Tuesday, June 25, 2013

This is a New York Times article

Last night, Benjamin Hoffman posted a boilerplate piece in the New York Times about how the Astros are affecting the AL playoff race, such as it is on June 25, when not even half of a season has been played.

One division's loss is another's gain, at least in terms of wild-card standings.

Or, in terms of any zero-sum game, where one team's loss is another's win by design in a game WITH NO TIES. If one team loses, another wins. That's sort of how Sports work.

The wild card, introduced by major league baseball for the 1995 season, has often been a consolation prize to whichever team finished second in the American League East.

AL East = SEC. Remember that. The Wild Card is the AL East's God-given right.

But with the overmatched Houston Astros switching from the National League to the American League West this season, the East suddenly has some competition for that doorway into the postseason. 

This makes it sound as though the Astros got a wild hair in their pee-hole and moved to the AL West out of spite, or because they got drunk and woke up in a pool of vomit in the AL West. But seriously, how dare anyone - Major League Baseball included - challenge the AL East's God-given right to a Wild Card spot.

In essence, baseball’s unbalanced schedule, in which teams play far more games against clubs in their own divisions, has meant that the Astros have turned into punching bags for some of the other clubs in the A.L. West, allowing them to fatten their records.

"For some" is a pretty important clause here. Because there are other teams in the AL West who could - at this point - be considered the Astros' punching bags, allowing the Astros to fatten their own record. But that doesn't fit the Chosen Narrative.

And that has created a headache for A.L. East teams, who do not play the Astros nearly as often. 

Or the Twins? Or the Angels? Or the White Sox? All of whom are within five games of the Astros and don't play in the AL East?

The effect of this disparity could be telling.

It could be telling, yes. Or it could just be the randomness of baseball and the way that the competition committee set it up.

Before last season, when a second wild-card slot was introduced for each league, a team from the A.L. East took the lone extra spot in the playoffs in 13 of 17 seasons. And with the Baltimore Orioles capturing one of the two spots last season, the East has had a share of the wild card in each of the last six years. 

Remember: Wild Card = AL East's God-given right. That's math and religion.

The standings in the American League have the Orioles and the Yankees tied for the second wild-card spot. Just two games behind them is another A.L. East club, the Tampa Bay Rays. 

And then? One game behind them? ANOTHER AL EAST TEAM! In Toronto! Did you know that there is a team in Canadia that plays baseball? It doesn't just exist in New York. Weird, huh?

But in the top wild-card spot, three games ahead of the Yankees in the win column and a game and a half ahead over all, were the Oakland Athletics of the A.L. West.

We, I mean, the Yankees don't want the crap 2nd Wild Card spot. The first. That's the Yankee Way.

A streaky team this season, they might not have been doing so well over all had the Astros not joined their division.

Oakland is so streaky, in fact, that they haven't lost three games in a row since early May and are tied with the Pirates for the best record in baseball since the middle of May. And were it not for the Astros, the A's would only be 21-13 instead of 24-13 since a 3-7 road trip in which the A's took two of three at Yankee Stadium.

Indeed, if you subtract the Athletics’ 9-0 record against the Astros this season, Oakland’s record goes from 44-34 to 35-34, a winning percentage that would put them well out of contention. 

Indeed, you cannot just subtract a team's wins against one team from their record and then figure up their winning percentage. That's called cherry-picking. We might as well subtract Oakland's 5-1 record against the Yankees this season. THEN WE'LL GET SOME ANSWERS AS TO WHO SHOULD GO TO THE PLAYOFFS.

And it is not just the Athletics who have benefited from the Astros’ move. The Texas Rangers, currently leading the A.L. West by one game, have gone 5-1 against Houston. 

"So subtract the Rangers' wins against the Astros, and the A's wins against the Astros, and make them play another team!" We could just look at the Rangers' record against the Astros. Or we could also take a look and see that Texas is 4-2 against Boston, or that they're 7-3 against Seattle, and blame the Rangers' success on the Red Sox and Mariners.

The Seattle Mariners are off to a back-and-forth start against their new division patsies, with a 4-5 record.

The Astros are such patsies that...

The Los Angeles Angels are the exception in the division, having gone 3-7 against Houston, including a four-game sweep that the Astros somehow pulled off earlier this month.

Tag this sentence with, "These results did not fit my pre-season world view." The Astros outscored the Angels 15-8 in those four games, including a 2-0 and 2-1 win.

Over all, the Astros are 13-21 in division games.

That .382 divisional winning percentage is bad. It's so bad, it's worse than the Blue Jays' .416 Win% against their divisional opponents. It's worse than the White Sox' .409 win% against the AL Central. Worse than the Marlins' .394 against a division in which three of the four other teams are under .500. It is better than the Angels .375 against the AL West. Better than the .355 that the Brewers have against the NL Central. Better than the .343 that the Dodgers have against the NL West. Better than the .273 that the Cubs have posted against the NL Central. Hey, this is a pretty damning indictment against...which division? Oh yes. The division to which the Astros used to belong...

The situation is similar in the N.L. Central, the former home of the Astros, where the Cubs have a major league-worst 9-24 record against division opponents, which has helped lead to both leaders in the N.L. wild-card standings — Pittsburgh and Cincinnati — coming from that division. 

"The Astros have screwed things up so badly for the NL Central by leaving that St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati have the three best records in baseball. IMAGINE THEIR RECORDS IF THEY COULD STILL PLAY THE ASTROS."

Unfortunately for the Yankees, and the other four teams in the A.L. East, their division has no weak link. The Toronto Blue Jays are in last place, but they had an 11-game winning streak until the Rays beat them Monday. 

Hey, wait a second...if we're looking for a weak link in the AL East, could we look at the team that's scoring the fewest runs per game at 3.9? (The Astros are scoring 3.8 runs per game.) Or the team that's 13-17 in their last 30 games, tied with the Indians for 2nd-worst in the AL, and two games worse than Houston? Or the only team in the AL East with an Inter-League record under .500? Why...that team is the Yankees!

It should be noted that much of Houston’s current trouble is almost by design.

Yeah, it's probably worth noting that Houston traded almost everybody in the last two seasons to build what Keith Law described as the 4th-best farm system in baseball, and that was before a draft that added Mark Appel. Yes, let's note that. And while we're noting things, we could also note that the Astros are 19-18 since starting the season 10-30 (hey, arbitrary points are better than no points at all). What happened during that 10-30 stretch? The Astros tried, and then cast aside Phil Humber, Rick Ankiel, and Brad Peacock. Houston is 19-21 since not letting Phil Humber throw every fifth day. And that record? That record is tied with the Yankees, better than the Twins, White Sox, Royals, and Mariners.

Houston’s general manager, Jeff Luhnow, has been engineering an ambitious rebuilding project for the last few seasons, letting the major league club suffer in hopes of creating a contender. 

Two seasons. An ambitious rebuilding project for the last two seasons. The Astros had no real plan before that. Kind of like...the Mets.

The strategy has resulted in the team’s picking first in the draft for two consecutive years, using those picks on Carlos Correa, a high school shortstop from Puerto Rico, and Mark Appel, a starting pitcher from Stanford. If things go right, the two could eventually anchor the Astros for years to come. 

Look! "Research!"

But for now, Houston is a problem for the A.L. East.

Are they a problem like the Rays were, when the Yankees went 86-44 against them from 2001-2007? Or is the problem that the Astros don't play in the AL East?

Maybe the AL East should worry about winning their own games, and not worry about other teams losing. If the Astros win even three out of the seven games they have with the Rays before the All-Star Break, will that be a problem, too? Or is it just the losing that is a problem?

It is not out of the realm of possibility that the Angels, with some help in games against the Astros later this season, could heat up and the A.L. West could end up claiming both wild-card spots, leaving everyone in the A.L. East out in the cold except for the division winner. 

No it is not out of the realm of possibility that the Angels, 3-7 against the Patsy Astros, will heat up. They were heating up to the tune of 10-2 when Houston came into Anaheim and rolled them up. But, let's be honest, this exercise was always about the AL East than it is the 10 other teams who dare attempt to take their God-given right to October baseball.