together for the purpose of finishing second in their division. But that's just where they stand in the National League West on Friday, with the San Francisco Giants having opened up a 8 1/2-game lead. While that might not sound like an insurmountable gap to make up, history suggests the 2014 NL West is almost certainly going to be taken by the men in orange and black, not Dodger blue.

While there have always been teams that have blown significant leads in the standings, this actually happens less often than most people believe. We root for the underdogs, after all, which is why so many of our sports movies feature storylines with plucky losers catching the antagonists. The Dodgers didn't enter the season as the underdog -- the team would be even more frighteningly expensive if it was expected to be a .500 team -- but history suggests that leads like the Giants have now are usually safe.

Just to get a quick look at the overwhelming odds in San Francisco's favor, I tallied the June 13 standings in every year of the divisional era. Only 27 teams had a division lead of six games or greater, and of those 27 teams, only three ended up losing that lead. If closing a gap of this magnitude was easy, history wouldn't remember the 1969 Mets (Miracle Mets), the 1978 Yankees (the Bucky Dent year) or the 2003 Mariners collapse so vividly. (The Mariners' collapse isn't as famous as the other two, but Nate Silver ranked it the fourth-worst collapse in MLB history back in 2007.)

If you're keeping count, the division leaders blew their leads only 11 percent of the time (3 of 27), not exactly promising odds for the Dodgers on this Friday the 13th. Those are similar odds to those of a named character surviving the movie "Friday the 13th."

To be more precise on the Giants' division chances at this point, I consulted the ZiPS projection system, which is equipped to run updated divisional/playoff probabilities at any point in the season. ZiPS comes up with a similar estimation of the playoff probability of the Giants, estimating an 88.7 percent chance that they finish the season leading the NL West.

What should be especially concerning for Dodger fans -- and especially good news for Giants fans -- is that ZiPS sees the Giants as prohibitive favorites in the division now, despite not even thinking the Giants are as good a team as the Dodgers. ZiPS sees significant regressions ahead for Michael Morse, Angel Pagan, Hunter Pence and Brandon Crawford, but their early-season performances are all "in the bag," so to speak. In other words, ZiPS sees the Dodgers as having just a 1-in-10 shot of overtaking the Giants even though L.A. is a better team on paper.

The reason the Dodgers' odds are so slim is that at this point in the season, to make up a 8 1/2-game deficit, they need to be the equivalent of 14 games better over 162 games than the first-place team, and even an optimistic Dodgers fan can't think they are that much better than their rival.

The Dodgers had overtaken the Giants for first place in the NL West on June 30, 2014.