Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Pencil 'Em In: Mets 2006 NL East Champs

by Alan Eliot

"Well thank you, Captain Obvious," some will say.

"This sort of one-of-a-kind insight is why I come to Baseball For Thought in the first place," others add. "Talk about going out on a ledge! Mets win the division in 2006? Come on!"

Yes, yes. I hear the sarcasm. It's dripping in your voice. I get it. I say the Mets are winning the division, when there are 52 games to go and they are up by 12.5 over their nearest division rival. Not rocket science. This is true.

Others among you, most likely loyal Mets fans, might cringe at my statement. "Why tempt fate?", you bemoan. "The Mets haven't won a division title since 1988, and the Braves are playing better, and the Phillies look ready to go on a run..." You cite the fact that the Braves have won the NL East 11 seasons in a row, or maybe you even use the oft-misused stat of the Braves winning 14 in a row- when 3 were in the NL West (irrelevant to Mets fans) and 1994, the strike year where the Expos were in first, is conveniently left out.

Nonetheless, you shrewdly remind me that it's never over until it's over, and cite a few examples to read at my leisure:

1. 1964 Phillies, who through 150 games were 90-60, and up by 6 1/2 games with 12 games to go. They then had a giant collapse, lost 10 in a row, ended up the season 92-70, and watched the playoffs from home.

2. 1951 Dodgers, who, like the Mets, were up by an ungodly amount of games come August (13 1/2 games by mid-August), and who also collapsed, and lost the pennant to Bobby Thompson and the NY Giants in one of the most famous baseball games in history. You've heard it- "The Shot Heard 'Round the World", aka "The Giants Win the Pennant! The Giants Win the Pennant! The Giants Win the Pennant!" For fans of columnist Doug Silversten, you should know that he played the audio file of this call and/or recited it by memory, out loud, with full enthusiasm, no less than 100 times during our freshman year in college. He is not a Giants fan.

3. 1969 Cubs , who around this time in August were ahead of the Cardinals by 8.5 games, and ahead of the 3rd place Mets by 9.5 games. The Mets went 39-11 (.780), and the Cubs went 18-27 (.400) the rest of the season, and the Amazin' Mets- loveable losers up to this point- handily won the division.

You also mention something about a near-collapse by the White Sox to the Indians in 2005. But I'm not listening anymore to your alarmist paranoia.

And here's why (stats current as of 11:45 PM August 7, 2006):

1. Mets Are Far and Away the Best Team in the NL: The Mets are currently 66-44 (.600), currently the top record in the NL. And it's not close. They are 5.5 ahead of the next closest team, the Cardinals, who are 61-50. The team with the third best record in the NL, the Padres, stands at 58-53, 8.5 games behind the Metsies. That is worth repeating: The third best record in the NL belongs to a team that is five games above .500. Yes, the Mets are that good this year. And the good news for the Mets is that the rest of the league is that bad in comparison this year.

2. Weak NL: Aside from the above, other notable facts include that the Wild-Card leader, the Reds, are 57-55, two games above .500. Fourth-best record in the NL. Amazing. The rest of the league is so weak (or evenly balanced, in optimistic terms) that nine teams are within 6 games of the wild-card lead. Yes, 13/16 NL teams are within 6 games of a playoff spot. The only teams not in on the party are Washington (7.5 back), Chicago (9.5 back) and Pittsburgh (15 back). Note Chicago being 9.5 back of a wild-card berth, with a record of 47-64. Ugly.

By comparison, the Wild-Card co-leaders in the AL, Boston and Chicago, are each 65-45 and 20 games above .500.

3. Laws of Probability: Baseball Prospectus has a neat little page that generates the odds that each team will make the postseason. It is called Postseason Odds, and it is here. Here are a few numbers you might find interesting:
Mets: 99.61% chance of winning division, 99.85% chance make playoffs
By comparison, the Tigers, with a 75-36 record technically 8.5 games ahead of the Mets, "only" have a 93.37% chance of winning their division, and a 98.63% chance of making the playoffs.

4. A Question of Schedules for the Mets: The great thing about playing in a weak league is that you play games that count against relatively easy to beat teams. The Mets have 52 games remaining, of which only 10 are against teams currently .500 and above. Three against the Padres. Three against the Cardinals. Four against the Dodgers. The Mets should like their chances at the postseason when they are 12.5 ahead and 81% of their remaining games are against sub-.500 teams. It goes without saying that with the NL's best record, all 52 games are against teams with worse records. Captain Obvious speaking, but good news for Mets fans nonetheless.

5. A Question of Schedules for the Braves/Phillies/Marlins:
Phillies, for example: With 51 games remaining, like the Mets, only 10 games are against .500+ teams. However, nine are against the Braves, nine against Washington, ten against the Marlins and seven against the Mets. If you're a Phillies fan, the seven games against the Mets may seem like a godsend, in that technically 7 games could be gained in the standings with sweeps. Most likely though, the teams will play to some attrition at best, and little to no ground will be made up. Remember, even if the Phillies go 5-2 against the Mets, all else being equal, they are still 9.5 back, and the Mets still have an easy schedule. The same can be said for the Braves and Marlins, respectively, in terms of schedules. The Marlins have seven games against the Mets, the Braves six. The Mets don't need to focus on winning series against their division rivals- picking up two wins out of six or seven will neutralize that team's chance of picking up enough ground. The Mets would love to play any NL East team to a relative attrition at this point- this is not unlike chess, where once there is a substantial piece advantage, trading one for one progressively gives one player more and more of a relative advantage. In fact, against any of these teams, the Mets can trade two losses for one win and still not be at risk for losing the division.

Additionally, considering the NL East's other four teams match up fairly well against one another, the 28 or so games they will each play the other three, should see them literally cancelling each other out. This is how the situation this year differs from those collapses from years past- all other teams in the NL East are in contention. There is no relatively more talented 2nd place team that can get hot and beat up on the rest of the weaker division. All are approximately at an equal playing level, and all play over 50% of their remaining games against one another. As a final note, should a team like the Phillies (54-57) theoretically decide to win every one of their 28 games against non-Mets NL East opponents, they still would be in second place, assuming Mets winning at their current rate. Even starting at 82-57, the Phillies would not be leading the division.

So relax as the season unfolds. No catastrophes await. And while you're at it, don't pencil the Mets into a division title. Use a pen.

Alan Eliot's column, "The Stories We Tell", appears alternate Tuesdays


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Enjoyed a lot!
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Saturday, December 30, 2006  

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