The Playoffs Sweet Spot

Baseball season is officially creeping ever closer with the release of the first CAIRO projections. With the news cycle a little slow, these projections can serve as discussion fodder but shouldn’t be taken as gospel given the premature state of rosters and depth charts. With those necessary disclaimers out of the way, let’s do some exploring.

A few years ago, Nate Silver wrote this piece with the intent to defend Jeffrey Loria’s fire sale. What he did within is lay out playoff probabilities and break teams down into quadrants: 1) rebuilding teams (fewer than 82 projected wins); 2) fringe contenders (82-87 projected wins); 3) legitimate contenders (87-92 projected wins); 4) established (92-97 projected wins); and 5) juggernaut (97+ projected wins). After doing so, he examined their optimal strategies (thus arriving at the conclusion that Loria’s Marlins were correct to enter rebuilding mode), but the takeaway information has to do with Silver’s playoff probabilities and the range of projected wins he labeled as the sweet spot– the 86-94 win range.

The above graph shows playoff probability by win total from the 2001-2010 seasons. With the exception of the 93-win mark (four teams missed the playoffs despite that total), the graph is wholly intuitive. The more wins, the higher the probability. Silver’s so-called sweet spot seems to reflect in real-life data pretty well, even if it comes five years later (this Silver fellow might have a future after all). As such, here are the quadrants as told by this version of the CAIRO projections:

Rebuilding – Baltimore, Toronto, Cleveland, Kansas City, Los Angeles of Anaheim, Seattle, New York (N), Florida, Washington, Chicago (N), Pittsburgh, Houston, San Diego, and Arizona

Fringe Contenders – Oakland, Detroit, Chicago (A), Minnesota, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Colorado

Legitimate Contenders – New York (A), Tampa Bay, Texas, Atlanta, St. Louis, and Milwaukee

Established – Philadelphia

Juggernaut – Boston

My assumption is that Boston will slide down the win curve once New York and Tampa Bay sure up their rosters some more, but for now they look like the team to beat.




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43 Responses to “The Playoffs Sweet Spot”

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  1. David says:

    Your 2011 San Francisco Giants: fringe contenders.

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    • dustygator says:

      Your 2010 San Francisco Giants:fringe contenders.

      They’re a team that’s built for the playoffs; they can beat anyone in a 5 or 7 game series, they just need to get there.

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      • DrBGiantsfan says:

        To say that a team is a fringe contender, while at the same time built for the playoffs, it pretty much 180 degrees opposite of the point of the graph.

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      • Danmay says:

        @DrBGiantsfan

        It doesn’t seem like the opposite of the graph to me. The graph shows who will make it to the playoffs, not how well they will do in the playoffs. Dustygator is saying that the Giants may only have a fringe chance of making the playoffs, but once they are in they can compete with anyone. That doesn’t contradict the graph, it just is making an ascertion that the graph has nothing to do with.

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      • Ari Collins says:

        I believe what DrB was saying is that the Giants should perhaps be in rebuilding mode. Their pitching was great last year, but they really caught lightning in a bottle, especially when the playoffs came, in order to hit AT ALL. Of course, because they DID catch lightning in a bottle, it’d be pretty hard to sell the fans on rebuilding. They’ve had a pretty quiet offseason, too, instead of trying to fix their offense.

        Sorry, DrB, if I’m putting the wrong words in your mouth.

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    • Scout Finch says:

      Go figure. Meanwhile the Rays are still legitimate and the Twins are on the fringe? Cincinnati feels the snub as well.

      “Quintiles” are also feeling snubbed by author’s use of “quadrants”.

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      • Barkey Walker says:

        Minnesota, Detroit, and Chicago are probably all fringe contenders because they have to compete with each other. They all play at about the same level.

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    • zenbitz says:

      It’s bizzare to me that the CAIRO predictions put the Giants at 84 wins, and the THT predictions put them at 94. That is an astronomical difference… Probably they are somewhere in the middle of that.

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  2. JK says:

    2010 M’s #6Org: 2011 Rebuilding

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  3. Jesse Weissman says:

    I’m not sure how the Brewers are “legitimate contenders” when they’re the 3rd best team in a terrible division

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  4. Mike Savino says:

    I think rebuilding/fringe/legitimate/established/juggernaut distinctions are obviously arbitrary. What’s the difference between Philly projected at 96 wins and Boston projected at 98 wins? Doesn’t look its that much of a distinction to me. Is Boston really that much better than Philadelphia? Considering the league talent difference and Boston’s difficult division, sure, they’re probably better.

    But lets look at the AL Central. Twins, Chicago White Sox and Detroit are all projected as “fringe” playoff contenders but that’s not really fair. Someone obviously has to win the division and as there’s no real favorite, all of those teams have to be considered legitimate contenders for the playoffs. I think a more interesting look at the data would show the difference between projected wins and the projected wins of the first place team. That would more clearly show whether a team should be rebuilding or is a legitimate contender for the division.

    The Red Sox do look like a juggernaut with a projected 9 game advantage over second place. Philadelphia has a projected 8 game winning margin. But San Diego is only projected as 4-5 games out of winning the division with three teams above them…I don’t think that qualifies them as rebuilding this season. They probably won’t win the division or come close to the 90 wins they got last year but they’re within sniffing distance of first place.

    Just a thought about those projections. And, yes, I know that we’re not even through signing Adrian Beltre and spring training hasn’t started and they’re just a projection but I think when we look at the data we should attempt to glean something meaningful. All we’ve done right now is take a projected win total range and slap a name on it. And its been done arbitrarily.

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    • phoenix says:

      agreed. it should be wins out of the projected first place in their division, not just total wins. i mean the AL central can be won most years with fewer than 90 wins, while the AL east takes 95+ every year.

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    • Danmay says:

      It’s not a question of how close in wins they are to making the playoffs. For instance, if San Diego is only 4-5 games out of winning the division with three teams above them, what chance do you think they have of winning the division, on average. I would guess it’s probably no higher than 10%. If you are close to contention but have two or three other teams right there with you, your odds are never going to be close to a sure thing, and this is why I think fringe applies.

      As far as Boston being only two wins higher than Philly: that may be a small difference, and since these are projections (and not yet set rosters) you can’t say with certainty that they are that much better. But if you’re going to look at projections, and a teams odds of making the playoffs, two wins is huge, particularly when you already have a projected lead in your division.

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      • Barkey Walker says:

        Last year the cutoff was 90 wins to go to the playoffs in the AL East and 89 in the AL central. Two years ago, 87 in both… Three years ago, 89 and 90. So, maybe not so much.

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      • Hank says:

        How do you define ‘cutoff’?

        The Yankees won the wildcard with 95 wins….isn’t that the cutoff for last year in the AL East?

        If you had won 90,91,92,93 or94 games in the AL East last year (all above your defined cutoff) you weren’t reaching the postseason. How is 90 wins a cutoff in the AL East?

        Similarly the Twins won 94 games last year… if another team won 90-93 games (above your “cutoff”), they would be sitting at home come playoff time.

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      • Barkey Walker says:

        definition: If the leader or WC winner would have won that many games, they still would have made the playoffs.

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    • Mike Savino says:

      The Cairo projections have San Diego at 22.6% playoff chances. Which I would say could qualify as fringe or legitimate since they don’t have impossibly worse playoff odds than the teams above them in the division (Colorado leads with 37%). But I certainly wouldn’t qualify it as a rebuilding year as of yet. Fringe is probably a better qualification as its feasible they drop out of the race quite early.

      And I think Rob Neyer is fond of saying that it isn’t unlikely for a team to have a +/- of 5 or so wins just through luck over the course of the season. Which seems reasonable enough to me. But it means a team like Boston with a projected 9 game winning margin over the rest of its division can be projected to be between 93-103 wins. The Yankees (next best projection in the division) can expect 84-94 wins. Basically, something catastrophic would have to happen to the Red Sox and something wonderful would have to happen to the Yankees and Rays for the BoSox to miss the playoffs.

      Using the same analysis, one can conclude pretty much the same thing about the Phillies. It doesn’t matter that they’re 2 games apart in projections from the Red Sox…it matters that they’re very nearly the same in projected difference between their nearest division competitor. Both the Red Sox (70.2%) and the Phillies (65.5%) have very high playoff expectancies next season. Is that enough to distinguish between a ‘juggernaut’ and an ‘established’ team? Maybe not so illuminating to me.

      I just don’t really like the idea of lumping teams together for playoff aspirations based solely on their win total projections. Its not the same to project 89 wins in the AL East and project 89 wins in the AL Central. In the AL East, you’re a fringe contender for a playoff spot and in the AL Central you’re the favorite of the division by 4 games which would probably make this fictional team a legitimate contender (for the playoffs at least).

      Anyway, I know it doesn’t matter, that they’re just projections and early projections at that. As I said before, I think that we should be trying harder to analyze data than simply grouping win totals and labeling teams contenders or juggernauts based upon arbitrary cutoffs. Seems a bit lazy to me (not that I’m going to stop reading fangraphs and please don’t take that as an I-don’t-like-your-writing).

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      • Ari Collins says:

        I agree with your point in general. The playoff “sweet spot” varies according to your league and divisional competition.

        I’d also add that the variance in team performance is wider than +/- 5 wins. That’s just the variance due to team luck, under- or over-performing your individual performances. But that’s only if the 98 win Red Sox are a true-talent 98 win team, and there’s an error bar there too, as we saw with the massive injuries and bullpen explosions Boston saw last year.

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      • Danmay says:

        I agree with your point that grouping teams by win total alone is lazy. I imagine this is because putting a non-lazy amount of time into early projections is a poor use of time (based on your response Mike it seems that you are well aware of this).

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  5. ICEYhawtSTUNNAZ says:

    I have an honest question: why does an 83-win team have ~20% chance of making the playoffs, but an 86-win team has 0%?

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  6. Z says:

    I beleive it’s because an 83 win team has made the playoffs while an 86 hasn’t.

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  7. dREaDS Fan says:

    As a Reds fan, I’ve always felt it’s completely unfair that they compete in a 6 team division while the AL West has all of 4 teams. One way to show this discrepancy would be to show NL Central and AL West versinos of the playoff odds curve above. There must be a huge horizontal delta between the two, no?

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    • chuckb says:

      It probably is unfair but it’s probably also unfair that NL teams have more competition for the Wild Card spot than AL teams do, considering the fact that there are 2 more NL teams than AL teams. It’s part of it. It’s certainly unfair that the Jays, O’s, and Rays have to compete w/ the Sox and Yanks in the AL East but that’s just the way it is.

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    • fredsbank says:

      its also unfair that the reds/cards(/brewers?) get to beat the crap out of the cubs/pirates/astros all the time

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    • logan says:

      How unfair is it when 3 of the teams are the Astros, Cubs and Pirates. I would call it an unfair advantage to face those teams so much.

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  8. Peter O. says:

    I would definitely agree that the Cubs are rebuilding. Now they need to start selling some of their 5 win players. Oh wait… THEY CAN’T.

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  9. Xeifrank says:

    How does CAIRO “play out a season 10,000 times”? Is it inputting its projections into Diamond Mind?
    vr, Xei

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  10. yediyih says:

    Why is everyone so big on boston???
    They finished 7 games back last year
    aquired Adrian Gonzalez,
    But lost V mart ( a marginal upgrade)
    Signed Crawford
    but lost a 7 war season of adrian beltre…..
    you cannot expect CC to put up the numbers beltre did last season

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    • Danmay says:

      I can think of two big reasons: (1) they endured the most DL trips in 2010, and (2) their pythagorean record had them only three games back of the Yankees.

      [Full disclosure: I am definitely not a Red Sox fan.]

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    • Ari Collins says:

      Most projections have Youkilis, Pedroia, Lackey, and Beckett bouncing back quite a bit, either due to better health or (in Lackey’s case) just better performance. That’s quite a few more wins there. Give them even an average bullpen and there’s a couple more wins there.

      Sure, replacing Beltre’s production last year with Adrian’s production this year loses you about a win, assuming Adrian doesn’t go MVP level in Fenway. You’ve lost Victor, but Victor lost time and effectiveness due to injury last year, so downgrading to Salty Armpits only loses you another win or two, depending on your projection system.

      Then consider the fact that the most playing time in the outfield last year went to (drumroll please) J.D. Drew, and numbers 2 through 6 were, in order: Darnell McDonald, Bill Hall, Daniel Nava, Ryan Kalish and Jeremy Hermida. And that those people will be replaced by not only hopefully-healthier Ellsbury (FG fan projection: 4.4 WAR) and Cameron, but also Crawford (fan projection: 6.2 WAR) as well, and you can see why people and projection systems are so high on them.

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    • NJ Andy says:

      Because all of the injuries that happened last year probably won’t happen again.

      Though partially because they have made positive off season acquisitions while their Yankee rivals have not. All of a sudden, they look like the team to beat in the AL East which makes you look like the team to beat everywhere.

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  11. Ari Collins says:

    SG (the CAIRO projection guy) re-ran the sims again for fun with Boston in the NL East and Philly in the AL East. Boston went up from 98 to 99 wins and, in a weaker division, made the playoffs 87% of the time, while Philly went from 96 down to 92 wins and only made the playoffs 65% of the time.

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  12. corey! says:

    5 quadrants?

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